Dirty Coal Has Left the Building: Live Blog from DC

Author Bill McKibben held down the corner of the park with plenty of media cameras. He declared simply: "Coal is killing the planet. Green energy is going to drive us out of this recession."
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(Updates will appear all day from the Capitol Climate Action in Washington, DC.)


The Capitol Power Plant's days of coal are over.

It's been the waiting game here: Since 2pm, over 2,000 activists have blockaded the five main gates to the Capitol Power Plant. The rather larger police turnout is impressive; clad in their best stocking caps, they dot the chain fence like lamp-posts, taking in the gregarious march with a bit of interest and fascination. No attempt at any arrest has been made. The crowd is controlled and peaceful; there is a festive atmosphere, young and old, all bundled up and dancing to keep warm on this crystal clear but chilly afternoon.

The only clouds now, in this blue sky, are the coal-fired ones billowing from the Capitol plant. At 5pm, the Capitol Climate Action hailed the historic action a victory and dispersed.

No arrests were made.

It has been a fascinating and powerful day. Communities from across the country have come together in an amazing arm-to-arm support on the picket line. On stage in front of the main gate, tribal members from Michigan, New Mexico and Arizona have testified to the disastrous impact of coal mining in their communities, and coal-fired waste and mercury emissions in their water.

Dine/Navajo activists fighting the expansion of a strip mine at Black Mesa in Arizona, and other Dine/Navajo members from the Desert Rock community in New Mexico, led the march from the Spirit of Justice Park. Cooper Curley, a 17-year-old Navajo high school student from Gallup, New Mexico, said he traveled to be part of the demonstration in honor of the tribal elders who were unable to attend, recognizing their long-time battles to draw attention to the human and environmental costs from coal and uranium mining.

Robert Kennedy, Jr., with his son and daughter at his side, made an impassioned case against the criminal elements of mountaintop removal policies and poorly enforced environmental abuse by willing coal companies. Kennedy recalled his own father's campaign to help end strip mining in the 1960s, citing the ultimate effect of mining on destroying local economies and the union movement.

Kennedy called on Capitol Hill to recognize the "true costs of coal."

Kennedy was hopeful, though, saying a "sea-change" had occurred with the new Obama administration.

Kennedy, like all protesters, readied themselves for arrest.

The End of Nature author Bill McKibben declared he had been waiting 20 years for this moment, dating back to his groundbreaking book on climate change.

A series of chants of 350--the silver bullet number of parts per million of CO2--erupted.

Kathy Mattea, the Grammy-award singer, beautifully weaved an old Jean Ritchie song, Black Waters, with another Appalachian ballad on coal.

Judy Bonds, whose Coal River Mountain in West Virginia is literally being detonated daily by explosives, told the crowd: "I don't mind being poor, I don't mind being made fun of, but I do mind being blasted and poisoned."

Dr. James Hansen called on the Obama administration and the nation's legislators to look at the root cause of climate destabilization, and reminded the crowd of the urgency of the moment. Hansen sounded the alarm on CO2 emissions over 25 years ago.

Only steps away from actress Daryl Hannah, the legendary Larry Gibson, who has spent 25 years on a journey to stop mountaintop removal along his home of Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, has been standing on the line of arrest for hours. Like McKibben, this historic moment has been long in waiting. When Gibson began his crusade to end mountaintop removal two decades ago, he recalled barely being able to draw a crowd of two.

While the coal industry may have invested over $40 million dollars in fictitious "clean coal" ads, the stunning array of banners and placards---Clean Coal is Like Dry Water, Coal is the Mother's Liver, Topless Mountains Are Obscene, Coal is Dirty, Power Past Coal--drove home the dirty reality of coal and coal-fired plants today.

Dirty coal has indeed left the Capitol Power Plant.

See you at Cliffside in Charlotte, North Carolina on April 20th for the next coal-fired plant to retire.


12:55 pm EST

Spirit of Justice Park

Contingents of marchers are gathering in the park just to the south of the Capitol, a few blocks from the Capitol Power Plant. A long line of hundreds of younger marchers have just entered from the Powershift rally at the Capitol building. Dividing into four banner areas, Red (Power), Blue (Change), Green (Justice), and Yellow, the activists are chanting "Clean Coal is a Dirty Lie," among other chants. It's an energetic crowd, on a very windy and cold day, though the sun keeps attempting to break through the clouds.

Ahjani Yepa-Sprague, from the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, in Michigan, is handing out a statement that declares: "Mercury from coal-fired power plants, like this one, are of special concern to children and women of childbearing age like myself...Tribal lifeways have had to be altered because of the existing mercury in lakes and streams in Michigan....Tribal communities in Michigan and around the world are threatened by the pollution and harms caused by coal plants."

Cassie Robinson, a young activist from eastern Kentucky with Mountain Justice, told me she has traveled to Washington to draw attention to climate change, the destruction of her communities from mountaintop removal, and an increasing concern about the problems of natural gas development in Appalachia, an issue often overlooked.

