69 Arrests in Bow, N.H.
By Kelly Merrill
Sixty-nine people were arrested and hundreds gathered to protest Merrimack Station, New Hampshire’s largest coal factory on Saturday, September 28th, in the largest environmental action in New England since the Clamshell Alliance demonstrations against the Seabrook nuclear plant in the 1970s.
The Bow 69
The activists, dressed in white hazmat suits, intended to remove coal from the plant bucket by bucket, but were met by a swarm of wardens, local and state police in full riot gear as a helicopter and drone flew above the protesters.
The 69 people arrested represented the Climate Disobedience Center, 350 New Hampshire Action, Nonviolent Citizen Action, New Hampshire Youth Movement, and several chapters of Extinction Rebellion, and included faith leaders, teachers, and scientists, the disabled, elderly, and at least one young adult.
The action took place at the tail end of Global Climate Strike week, which was the largest climate mobilization in history, with more than 1,000 protests across the US, Puerto Rico, and Washington D.C. that shut down streets, bridges, and business as usual.
The Bow action followed several days after the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit in New York on September 23rd, where an emotional Greta Thunberg severely rebuked world leaders for inaction.
Organizers took action at the Merrimack station in Bow as part of the “No Coal, No Gas” campaign to shut down the coal plant permanently and send the message that they will not tolerate the further use of coal or other non-renewables. Activists involved say they see no higher priority – as parents, spouses, neighbors and citizens – than addressing the unprecedented challenge of ecological crisis and the swift and urgent response it demands.
VESTED VOICE OF YOUTH
At the rally that preceded the non-violent direct action, young climate activists of NH Youth Movement said that if elected officials want to stay in power, they must align with the youth voice and fight back against climate change because it is their future at stake. One organizer, Quincy Abramson, stressed that ensuring a safe and just future for all “starts with holding our elected officials accountable here because they’ve been representing the fossil fuel industry instead of us by keeping this plant open.”
“It doesn’t make sense for our climate, it doesn’t make sense for our clean air and water, it doesn’t make sense for our communities – and it doesn’t make sense economically, either,” said Sam Tardiff of NH Youth Movement, a claim that was illustrated in the March 4th suit filed by the Sierra Club and the Conservation Law Foundation, which demands that the plant’s operator, Granite Shore Power build modern cooling tower infrastructure.
For years, the Merrimac station has been in violation of the Clean Water Act by discharging hot water from the cooling operations of the plant into the Merrimack River, creating an environment that kills local fish and aquatic life. Since building such towers would be inordinately expensive, the suit is considered a critical part of the overall effort to close the plant, given coal’s existing economic weakness as a source of power.
Costs of Dirty Energy
Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. power sector, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Activists explain that the coal plant represents economic and environmental threats both locally and far beyond.
In addition to polluting the Merrimack River, a major source of drinking water, the plant endangers public health in other ways, including mercury toxicity. The plant was found to be the largest source of mercury pollution in the air in 2010, despite installing a scrubber two years prior. Fish in the river have mercury levels as high as 20 times greater than EPA’s recommended limits. The Merrimack is one of the Northeaster hot spots for mercury contamination due to the coal plant.
Bad Deal for Ratepayers
The $457M cost to ratepayers of installing the scrubbers on the plant didn’t completely eliminate the toxic emissions, which cause neurological damage, such as deficits in verbal skills, attention, and motor control. EPA estimates that one in ten women of childbearing age has enough mercury in her bloodstream to put her child at risk, should she become pregnant. It’s in the air, water, and soil. There’s a children’s baseball field across the street.
Last year ratepayers paid $50 million to keep the Merrimack power station open though it provides only 2% of New England’s electricity. It produces 238,000 MwH of power via coal power annually, the equivalent of running 23 days a year. It is estimated that every hour of operation releases as much carbon as 26 years of total carbon emissions for an average American resident.
Additionally, Granite Shore Power is an out-of-state company that is “getting rich off of the destruction of climate and environment and our elected officials have done nothing to stop them,” said Kohrman-Glaser, an organizer with 350NH Action. “We won’t stand for decision makers’ corruption and collusion with the fossil fuel industry anymore.”
“Had the fossil fuel industry not been allowed to buy politicians’ decisions, New Englanders could have saved nearly $900 billion, lowered utility bills, and finally started reducing environmental contaminants,” explained Adam Rice, a climate activist with Extinction Rebellion in Portland.
Organizer Counters Granite Shore Power Response
In a statement to WMUR, Granite Shore Power said, “We respect and support the right of any person to express his or her views. Unfortunately, today’s protest and trespassing was more about making a scene and breaking the law than about conveying an informed point of view.”
“The informed point-of-view they’re approaching this with is hypocrisy,” said Jay O’Hara, a resident of Portland, cofounder of the Climate Disobedience Center, and one of the lead organizers for the September 28th action. “Granite Shore Power is paid $50M a year to not have an informed point-of-view.”
“The reality is that Granite Shore Power is not solving the global climate crisis, our government leaders aren’t solving the global climate crisis, so some of us are going to have to do something about it. The failure on the part of them and government has been a failure of courage,” said O’Hara in a September 29th interview with West End News. “And it is courage that is required in the face of this crisis.”
Necessity of Civil Disobedience and NVDA
The arrests come at a time when environmental activists are under increasingly intense government scrutiny. Bills criminalizing trespassing near fossil fuel infrastructure have been passed in Indiana, Illinois, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas, carrying felony prison sentences of as much as five years and fines of as much as $10,000. Such laws also allow for prosecution of organizations who support such actions and carry fines of up to $500,000. Activists, however, are undeterred, and often point out that legality is not a guide to morality.
The “No Coal, No Gas” campaign has gained exponential momentum in the past several months, when eight New Englanders, supported by a team of more than a dozen others, removed over 500lbs of coal from the fuel pile at Merrimack Station on August 17th and upended five large buckets of coal onto the steps of the State House in Concord the following Tuesday.
For his part in that August 20th demonstration, a warrant was issued for O’Hara, who was arrested while walking down the street before the September 28th protest even began. The traveling Quaker minister believes resolutely in the necessity of civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action as a means of addressing climate change.
Heavy Police Presence
With regard to the heavy police presence, O’Hara said, “When your dying dinosaur of an industry requires helicopters, guns, and riot cops to defend itself from peaceful, singing people who want a healthy future for all of humanity, you know you have entered the realm of total absurdity. And I hope that gives some of those officers and their superiors some pause when they realize and think about the absurdity of the situation they are defending.”
“This was not a one-and-done action,” stressed O’Hara. “This is a campaign that is going to shut this plant down. Merrimack Station should have been shut down 20 years ago.”
Beyond closing down the coal plant, the coalition’s next immediate goal of the campaign is to prevent the Granite Ridge Pipeline from being built, and then dismantle fracked gas infrastructure.
Merrill is an activist, artist, and journalist who works with the Portland Overdose Prevention Society, People’s Housing Coalition, Extinction Rebellion, and others in Portland.