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Young Activists Fired Up in Fight Against Coal
JOHNSONVILLE, S. Carolina - Outside the high school here Tuesday night, as people gathered for a public hearing, three young women wrestled with a big black inflatable coal plant that looked similar to a jump castle - except for the words "CLEAN UP DIRTY COAL PLANTS NOW" on the side.
One woman trying in vain to get the prop's smoke stacks raised was Katheryn Hilton, 20, of Aiken, who two months ago spent 11 hours in jail after being arrested at a demonstration at a coal plant in Virginia. Hilton said coal is a dirty technology that will spew mercury into the air and waterways and contribute to global warming.
Next to her, Sara Tansey, 20, looked for leaks. She took a year off from the University of South Carolina to fight the coal industry. "There are lots of young people who got engaged on the climate and energy issue during the election," she said. "I think young people are really awakening to injustice of the whole life cycle of coal."
Across the country, anti-coal activists, many of them students in their 20s, are attending hearings and engaging in demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience reminiscent of the protests their parents might have seen in the 1970s against nuclear plants.
It's a big change from the 1990s when utilities went on a coal-plant construction binge with little or no controversy. But today, projects such as Santee Cooper's plan to build its Pee Dee coal plant face a new generation activists, along with the usual cadre of established environmental groups.
"It's a little intimidating to be here with people in their 40s and 50s," said Sara Sprehn, 19, a sophomore at the College of Charleston. She and seven others from the college drove two hours to attend a state Department of Health and Environmental Control hearing about the plant's effect on state waterways. "We're educated about the issues, and we want our opinions to be heard."
Santee Cooper is seeking state and federal permits to build two 600-megawatt generators.
As part of the permitting process, DHEC and the Army Corps of Engineers must hold a series of public hearings. Tuesday's focus was on water quality, and about 200 people gathered in the Johnsonville High School gymnasium to support or oppose the project.
As in past hearings, some argued that the new plant would create new jobs. Santee Cooper officials insisted that the plant would be the cleanest of its kind. Their supporters said without the plant, the region could face brownouts and blackouts.
Meanwhile, other residents said they worry that the coal plant will pollute the air and waterways and contribute to global warming. Some cited information from the recent Post and Courier series "Toxic Ash," which revealed that coal ash is contaminating groundwater at some landfills and ponds with arsenic and other heavy metals many times the federal drinking water limit.
DHEC officials said they plan to take these comments into account as they decide whether to grant Santee Cooper a permit, but government regulators and environmental groups all have said they expect the matter to end up in a court battle.
A wild card in the coal debate is whether anti-coal activists take the matter to different arenas.
In the past several months, protesters picketed a coal plant in Kansas. They formed human barriers outside a plant in Virginia, where Hilton and 10 others were arrested.
In April, activists locked themselves to bulldozers outside a Duke Power plant under construction in western North Carolina and spread a banner that said "Global Warming Crime Scene." Police used stun guns to control some of the demonstrators and arrested eight people. This fall, Al Gore said, "We've reached the stage where it's time for civil disobedience to prevent construction of new coal-fired power plants that do not have sequestration."
During the hearing, Hilton became emotional as she talked about her concerns. She said she drove four hours to be here and had a four-hour drive back that night. "I'm here representing thousands of South Carolina youths who say coal is not the answer to the state's energy problems."
Read the special report series on mercury from The Post and Courier.
Also see the special report series on toxic ash from The Post and Courier.