Students Brave Snow, Police at Protest

Students protest coal energy use in front of the Capitol Power Plant, which supplies steam and cooled water to Congress. (Photo Submitted by Megan Kile)
Students protest coal energy use in front of the Capitol Power Plant, which supplies steam and cooled water to Congress. (Photo Submitted by Megan Kile)

Over a dozen St. Mary’s students passionate about the environment protested the use of coal energy in what has been called, “The biggest act of civil disobedience against global warming in American history”.

The protest against the Capitol Power Plant, which occurred Monday, March 2, was attended by over a hundred organizing groups, and led by Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network. According to Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) Co-President junior Elizabeth Brunner, over 3,000 people were in attendance, around 15 of whom were St. Mary’s students. Notable figures such as environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr. and head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies James Hansen were also in attendance.

Brunner said that the protest of this particular coal plant was a symbolic action against the national and international use of coal energy, a practice on which many environmental groups such as SEAC wish to put a moratorium.

According to Brunner, the Capitol Power Plant was specifically chosen because it provides steam and cooled water to Congress and because of its high visibility.

The burning of coal, according to Brunner, taints water and air, destroys the natural habitats of hundreds of species, and causes acid rain. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Burning coal is a leading source of global warming pollution.” However, coal is still a major source of energy in the U.S. because of the large infrastructure built around it and the economic interests surrounding it.

“No one wants to be the politician to put a moratorium on coal,” said SEAC Co-president junior Bethany Wetherill. “It is vastly unpopular because of the amount of workers in coal mines and because of the perceived costs of the switch to clean energy.”

With this knowledge, St. Mary’s students braved the frigid cold and quickly mounting snow. Morale, however, remained high. Brunner said, “It was one of the more positive events I’ve ever been to. It was uplifting.”

Other attendees echoed a similar sentiment. “It was really amazing to see all these people of different ages, races, and economic statuses coming together to speak out about the problem of global climate change in a powerful, nonviolent way,” said first-year Megan Kile. “It was that kind of energy; the idea that we were going to be doing something amazing, maybe even world-changing.”

Even law enforcement, which many feared would be hostile to the protest and attempt to arrest protesters, seemed to be in high spirits. Brunner said, “They were smiling, they were laughing, they were sort of cheering along with the chant and slogans…No one was arrested at all.”

The Capitol Coal Plant protest was by many accounts a complete success; protesters were able to block the plant’s entrances for a large portion of the day, effectively closing down the plant. More important, however, was the visibility and message the protest sent. Brunner said, “It was high profile, gained thousands of media hits, [and] sent a very clear message throughout the world and to Congress that there are thousands of people who care very deeply about this issue.”

According to Wetherill, there had been some speculation that a resolution would soon go through Congress to switch the plant over from coal to natural gas, a change that Brunner said “has its own problems.” However, no formal action has been taken by Congress other than non-binding calls from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid for the plant to make the switch.

This, however, does not mean that this protest was not the first step, “one of many” according to Wetherill, towards raising awareness of coal with the eventual goal of a full moratorium, which the protesters feel will lead to a cleaner environment.

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