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Stories from the Frontlines
Stories from the Frontlines

Season 1, Episode 4 · 6 months ago

A Backhanded Compliment

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

This episode of Stories from the Frontlines features Susan Smoller from Breathe Clean North Shore. She and her neighbors are fighting a proposed gas power plant in Peabody, MA. Listen to Susan share why she first got involved, how lack of transparency has been a key challenge of the campaign, and why this plant makes no sense given our state’s environmental justice laws and our planet’s climate crisis.

You can support the campaign by checking out Breathe Clean North Shore’s website (www.breathecleannorthshore.org), and finding the group on Facebook (Breathe Clean North Shore) or Twitter (breathe_ns). You can sign the petition against the plant at bit.ly/BCNS-petition.

Learn more about Community Action Works on our website: https://communityactionworks.org/.

We’re also on Facebook (Community Action Works), Twitter (@ComActionWorks), and Instagram (@ComActionWorks).

Hello and welcome back to stories from the front lines brought to you by community action works. At Community Action Works, we believe that environmental threats are big, but the power of well organized community groups is bigger. That's why we work side by side with everyday people to confront those who are polluting and harming the health of our communities. I'm near right PA Johnny, the restern mass community organizer with Community Action Works, and I'm Shanny Caspar the Vermont and New Hampshire stay director for community action works. Each episode of this podcast will bring on a new community member activist to share their story of taking on environmental threats from the front lines. This season theme is stories on our energy system and our regional grid operator in the northeast. Before we jump into this week story, we have a really exciting update about a story that we shared with you a few weeks ago. If you remember, Ian McDonald's from killingly, Connecticut talked about his group fighting a proposed power plant in his area. We just heard last night, Thursday, November fourth, that I aso filed some paperwork with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission saying that essentially, the the developers for the power planning killingly have taken so long to get their facility on the market that they are considering that the developers are no longer going to meet their obligation and terms of providing capacity to the market. So the developers haven't pulled out of this proposal yet, but it's taking a huge amount of the wind out of their sales and it's going to make it a lot harder financially for them to justify building this new power plant. There is a big deal for communities across the northeast fighting dirty energy and new power plant proposals. It really shows the power that delaying and pushing back any and every deadline can mean for forgetting these power plants off them off the market. So now in today's story we have Susan smaller with us from breathe clean North Shore, a community group fighting a proposed peeking power plant in peabody, Massachusetts. More a literations this week. Welcome Suiti thank you. Hi. So let to have you with us. Can you introduce yourself and brief clean north shore of it? I'd love to. I've lived in peabody for thirty six years, raised my kids here, they went to school here and I have been a former middle school library and here in the city and also a former journalists prow weekly newspaper. So I've been fairly active till I retired and somehow get roped into this speaker thing.

So that is how brief clean north shore came about. Breath clean is a group of PBD citizens who are concerned about the level of air pollution in the community and aims to increase community engagement to transition away from fossil fuels, tackle the urgency of climate change and champion sustainability. Amazing that those are all such important things that we need to be working on. And you mentioned the Peeker. Briefly, tell us what what is a peaker plant and why is it a bad idea for pabody? Well, peaker plant is a bad idea for pebody because we already have two of them. So you know everything I talked about. This is adding a third. But a peaker plant produces a lot of pollution when it is turned on by our ISSO network when some community that's related through a company needs peak needs energy at peak times, times of in depth cold and times of high heat, and it only provides electricity then, or capacity then. But just the IT's not meant to go on and off like that and the fact that it's a fit proposed fifty five megawatt plant does not take into account really that we already have a hundred and twenty five megawatts there of peaker plants there now that what comes with that is transmission lines and a gas pipeline and storage tanks and just a lot of stuff in an area that is already had superbon sites close down be because it is an industrial area that's been active since the middle of the nineteen century. So we have a cumulative environmental history and when I tried I had no idea of any of what I just told you, even the fact that we have to fifty year old peaker plants on the Lasky Street. But as I learned more, it was only because my interest and curiosity got peeked by an email that we got from the Sierra club and email alert, and it talked about this speak or plant. In my husband and I were like now they must be talking about the new solar array that they're planning for this series. But no, the more we looked into it we really did see that it was a third peak or plant and then it was a goose chase to try to find information about this project because because unless you knew the key words special project two thousand and fifteen,...

