In late August, nine activists walked into the Merrimack Station in Bow, New Hampshire in the U.S. They didn’t seek approval or go through any security to enter the coal power plant. The group of activists, which included members of 350 New Hampshire Action, the Climate Disobedience Centre, and Nonviolent Citizen Action, had one goal: remove some coal.
Each wore a white disposable Tyvek suit as they entered the largest running coal plant in New England without a shut-down date, and they came ready with a shovel in one hand and bucket or two in the other. This was the first direct action for 27-year-old Emma Shapiro-Weiss had ever taken part in. For others, such as 56-year-old Barbara Peterson, it was only the latest. The action was a test run for an even larger direct action the group planned and attempted on Sunday.
But their attempt to access the coal plant didn’t go as smooth on Sunday. About 120 people arrived to the station with the intention of taking even more coal, but the Bow Police Department was waiting for them. The town’s police ended up arresting 67 people for criminal trespass.
“They were all there waiting for us all,” Rebecca Beaulieu, a climate organiser with 350 New Hampshire Action, told Gizmodo. “Large police presence and state troopers on the roads around the plant as well. The police who arrested those who went over the barricade into the coal plant appeared to be wearing riot gear.”
Sunday’s throw down in New Hampshire wrapped up a week of direct action across the U.S. protesting climate change and the fossil fuel industry — including an indigenous-led gathering in Minnesota to protest a tar sands pipeline, and a four-day walk by First Nations people in Seattle to raise the alarm on the troubles the Salish Sea faces, and an estimated 6.6 million climate strikers led by young adults. Taken together — and even the New Hampshire protest went awry — the events represent a new wave of climate activism globally and locally.
“While everyone showing up globally is really important, I think it’s even more important to take on local battles because we aren’t seeing the sweeping change in the United States for climate policy with the current administration at all, so doing things locally is really important because everybody has a stake in the future of the climate,” Beaulieu said. “Shutting down one coal plant might not seem like this huge, world-changing event, but it’s one more step in the right direction.”
The team prepared for the August protest carefully. After all, stealing coal is not exactly legal. First, they underwent a six-hour training the day before. This gave them the necessary background on the coal plant and nonviolent direct action. It also gave participants the space to build trust and get to know one another.
The day they actually snuck into the plant, participants had to sit down for two hours for a proper rundown on what they were about to do. That way, everyone knew their role and could execute their responsibilities. For Shapiro-Weiss, a fellow with 350 New Hampshire Action, preparing involved a lot of breathing. She was nervous and excited all at the same time having never done anything like this before.
Everyone’s job was simple: shovel some coal, put it into buckets, and prevent it from ever being burned. When they got there, participants didn’t run into any employees. They came in undetected and were in and out within an hour. Coal is heavy, though, so gathering it required some hard labour and sweat. In total, the group walked away with 15 buckets of the dirty substance, Emma Schoenberg, a core team member with the Climate Disobedience Centre who took part in the action, told Gizmodo. Some of this coal wound up on the steps of the New Hampshire Statehouse, per the Valley News.
“One thing we want to make a point of is just how brazen and audacious the destruction of our planet is, so we were also brazen, and we were also audacious, and we walked in and eventually made our way to the coal pile,” Schoenberg said. “We removed the coal. We did this bucket by bucket. It’s a very symbolic amount because this coal pile is massive ... but this symbolic amount was really important for us because that coal is never going to be burned. No matter what, that coal is never going to be burned.”
The climate crisis can feel pretty daunting. It’s happening on a global scale, so it’s easy for individuals to feel overwhelmed and paralysed. But local action matters, even when things don’t go as planned as they did on Saturday.
“There’s nothing you have to do to solve this by yourself,” Peterson, the founder of Nonviolent Citizen Action, told Gizmodo. “Just do what’s comfortable for you, and then when you feel that you can do more, do more. And if we all are just more mindful of doing what we can when we can, that that will develop into a forward momentum. And I’m hopeful that we can all work together to do what needs to be done to prevent the worst.”
For some people in New Hampshire — as well as Vermont residents whose state borders the plant’s — their comfort zones include stomping into a coal plant and taking some coal and in the case of Saturday, putting their bodies on the line and getting arrested. Ultimately, what these organisers want to see is the Merrimack Station closed for good. The plant doesn’t run much these days and is mostly a seasonal source of energy during hot summer months or cold winter months. While it wasn’t running during the August action or on Saturday, these individuals want to see the facility shut down for good.
The region has seen its air quality improve — due to technology updates at the Merrimack Station to reduce its sulphur dioxide emissions by 98 per cent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — yet advocates still worry about what the coal plant’s emissions could be doing to the nearby air and water.
The Sierra Club and Conservation Law Foundation are suing the plant’s owners, Granite Shore Power, over allegedly discharging heated water into the Merrimack River. And, of course, its carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to climate change.
This wave of direct action is only the beginning for what local advocates see as a new campaign against the coal facility. With the growing urgency around the climate crisis, they want to see our energy transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. Securing a shutdown date for this facility is a key first step. And they won’t stop breaking the law until it happens.
Gizmodo reached out to Granite Shore Power and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. We’ll update if we hear back.