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September 23, 2013

How a Maine Activist Called Out Big Coal for Being a Bad Neighbor

Maine coal

This summer's grassroots effort in Eliot, Maine, against a nearby coal plant isn't a new local concern, says Sierra Club activist Kim Richards, who has been leading the fight.

"I have been living in Eliot almost my entire life," she says, "and people here in town have been concerned about the potential negatives effects of living so close to the plant essentially ever since it began operations in 1949."

KimEliot is on the downwind receiving end of pollution from the Schiller coal plant just over the state line in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. So two years ago, Kim and other Sierra Club volunteers and organizers decided to bring the fight back to Big Coal. Earlier this summer, Eliot activists organized their neighbors to get the town's Board of Selectmen to lead public hearings and hold a town vote on sending a Good Neighbor petition to the EPA. Despite the coal plant's public relations efforts, more than 60 percent of the town's citizens recently voted in favor of petitioning the EPA.

Kim's leadership proved key in getting the petition passed. "It's worth pausing to note that this story is yet another example of the true power of local, grassroots organizing to overcome wealthy private interests," says Sierra Club Maine Chapter Director Glen Brand. 

Kim's activism was spurred on by the "black sooty film" that builds up on homes and cars in south Eliot -- something locals have endured for decades. Schiller at one point even paid for certain homes to be re-painted. But it wasn't until Kim began researching the impacts of coal two years ago that she took action.

"I was trying to see if there was any connection between Schiller and the alarming number of cancer cases in our areas, particularly from my parents' generation," she says.  "That's when I found an article about the air modeling report that was commissioned by the Sierra Club's New Hampshire Chapter that described the activities of Schiller as being the cause of our polluted air -- namely high emissions of sulfur dioxide."

Kim contacted the Sierra Club's New Hampshire office, "and from there a rather powerful alliance was formed," she recalls. Kim and other volunteers and organizers gathered petition signatures, coordinated a town forum, and cultivated engagement among families and community members who supported a petition.

John demos cathy kim and glen at schiller

"For the next year-and-a-half or so, we attended many Board of Selectmen meetings, where we would frequently go head-to-head with Schiller representatives who would attend these meetings in the hopes of dissuading the board from submitting the petition -- to the point of slightly veiled threats of legal action," she says. "The Maine Attorney General reassured us there was no reason to fear a lawsuit simply by asking the EPA to investigate. People who were not already familiar with the topic were suddenly taking a keen interest, wondering, 'If Schiller's operating like they claim they are, what are they so afraid of?'"

With the vote to petition the EPA passing by a two-to-one margin, the federal agency now has until the end of October to respond.

Meanwhile, the people of Eliot can feel good knowing that their grassroots efforts have put the wheels in motion toward cleaning up their air. It is because of activists like Kim that dirty coal plants are held accountable. Kim's speech at a rally earlier this summer said it best:

"When I began my quest for answers, I was often met with the attitude of, 'You know, people tried to address this in the past, but they didn’t get anywhere.' You see, there was a snag: Since our town is located in Maine, and Schiller is in New Hampshire, no one really owned up to jurisdictional responsibility. However, one of the important lessons my mum taught me about life is that when you’re asking the important questions and someone tells you, 'I'm sorry, I can't help you,' well, that's not a good enough answer. Please direct me to someone who can."

-- Brian Foley


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