...could not find information on this. There were no minutes posted to PVD municipalite plant. Their agendas were but we never got to see the minutes. As far as I knew, and I think I'm I'm fairly active newsreader and community person, there was no meetings that were advertised about this. So that made me angry enough to seek out others who were angry in the community and I met Murray at Community Action Works, I met Logan Malik at Mask Climate Action Network and they really helped galvanize the interest that we had. And that's your answer to a peaker plant. I'm sure I gave you more than you were looking for. And, as you mentioned Cud, these plants are actually more polluted than the average power plant per energy, per unit of energy produced, because they have to ramp up and ramp down every time they're going to be used. But you also briefly talked about the history of pbd as an overburdened community. Can you talk a little bit more about that? I know you've learned a lot about environmental justice communities in the last few months and what that means in the context of PBD. Can Tell us more about that? Yes, I know a lot about the history of that area because I used to write a lot of articles on local history and it's always been an industrial hub since the seventh early seventeen hundreds and a lot of leather waste and that type of stuff there. But the community also is now been shifted by the state with all the new left legislation. In six years ago, when this plant was proposed, it was near what the state calls three environmental justice areas, but since the two thousand and twenty census and the new mapping, we know that the plant itself is now within a minority environmental justice area and surrounded by seven others, and it also is adjacent to environmental justice aies and Danvers and very near to those in Salem. So that issue really has only all of this has been new to me, but that, I think, is relatively new information to a lot of people, and certainly people in peebody when I went out petitioning and canvassing had no idea what I was talking about when I said Environmental Justice Aries, so and I stead of opening in these areas that you were talking to in these series. In fact, that's a lot of them signed the petition when they realize I was pointing to like that smoke...

...step over there that you pass every day, that's where we're talking about this happening. So this whole environmental justice area, the one issue that I have the current legislation is that it's not strong enough about the cumulative role of pollution and a community. It just seems odd that if you have a lot of environmental problems, Super Fun sites and gas leaks and gas lines and all this other stuff, that that should count towards something in defining it as an environmental justice area. And I guess when you really delve into the background behind it, and I've just been reading some interesting stuff, by categorizing it with the three factors that they have, it really does show where all the historic pollution has been. So it achieves the gold even though it seems to go through the back door a little bit. The community's closest to the waters river, the communities were talking about. It comprises about four or five census tracks and large portion of them speak Portuguese or large portion and complete comparison to the rest of the city. They have a Portuguese speaking population and that is different from the Spanish speaking population. Is something I learned. I knew we had some Portuguese residents, but I never knew how many until I started looking into the environmental justice areas and the plant proximity. Yeah, so before going more into the state campaign, how have you built the group and how have you been getting people engaged and involved in this campaign? We'll just about every way we can, with a lot of help from these other organizations, but we meet weekly and we've accomplished a lot in a very short amount of time, because we were not even a group until March of this year and and it's has seen since then. We are constantly reacting to something that we have to react to and we really haven't had a great deal of time to plan as an organization, but we meet weekly. We have certain areas that seem to interest us, like the need for a comprehensive health assessment that needs to be done in these overburdened areas before we burn them again and again, and we have people looking to work with other boards of health in the state to reissue the letter that they send a two years ago to the governor saying we want you to conduct these health assessments before you will have new gas infrastructure to be built.

In that our board of Health we motivated them to reissue the letter and send it again that with this year. The other thing that we have been doing is petitioning, or several things. We petitioned first directly to Mwick, the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company. Mouthful. They're the ones who are working to build this plant. Yes, and they're located in Ludlow. So we collected more than a thousand petitions, signatures on petitions and delivered them to Ludlow and then had a press conference virtually to explain anything. We also quickly organized to testify to the DPU when they were having their first hearing and after that, and sorry, city just going to jump in, that's the Department of Public Utilities and they were the ones who were ruling on whether to grant financing, essentially for Mwork to build this plants. And it was an eye opener for us because there was a long list of experts and people who were speaking against this plant and as a result of that hearing, or whatever. All the public pressure, am wick issued a pause in the plan and then they issued another thirty gay pause. So they pause for six sixty days and said they wanted to collect more information. That you know they would, and we convinced them to at least meet with us in pebody and have a public meeting, and we asked them to have public meetings in each of the communities that are investing in this plant, as well as to make contact with Danvers, which is not in em wick but is affected, as is pebody, with all of the risk and all of the environmental concerns. So we petition them and within that sixty days we've got a lot of movement. First thing they did is get rid of the need for a two hundred thousand gallon oil tape, and then they decided, well, you know, we won't use ammonia, will use your rea instead. And then lastly, almost the last minute, they said and we'll close down one of the other plants. Wow, better be on Pulaski Street, which stones wonderful, except they haven't done a thing. They haven't put any paperwork in, too close anything. They can't tell us which one it will be. Will certainly be one of the old ones, not the new one, if it gets built. But I really want to say right here to your listeners this plant has not been built yet. This plant has not been built. It's been planned, it's been talked about, they've spent money on it, but there's been no shovels in the ground, and that's got to mean something when, at the same time we're...

