Fight the Power
Elisa Young has coal on her mind as she brushes the leaves off a gravestone that simply reads ROUSH, her maiden name. She turns from the centuries-old cemetery in Letart Falls in Meigs County to look out over a large field across the street. American Municipal Power (AMP-Ohio), a non-profit public utility company, has proposed to build a multi-billion dollar coal-burning power plant there, a plant that would tower above the cemetery, the nearby homes and the Ohio River. A grassroots campaign against the new plant has consumed Elisa’s life for nearly three years. As she looks out over the field she says it would be a great place for a large tomato farm. She wonders why a cannery is not being built there instead.
Elisa lives on a 144-acre farm outside Racine, about five miles north of the site. The farm has been in the Roush family for seven generations, but Elisa grew up near Dayton and moved to the farm in 2000. She can see the smokestacks of an existing coal-burning power plant from the farmhouse. An adjacent plant is just out of view behind the tree line of a distant hill. Two more plants burn coal approximately 10 miles west of Racine near the village of Cheshire.
While the plants provide electricity to customers throughout southeastern Ohio, Columbus and beyond, Elisa says they also are making people sick, and the proof is in the sky. Earlier this year she looked out her window. The sky was orange. She says it looked like something out of “The Lord of the Rings.”
“All four power plants were blowing across the farm, and I just felt horrible,” Elisa says while sitting outside her farmhouse. She shakes her long blond hair as she recalls how she frustrated her doctor with constant questions about the effects the emissions could be having on her health, but she does not see the doctor as often nowadays. She is a cancer survivor and says she could be receiving chemotherapy to prevent future complications if she could afford insurance. Elisa left her job as a medical laboratory
assistant more than a year ago to study massage therapy, and to fight the proposed power plant and other coal projects in and around Meigs County.
Elisa does not remember seeing pollution when she visited the farm as a child. She does not remember neighbor after neighbor coming down with cancer either, but now she stands outside her farmhouse and points in all directions as she describes the cases she has seen in her neighborhood of small farms and scattered houses. Her tone of voice is sharpened by a blend of anger and frustration.
“I don’t know one family that hasn’t been touched by cancer,” Elisa says. “I’ve had cancer, my dog has had cancer, and I could go on and on.” Elisa says she has watched a neighbor who did not smoke die of lung cancer and another die from a rare form of breast cancer. Her neighbors also have died of brain cancer and colon cancer. In 2003, Elisa’s best friend, CJ, came down with cancer and traveled to Chicago for treatment. CJ’s doctors warned her not to move back to Meigs County if she wanted to beat the illness. CJ took their advice and waited to move back to southeastern Ohio until after recovery.
Elisa’s tour of Racine and the surrounding area comes with a dismal story of pollution and sickness. The first stop is a new coal mine owned by the West Virginia-based coal company Gatling LLC. Elisa and her small activist group, Meigs Citizen Action NOW (MeigsCAN), campaigned against the construction of the mine and lost. Down the road she points out a steamy mist rising from a manganese factory on the West Virginia side of the Ohio River. The factory is upstream from the two aging power plants that are visible from the hill behind Elisa’s farm. Both plants are owned by energy giant American Electric Power (AEP).
Now she stands in the playground at Star Hill Park, a public park directly across the river from AEP’s Philip Sporn and Mountaineer power plants. She stares across the river with her hands on her hips.
A new skate park was recently built at Star Hill, and it is already a hit with young people. A family is playing a casual baseball game on the diamond nearby. They do not seem distracted by the steady hum of the Sporn plant or the white smoke billowing out of the stack overhead. Elisa is watching and listening, however. She mentions that AEP’s new power plant models are supposed to be much louder, and she looks out across the park with a frown.
Coal burning power plants emit sulfur dioxide, which can cause asthma and other respiratory illnesses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Elisa says her area has a high rate of child asthma, and she cannot believe that children must run and play in air around a power plant. She keeps a kind of gallows humor about it all.
“I always think it’s kind of funny,” Elisa says as she points to a piece of playground equipment, a purple dinosaur that operates like a rocking horse on a spring. “We’re dying of fossil fuels, and we have this little dinosaur.”
AEP has a mixed legacy in the area. The company’s four power plants are a major employer on both sides of the river, and local miners find work keeping them burning.