Carl "Pete" Ramey, a great-grandfather from Wise County, Virginia, and VFW chaplain, who spent 37 years laboring in an underground mine, has just read an opening prayer: "Is faith asleep? Let it wake. Today is ours. Let's take it." Addressing the largely young crowd, Ramey recalled his increasing activism with the environmental movement after witnessing the impact of mountaintop removal in his region. "I'm inspired by these children."

Author Bill McKibben held down the corner of the park with plenty of media cameras. He declared: "Coal is killing the planet. Green energy is going to drive us out of this recession."

Kentucky farmer-poet Wendell Berry has arrived, stocking cap afixed, bracing in the cold wind as a crowd of young admirers swelled around him.

The Capitol Power Plant action is set to begin in the next 30 minutes or so.

11am EST

The great snow storm has passed. The clouds are parting. The sun is breaking through. Those tiny ripples of hope, that Robert Kennedy once invoked, are beginning to gather near Capitol Hill.

The Capitol Power Plant: It was built at the same time the first Ford Model T cars rolled onto the streets. A century later, the Capitol plant will finally end its use of coal in the age of the iPhone and Blackberry.

There's a new era in Washington, DC--a clean energy era. And with an Obama administration that wants to double our renewable energy production in three years, and has called for cap 'n trade legislation to limit carbon emissions, thousands of clean energy and coalfield activists are converging on the snow-swept streets of Washington, DC today to remind Capitol Hill that a growing and incredibly organized movement is ready to make this new clean energy era a reality.

The Capitol Climate Action today is more than a historic protest against coal, coal-fired plants and their role in climate change. It's a celebration of a road map to end our dependence on our nation's dirtiest fossil fuel.

For up-to-date information, see: capitolclimateaction.org

The denials of coal's dirty past are over: Thousands of citizens are prepared to engage in civil disobedience at the Capitol Power Plant today to make clear the sense of urgency in dealing with climate change legislation and policy in an effective and timely manner.

In anticipation of this first mass act of civil disobedience in our nation's history around climate change, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have asked the Acting Architect of the Capitol to end the use of coal at the Capitol plant as "an important demonstration of Congress' willingness to deal with the enormous challenges of global warming, energy independence and our inefficient use of finite fossil fuels."

That's one small step for Congress; one giant leap for the nation, if we continue to retire the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired plants at a similar pace.

In the meantime, at the other 635 coal-fired plants, over 40 percent of our nation's carbon dioxide emissions continue to erupt from electricity plant silos like as silent volcanoes of death.

The urgency of this movement rings with a new message: We all live in the coalfields now.

At the historic Powershift09 conference this weekend in Washington, DC, where over 12,000 students and clean energy activists gathered for a whirlwind of panels, workshops and speeches, scores of experts and community organizers in coal mining and coal-fired plant areas provided some dramatic backstory to the growing movement against climate destabilization.

Elisa Young, a farm resident from Meigs County, spoke about the spike in cancer and asthma in an area beset with five coal-fired plants in southern Ohio. According to one recent study, men in Meigs County have the lowest life expectancy rate in the state.

Judy Bonds, from the Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia, showed how near 500 mountains in central Appalachia have been toppled into the valleys, as part of mountaintop removal mining, wiping out 1,200 miles of streams, depopulating and ruining historic mountain hamlets and economies, and contaminating watersheds.

The human costs of mountaintop removal have emerged as the most egregious violation of human rights in the region in our lifetimes.

Chris Martin, a student from Tennessee, reminded the audience that the TVA coal ash leakages in his area last December brought out the fact that more than half of our nation's population and their water sources rest within a half hour drive of an unregulated coal ash pond and potential catastrophe.

According to the American Lung Association, 24,000 Americans die prematurely from coal-fired plant pollution each year. Another 550,000 asthma attacks, 38,000 heart attacks and 12,000 hospital admissions are also attributed to coal-fired plants.

In 1895, newspapers ran ads for smoke-free "clean coal" in Chicago, as the boom in coal-fired plant electricity was about to launch a new era.

Over a century later, those same "clean coal" ads are still running, and the dirty coal denials are taking place.

The convergence on the Capitol Power Plant in Washington, DC, marks a new era in confronting these denials.

While applauding President Barack Obama's commitment renewable energy, coalfield activists and clean energy advocates are directly addressing a president still beholden to the chimera of "clean coal," its devastating extraction counterparts and dirty coal's underlining role in the silent tsunami of climate destabilization.

For those suffering the consequence of dirty coal's legacy, the time has arrived to put an end to the "clean coal" scams of the coal lobby, which not only jeopardize any efforts to pass effective climate legislation before the world climate change conference in Copenhagen in December, but continue the devastation of coal mining in Appalachia, the Midwest and the West.

"What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future," Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the UN's International Panel on Climate Change, has declared.

It's time for dirty coal to leave the building.

Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia, and the forthcoming book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (The Nation/Basic Books).

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