...saying that we want to get rid of fossil fuels and follow the climate legislation and yet we're building new, brand new fossil fuel infrastructure, and the absurdity of this whole thing in light of newer legislation and guidelines that we have to meet. That, yeah, I just think the listeners need to know that this is like we could do something theoretically and maybe practically, I don't know, do something to avoid having this be eighty five million dollar investment for thirteen communities for thirty years. I'm probably looking at stranded resources, definitely, and I think just to add on to the add a layer of absurdity to this, and I think this is what ties into you were saying city about the group needing to be really reactive over the last six months is in large part because this project has been in the works for six years but nobody knew about it until March April of this year. Can you talk a little bit more about that lack of transparency, lack of communication with the community and how that has had that played out in the last six years and then in the last six months since pbd residents have been paid, you know, been able to be part of the process a little bit more. Well, it was a long, hard research road to find out about this plant, but once you knew that Magic Code, you could get the Department of Environmental Protection Report, although DEEPA did not conduct a complete DEPA statement or investigation. They only yeah, the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act Office are the ones who review every all the filings for new projects in the state and they when the when Mwick submitted an environmental notification form, they very cleverly crafted this project to fall just under the threshold to require a full environmental impact study. So no full study has been done in these six years. Right city? Yes, that's what we're learning in these last few months. Right but we also there's an element of anger and element of why didn't? Why wasn't I able to watch the pbd municipal light plant, the local light or have discussions about this project on TV, like Wakefield, like other places did. I went to the website. I couldn't even find the minutes. All I could find is that it was an a item on the agenda. That's six years of that and they called it different names. So we generate or three and then it was project two thousand...

...and fifteen, and you know, it is really difficult. And to add to that, even though we have a fantastic cable television community service, they don't cover the pbity municipal life plank. Course I can't cover everybody and they do cover a large number of them. But talking about things that we did is we reached out to them and said we want to be on the agenda before they went off on summer break and we went with our signs and we went and we asked the questions that we had and we got the cable TV to cover just like when m with decided to have their community meeting here, their one and only other than meeting with Denver's officials after our meeting, we got that covered, even though they did also broadcasted on their website, but we got the local television station to do that. They are now running psays on the cable station for our upcoming events. So we have had support, but we also have had to fight every nook of the way to get it, and that's not the way it should be. As a former journalist and as a citizen, is somebody who elected officials have a respond disability here totally, and so does the press. Yeah, can you just share a little bit more about what that meeting looked like? The paint a picture of that meeting and pebody know about three hundred people there. Why? Any of them dressed in blue? They were from all over the state. Really the majority was local folks, of course, and the MWICK board and the PMLP board and all of the suits were there on the stage and they took up the first two and a half hours explaining their powerful presentation. And the crown was very play, I thought. And by the time they started, it's now like nine o'clock thirty before anyone who has had a chance to say anything. And people were not happy. And people get up for lots of different reasons, for the health reasons in particular me, because peabody takes all the risk and gets all the bad stuff and what are we getting out of it? That's what we can't find figure out from the city. Do we really meet this passage years later, in this new world that we're in with other alternatives that were never concerned, I mean considered early on? Does the city have to let this happen? Can Somebody just come in a company and say we're going to put this polluting plant right here in your community and there's nothing you can say about and that's the way people feel. That might not be there may be people I don't know about, who talked about this and certain rooms or fields, but that's the perception will have. So it's just been a...