Elisa says many people are afraid to speak out against these plants because so many people in the area need jobs. “When coal is the only game in town, and your brother or father work for those facilities, there is going to be a backlash,” she says.
But for Elisa’s only son, moving to Texas to find work was still “better than working in a coal mine.”
Environmentalists say the AEP plants are some of the dirtiest around. In 2002, AEP bought Cheshire for $20 million after federal health experts determined that blue sulfuric clouds from AEP’s nearby Gavin power plant were endangering residents of the village, according to the The Columbus Dispatch. The buyout prompted 221 people to give up their homes and to relocate. Elisa says her farm near Racine is a little more than 10 miles from the plants that caused the clouds in Cheshire.
Elisa started organizing to fight new coal plants in her area after learning about AEP plans to build four additional coal plants—two on the West Virginia side near Racine and two on the Ohio side across the river from Ravenswood, W.Va. Elisa often says that the construction of those four plants, with the addition of the proposed AMP-Ohio plant, would bring the total number of power plants within a 10-mile radius of her neighborhood up to nine. It is a startling number, but one that may be based more on suspicion than fact.
AEP officials say the company has proposed only two plants, and those proposals are currently on hold. AEP cannot afford to build a plant across the Ohio River from Ravenswood because of tough economic conditions, and the proposal to build a plant near Philip Sporn has yet to be approved by West Virginia state regulators.
If smokestacks do go up any time soon, it will be at the AMP-Ohio site across the street from the cemetery where several of Elisa’s ancestors are buried.
AMP-Ohio has already received all the necessary state permits for the project, but challenges to several EPA permits from national environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, will not be resolved until 2010.
AMP-Ohio officials have repeatedly touted plans to use state-of-the-art “clean coal” technology to reduce air pollution from the plant. The term “clean coal” is used to describe new technologies that reduce the amount of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants emitted by coal-burning power plants. The AMP-Ohio plant is expected to be much cleaner than older power plants, but the current EPA permit still allows for thousands of tons of air pollutants—including sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide—to be emitted annually.
Elisa says the idea that coal can be “clean” is a marketing myth created by a coal industry struggling to
maintain its dominance in times of environmental reform. She says coal is a finite resource, and mining and burning it is a dirty business regardless of the efforts to clean it up. “There’s a lot of money being spent on clean coal, and it’s all in the media,” Elisa says.
Putting a Foot Down
Elisa fights back with her own brand of grassroots marketing. In 2006, MeigsCAN started a “listening project” to spark public dialogue on the AMP-Ohio plant and other proposed industries in the community. The project’s aims were to visit and to talk with neighbors about MeigsCAN’s take on the issues and to
empower them with information on how to stay healthy and how to speak out against the projects if they so desired.
Elisa says the project revealed a variety of opinions about industrial development in the area, but “100 percent” of those she talked to said they would, if given the option, rather work in industries that do not pollute like old fashioned coal mining and combustion do.
Elisa did not stop at advocating in her own community. She has spoken at public forums across Ohio about the AMP-Ohio plant, and she has brought her message to environmental conferences across the country. Her outspokenness has not gone unnoticed by the opposition. She says local opponents have called her an “environazi,” and some have given her threatening phone calls. One local leader even threatened to have her and a group of young activists arrested when, she says, they simply “showed up to his house” during the listening project.
AMP-Ohio has not been able to ignore Elisa either. She finally heard from the company’s attorneys in March 2009 after years of voicing her opposition to the power plant. Elisa and Ohio Citizen Action, a statewide community advocacy group that also opposes the AMP-Ohio plant, each received letters from high profile attorneys in Columbus threatening legal action if both parties did not immediately stop making allegedly false public statements about the project. Activists call such threats Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), but AMP-Ohio officials argued the utility company was just trying to clear the air of false information.
