WASHINGTON - Eleven climate change activists are
due in court today on criminal charges after they blockaded a planned
$1.8bn coal-fired power plant, providing an American echo of the Kingsnorth Six trial.
activists were arrested last month in rural Wise County, Virginia, at
the gates of a power plant being built by Dominion, the No 2 utility in
the US. The 11 chained themselves to steel barrels that held aloft a banner, lit by solar panels, challenging the utility to provide cleaner energy for a region ravaged by abusive coal mining.
with unlawful assembly and obstruction of justice, the group has been
dubbed the Dominion 11 in homage to Kingsnorth. Dr James Hansen, the
leading US climate change scientist, has followed his testimony on
behalf of the Kingsnorth protesters with an offer of help to the
The Americans have yet to attract the
national attention won by their counterparts in the UK. But for Hannah
Morgan, a member of the 11, her case is only one chapter in a long
battle against the coal industry that has been raging under the general
"Civil disobedience is something that can be
incredibly effective, but it needs to be part of a larger campaign,"
the 20-year-old Morgan said.
In that spirit, opponents of the
Wise County plant have staged more than a dozen demonstrations since
the facility was first proposed 18 months ago. During the same week
that a dozen activists protested outside Dominion headquarters, lawyers
for the Sierra Club and other groups were pleading with state air
quality officials to deny permits to the plant, which would emit 5.37m
tonnes of CO2 every year.
Nine of the 11 face four misdemeanour
charges at today's hearing, each of which carries a maximum penalty of
one year in prison and a $1,000 fine, according to Michael Abbott, the
county's deputy commonwealth attorney.
The remaining two,
including Morgan, have also been charged with criminal trespassing and
encouraging unlawful assembly. Whether they plan to use climate change
to defend their protest as necessary, as the Kingsnorth Six did,
remains to be seen.
"It's hard to say how the courts would react
to an argument like that without making it," Morgan said. "We thought
we might be setting a precedent through this legal process, and we
If a climate-based defence is mounted, the odds are
likely stacked against the Dominion 11. None in the group currently
lives full-time in Wise County, where coal remains a way of life even
as mountaintop-removal mining destroys the local landscape.
addition, Dominion is one of the most powerful lobbying forces in
Virginia, giving more than $1m in campaign donations on the local level
since 1993. Tim Kaine, the state's Democratic governor, received more
"It tells us something about where we are in the
United States, where the public education is, the fact that special
interests have succeeded in misinforming the public," Hansen said via
"That only emphasizes the fact that the wrong people
were on trial in this case. It is the people on the other side of the
docket who should be placed on trial. Especially those at the top of
No matter what the outcome of today's hearing, the
group has succeeded in raising awareness of anti-coal activism in the
US. Similar protest efforts are underway against planned power plants
in the states of Colorado and Georgia.
Chris Johnson, 31, was
impressed enough by the activists to drive 90 minutes on Virginia's
winding roads - and offer to serve as their lawyer.
that people were still willing to stick their neck out for a cause, I
respect that tremendously, so for that reason I jumped at the
opportunity," Johnson said. "I really think their cause is a just
Another, more well-known supporter of the Dominion 11 -
Al Gore - lent his voice to their cause three weeks ago in New York
City. "If you're a young person looking at the future of this planet
and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we
have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to
prevent the construction of new coal plants," Gore told an audience at
Bill Clinton's Global Initiative conference, earning a shower of
Morgan, one of eight in the Dominion 11 under the age
of 25, declined to commit to any future civil disobedience against the
Wise County plant. But she had a wry reply ready for the vice-president
and Nobel laureate.
"If anything, Gore's behind the times,
because American youth have been standing up and taking action," she
said. "We don't see him out on the front lines."