...very tiresome thing to have to learn all this but then to also have to try to get people to engage with their community, and that's what it's about. That they're not doing that the local commissioner. So one helpful, hopeful thing is one of our group members who was with us at that virtual meeting has since been very active and decided to run for one of the two seats on the pebody municipalite plant board that is up. was up in a primary election like last week, and she got one of the two seats and she will now go on, Tracy Valetti to the November election and she's a true climate candidate. She ran on she doesn't want the Paker. So we're quite helpful hopeful about that. We also have been busy getting freedom of Information Act requests pursued around what I started talking about about what is pebody getting out of this? I mean it's going on peebody land next to a peabody plank that's going to provide through a conversation, they had support technical and maintenance of port for this plant. But it's questionable who owns the land. Is the city of PBODY? Can they then say we don't want that use there anymore, even though it is there for the existing two plants? So there are things along those lines that were questioning that. We have a very active member who's been writing to letters of to the editor and also been pursuing the freedom of Information Act Information. So and then our good friends the community action works and then can helped us in the day of action, virtual day of Action and the Virtual Colin Day. That's all new us. Yeah, sounds like you all have been doing a lot of different pieces. That's so exciting to hear about all those all those avenues that you're pursuing and amazing to hear about Tracy, you know, being pushed further to to take action and run for office and wishing her the best of luck in the November election to hopefully get a climate candidate on the lightboard. As you mentioned duty and you've also touched a few times on and can the Massachusetts Climate Action Network, and we were just talking about these different avenues through which the campaign has been waged. Can you talk a bit about the kind of parallel tracks of a statewide campaign? You talked about the thirteen other being a palities who've signed on to this project and the local stuff in pebody and how those two pieces have fed off of each other and supported each other, as the you know, as the campaign has...

...evolved. Well, I think the the key is understanding that it's not just pebody that's affected by the plan. It's the surrounding areas, but it's also the other communities that are members of emwick, who are investing in this plant and who are going to pay for this plant for the next thirty years, and some of the communities that some of the members I met up with outside of the MWICK headquarters in Ludlow from Shrewsbury, and their concern is, yeah, we're getting a good, you know, deal for our buck here in terms of the amount of money we have to pay for this, but we've been want somebody else just eating our pollution, and that's two very different perspectives of people who could get involved here. I'm involved because this is my community. These are people in who attended the school where I taught, who lived there or who go to school there. We have fourteen daycare centers and schools within two miles of blasty street. So it's an issue for everybody and I think that M can helps us to realize that because they let us know what's going on in hall below or in another community around the effort and that we have support, which is huge. Because who are we in just this little group of mostly also these citizens? I did to say not all, but you know, who are we when? But when we meet other people who feel the same about this injustice, then it's motivating to us. So so as this campaign's been going on for the past, you know, six months or so, I'm sure there's been these influnction point for a momentum has swung more in your favor or more against you as can you talk about one of those moments and the emotional reactions that went along with that? Well, it was pretty good. There was couple when they gave us the pause. Of course they it's always a bad candid compliment. By that I mean we had been asking them and asking them to meet with us in love low when we delivered the petitions, but all we could get was when you can leave them with the security guard, the petitions with the security part, which is is what we did. But the night before they knew we were coming, is when they decided to announce that they would host his public meeting and PVD, and so we were reacting again. The next day we're already delivering petitions to them that they knew we were coming, and now we're having to react to their announcement, and we immediately responded in the press that you know, it was only two weeks away. We did still have not had any official communication with this group, and that we would like to know. What are the...

COVID precautions? Are there going to be translators? Is it going to be broadcast? Is it going to virtual? And those questions were put out in the press and then we started to get some answers to how the PBODY meeting will we have, and that was a plus. The PBODY meeting was a plus two. I felt very good after that meeting, as well as after when we held our very, very first virtual meeting. We had fifty people showed up just from our little group, saying we're concerned and we want to give you an opportunity to learn more and m cannon and community action. We're helping US then too. But it was very successful and I felt very hopeful after that. I did not feel hopeful when I got the phone call that the GPU had granted the funding and that now it was a little bit closer to being reality and that I wasn't quite sure what else we can do. So that's sort of where we're at, but we're not giving up. We think that someday soon, hopefully, somebody else see how absurdvice is to be building this thing to grand and and pay have to pay for it and pollute and heard our own people, the same people, over and over. It's just not right. Study I know you. You've mentioned the press a few times and media attention throughout this campaign has been a big way that the group has been able to build power and gain leverage and push em wick to respond to some things. And you've also talked about your own background as a community journalist and and the lack of transparency in this can you get, can you share a little bit with us how your background as a journalist factored into your reactions to the lack of information around this project? It was the people I asked about that motivated me. I asked people, did you hear about this? People who should know, people that I know no would know. If and elected officials along those lines, and their response was just so astounding that no, they hadn't that I knew somebody wasn't doing their job. Ultimately, the people who are trying to build the plant don't doing new job. They're elected officials are not looking into things once they've brought forward. But the press had not brought enough. As far as I know, there had been not one coverage of for P MLP meeting, other than if it was a good time pr opportunity. Fact became really apparent that we didn't have all the facts. So I'm hoping and I think we've been successful as compared to twenty odd...

