From Leo Sprinzen, Oberlin student, 2-12-08:
My first experience in direct action was in response to coal fired power plants. I stood in line with fifty others outside of the houses of two men who may be responsible for a new coal plants, while spokesmen talked with the men in power. After standing attentively for ten long minutes in front of each house I filed out with the others feeling surprisingly elated. Information is powerful and letting the people in charge know how I and my fellow demonstrators felt by standing shoulder to shoulder holding arms and quietly looking down the most powerful Ohioans who live by coal spurred a sense of empowerment bigger than I could have imagined.
The Ohio Student Environmental Coalition (OSEC) had its first meeting on the weekend of February 8-10 in Columbus, Ohio. OSEC was founded by Matt Reitman, a student organizer, to more efficiently bring together colleges in Ohio to coordinate, cooperate, and establish long term contacts so that more direct action could be taken on a local level. Many of us knew about problems worldwide that have gained strong media attention, but few were aware of what was happening right in Ohio.
Last year Elisa Young realized the dire consequences of what was in Meigs County, the county where she lives in southeast Ohio. Four nearby coal plants had caused high cancer rates (Elisa herself will soon begin chemotherapy), inflated deaths by coal dust, collapsed land, swamps where farms used to be, and water as black as oil. When Elisa showed us the water she brought with her, she had to be careful not to tip the jar too far or it would spill – the top had been corroded away. From the elementary school playground multiple plants are clearly visible. The people of Meigs County are unable to fight back because few have enough money and there are even fewer attorneys who are willing to take on the teams of lawyers for big coal. In Elisa’s own words, “We are one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states.” Elisa herself is currently attempting legal action but has been bullied around and even physically harassed by people from AMP.
And it gets worse. Across the river lies West Virginia, a state ravaged by coal and the effects of water, air, and soil pollution. Citizens of West Virginia who feel the very same effects as those in Ohio have tried to fight the rise of coal fired power plants in the area but ran into a problem immediately: the coal plant is not in their state. They have no legal right to fight it.
Then Elisa found out that AMP had applied to build a new power plant, amidst proposals for up to four other additional power plants in the area, bringing the total to up to nine, all within a ten mile radius of Elisa’s farm. This is not a matter of job growth or of energy. Ohio already has enough power! There is no technology that can make these plants “clean” or that will prevent them from exacerbating global warming. They would guarantee continuous coal mining for the next fifty years in eastern Ohio. And where is all of this new power going to go? Northwest Ohio. This is environmental injustice at its worst. The people who suffer the most will not benefit at all. The people of Meigs County will pay for others’ power with their life.
When OSEC’s first meeting was being planned out, this situation was identified as the first project to directly get involved in. The houses of two key players were identified: Korleski, Ohio’s EPA Director and final authority on confirmation of permits and Gerken, CEO of AMP Ohio. Intermittent with workshops on organization, power and oppression, environmental justice, and media planning, the roughly fifty students attending the summit from ten colleges and one high school around Ohio learned about direct action, an action that is meant to induce an immediate change but does not involve the normal pattern of citizen involvement. We all felt that the time for slow bureaucratic appeals was long over. The action was to be nonviolent; no arrests were to be made. We were going to talk with the two men at their homes, voicing our opinions, the views of a county, and calling for the abandonment of the coal plants.
I have talked with people about change but never this high up. I have never targeted someone at their house. I had never demanded that something as large as a power plant be abandoned. But now, I knew, was the time. I thought about student protests of the past and why there have not been more recently. I am young and able. I have a voice. I have a conscious and I have a responsibility to fight what I know to be wrong. This is no longer something I will only read about in the paper or marvel at the bravery and willingness of others to call out for what is morally right. I felt obligated to walk out there and to voice myself.
We piled into cars and drove our caravan past the suburbanization of America and into the heart of the ultra-rich neighborhoods. Korleski house was the first on our route. I walked in front of the house and lined up with the other fifty students. It dawned on me seeing us all out of classrooms for the first time how many of us there were. It’s not every day that you answer the door to fifty visitors asking you to change the way you conduct your business. We lined up on the sidewalk and stood up straight, intently watching the door. Three spokesmen stepped forward and rung the bell and out stepped Korleski. There was an exchange for several minutes and then he cordially stepped forward. Addressing us all, he thanked us for our concern and promised to review the group letter we had given to him. He mentioned talking with “his people.” And that was it.
Looking back, the action hardly seems worth mentioning. Bold maybe, but impressionable? I was taken completely off guard by the ease with which Korleski handled the situation. We called for change but did not demand it. We all know the stakes – either the coal plants are built or they aren’t. Our action struck me as inadequate against the giants in the coal business. Yet I felt good, I felt happy, and I wanted to do it again.
At Gerken’s house we again lined up and stared down the door ready to silently fight with our imposing human wall. This time we seemed to be making more headway. When the two spokesmen stepped forward and rung the bell Gerken barely stepped out the door. From the road he appeared to be on the defensive, shaking his finger and gesticulating wildly. His voice grew for several minutes and then the speakers quickly rejoined us. Apparently he had ranted about how clean AMP was. Clearly Gerken was more agitated than Korleski and did not appreciate being visited on a Sunday by concerned students. We filed out and returned to Columbus.
This time I felt like we had gotten to our man. We had rattled him and this would remain on his mind. As Gerken would have to speak further with Korleski about coal permits, these actions will most likely be mentioned and discussed between the EPA and AMP. Our action was not a single person phoning in to object to coal permits or a heckler yelling out. This was an organized action that looked and sounded imposing.
The biggest lesson I took from participating in this direct action was its simplicity yet effectiveness. Why not go to someone’s home and confront them there? Most business men leave their work at the office and forget about at home. This type of action brings the issues into the house and surrounds a person. Imagine if this was to happen again. Who wouldn’t become worried about public support? More importantly, I did something. I stood up and put myself out there. Albeit, it was perhaps a small action but I took the first step. This fight is not over. There are still permits that need to be granted and towns who must agree to purchase power before the new plants are built. But I did something and I intend to continue to be involved for the long haul. During the conference Matt told us about the fixation people are having with the dying out of the polar bears. “What they don’t seem to realize is that it’s not just the polar bears. Because once they die, we’re next.”
Please write Ohio EPA Director at PO Box 1049, Columbus, OH 43216-1049, or call 614-644-2782, or contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please write AMP-Ohio President Marc Gerken at AMP-Ohio, 2600 Airport Drive, Columbus, OH 43219 or call 614-337-6222 or contact him by e-mail at email@example.com.
Tell them to abandon the coal power plant and all coal power plants around Meigs County, Ohio. All coal (yes, even “clean coal”) causes global warming and releases deadly pollutants during the extraction, processing, burning and waste disposal stages and we need to phase our state and our country off of coal — not risk millions of rate payers’ dollars in out-dated, dirty coal.
–Leo Sprinzen, Oberlin College