Navigating thick regulatory code and the
complex relations among the coal industry, public utilities and the government is no easy task for amateur activists like Elisa, who lack the support of lawyers and the funding enjoyed by large environmental coalitions. Factor in fierce agendas, and disagreements on the facts of an environmental issue can arise. Elisa responded to AMP-Ohio’s lawyers with a letter admitting that she misunderstood some information about the project, but she says she was convinced that the purpose of the letters was blatant intimidation. AMP-Ohio attorneys have not pursued any legal action since then, but Elisa says she refuses to “shut up” and is determined to speak out even more.
passion for action
Elisa’s tenacity and passion as an activist seem to border on an environmentalist obsession. She says she became an activist 10 years ago when she got involved in the movement against mountaintop removal coal mining—a mining practice that involves blasting off the tops of mountains in Appalachia. She says activism has taken up every ounce of her spare time, and the coal industry has “already taken 10 years off my life.” She says her motivation is necessity, not ideology.
“Coal is not my passion,” Elisa explains after returning to her aging farmhouse. She says she does not want to fight the coal industry, but she must.
Elisa ends the tour of the coal industry in her area with a fierce testimony to her cause, and her passion must come from somewhere. She gestures like a preacher at a corner church, pleading for the attention of a sleepy congregation. It is easy to imagine her standing at the podium and moving the audiences to action at her many speaking engagements. She is talking about her home and her community, and she wants people to listen.
Elisa can connect coal to the problems in her neighborhood—poverty, poor health and pollution, and she’s pleading for others to see the light. She points out small piles of black gravel on the side country road she takes into town, saying it is solid waste from the coal plant used to melt salt and ice on the roads in the winter. Area municipalities lack funds to afford salt, she explains, and farmers pay the difference when the black gravel washes into their fields.
She worries about mine drainage entering the water table. She says the produce in her garden is contaminated by the heavy metals in the air. She had hoped that growing and eating a lot of cilantro, which is known to cleanse the kidneys and to expel heavy metals from the body, could help, but she believes her cilantro is too contaminated to make a difference.
For Elisa, the only solution is to end consumer “addiction” to coal as a source of electricity. This starts with using less, but Elisa hopes for a radically different future. She wants renewable energy industries, such as wind and hydroelectric power, to employ people in her area and to replace the fossil fuel industry. Her vision calls for radical changes in energy infrastructure, so Elisa says now is the time to “take coal off life support” and to start the transition. Her views line up with the hard core in the environmental movement, but Elisa says she is not an environmentalist.
“I just live here, and the conditions are intolerable,” she says.
Environmentalists seem to like Elisa whether she calls herself one or not. In 2006, she received an award from the progressive Woman of Peace Power
Foundation. Elisa says she met other women involved in grassroots activism around the world at the ceremony. She also has received an award from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition for her work in Meigs County and the movement to stop mountain top removal coal mining in West Virginia. But Elisa says her biggest reward has been meeting and working with students and other young activists who are working to create the greener future she is fighting for.
In late February 2009, Elisa spoke at the Power Shift conference in Washington, D.C., where 12,000 students and young activists gathered for a summit on energy justice, the movement to replace old-fashioned polluting industries, such as coal, and the need to create green jobs with alternatives, such as wind power. There she met students from all over the country who were inspired by her fight against the new coal projects in her community. Several events at Power Shift even focused on the proposed AMP-Ohio plant, proof that Elisa’s message had made it onto the students’ national agenda.
“We should be listening to the future,” says Elisa, who believes future generations will pay the highest price for the environmentally destructive practice of today’s coal industry.
The future also is listening to Elisa—and she is not shy about sowing seeds of activism in the younger generation. She is almost a celebrity among the young people of the anti-coal movement and makes frequent stops at college campuses across Ohio.
Last spring, Elisa drove to Athens for a potluck, where about seven students met her at a local activist center near the Ohio University campus. The door was locked, but the group was happy to sit on the front steps of the building. The students swapped their curried rice for Elisa’s rice and beans—a staple in her kitchen—and listened with wide eyes as Elisa told tales from the frontlines and lectured on the myths of “clean coal.” She was the center of attention, her energy bubbling out for even the smallest crowd. One young woman asked if there would be room for her in Elisa’s farmhouse this summer. Elisa, who has hired “interns” to live on her farm and help out MeigsCAN in the past, said she would be happy to have her. Elisa then announced she had brought “mini-carbon sequestration units” for everyone. Clean coal advocates currently are developing “carbon sequestration” technology to trap greenhouse gases from power plants before they hit the air. But Elisa has something a little different for her young admirers: little calendula flower sprouts to be planted in their gardens.