...years ago when I was a journalist, is social media and the democratization that brings to ideas and beliefs and things we ought to be doing and when something doesn't feel right, to say it's just not right, you know. So I think that that has allowed us to reach some divides well a lot of groups that we've been talking to for the these I have mentioned a trump card of sort that's been used to justify these fossil fuel projects are great. Operator Isso New England. Can you tell us about what that looks like on this project? I'm not a real someone who's done a lot of research on it, but from that public meeting and the questions that were asked, it came down to m wick in the PMLP saying, well, we have to do that because Isso says we have to do that, and people in the audience said, well, then we have to change Isso. Can't take it all in. This too much. It's too much and you know, people should know that. We want you to be involved, but you have to know what your limits are and just say I can do this, but I can't do that, so that you can be part of it and yeah, and you shouldn't have to be an energy expert to participate in these processes, and that's a big part of the problem too, is that people you know the way things are currently set up, you have to do a ton of research and understanding these documents to be able to weigh in on how our energy system works. And so I know you've been at this for about six months now. Looking back at March April, when you first started getting involved, what would you tell yourself now? What would you tell yourself six months ago, when you were getting this started, with the knowledge that you have now? I'm going to say a part of my decision making process was the pandemic, that I had been recently retired and then the pandemic happened and I thought, well, why not? If not now, when you know I'm something that's really needed and I have the time? Looking back now, I would say you forgot what it was like to watch all those positions, when you sat at meetings, and you forgot how crafty the whole thing can be. You know, and parts of understanding what's really going on and who's really talking to whom, and I don't like to do that. I used to like to go to a meeting and just say I'm telling you what I saw happen and I didn't participate in meeting. Now all of a sudden I'm on the reverse side. It's like I'm participating and pushing the agenda and it's not really comfortable to me and I forgot that, that it's different and that it was going...

...to bring a different kind of you know, I know there's going to be some attention and that's some of my posts would get turned down or whatever, but just to have to call on a new and different sense of yourself to do something and still be respectful, which is hard sometimes, and given that some of this is outside of here, comfort sound and has been a challenge for you to learn and take on. What keeps you going? What makes you want to keep up the fight week after week? Well, it's the people that you meet who are committed. You know that. I wouldn't want to let them down. I wouldn't want to let you all now, but the members have been coming every week who have willingly handed out brochures in front of supermarkets and stood out side of events, and that's the other thing we did. We weep to the standout when Governor Baker came to support a local candidate at a restaurant downtown and we got a picture of him going by, reading our bow sure as he walked in. So that was kind of one of those high points in the scheme of things. But I keep doing it now because I still have hope that we can do either stall or stop this plant, or stall it long enough that people will come to their senses and recognize it for what it is. So as long as I guess I feel that way and as long as I have the incredible support of my husband, and it's whose one hundred percent a member of the siens. He does the website, I do the facebook page and the twitter page. So he is very much a part of this whole process and he contributes a lot. So that's why I do it. And it gives us, I mean tifully gives us something to do sometimes when it's just like I want to be useful and I don't want to clean the house, kind of when organizing your family affair, no one needs to clean the half. There you go. Thank you so much to Suiti for coming on and sharing her story with us to support breathe clean north shore. Check out the links in the show notes. Thank you all for tuning in today and join US next time. As we talked about another peeking power plant, but this time one that burns cold and it's in both New Hampshire, will have community leader Mary fight with us to tell us more about that. And if you have it yet, be sure to subscribe to this podcast on whichever podcast platform you use so that you won't miss new episodes as they get posted. Share this episode and write us a review...

...to help others find us too. To learn more about community action works, check out our website and social media, and again, all of these links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening and talk with you next week. Stories from the front lines is brought to you by community action works. It is recorded by me Arra but Johnny, with support from Shana Casper, edited and produced by Lilly mclachlin. Special thanks to Theo Rosen for research and development, to Gage Calhoun for supporting this project through her fundraising work and to Aaron Matthew for composing and recording the original music. We wouldn't be able to make this happen without the incredible work of the movement and the support of the community action work scheme, especially Ruthy rickenbacker. Our campaigns are made possible through our does, paying members, donors and funders, but really through the hard and tireless work of our community leaders who've been fighting pollution and seating solutions across the region since seven thank you.

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