Looking down that lonesome road

I feel sad about the dialogue that isn’t happening concerning choices that have lasting, detrimental effects on our children and the planet. Sad that environmentalists are seen as a threat. Sad that the environmental community remains stuck in its own groups and doesn’t pool resources, efforts, hearts and hands to create the future we want to see.

So earlier this year I made a personal decision to bear witness and call for a gathering at the site of the 800-megawatt, coal-fired Cliffside power plant Duke Power is constructing in Rutherford County.

In early March I started trying to find out the requirements for holding a gathering near the site. Planning to take my 6-year-old son with me, I wanted to know where I could legally go and if I needed a permit. This took three weeks.

The Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office said they don’t issue permits for public gatherings. I called elected officials, finally learning from Rep. Heath Shuler’s office that I should contact the DOT. They said they don’t require permits for public gatherings beside secondary highways. So I started putting up fliers around town.

On April Fools’ Day—aka Fossil Fools’ Day—a few folks nonviolently chained themselves to bulldozers at Cliffside. Two of them were Tasered. Using their own bodies as shields to stop planetary destruction should give some hint of how violent they were. I don’t know how the police could feel threatened—I just hope we all learned something.

The civil disobedience knocked the wind out of my sails, so media outreach for my gathering was limited. I e-mailed the flier to environmental groups, linked it on the Internet, contacted some radio stations and posted more fliers downtown.

On Earth Day I headed to Cliffside with my son, who fell asleep after we got off the interstate. It was a beautiful spring day, and it was nice to slow down going through some small, rural towns.

I saw the first police officer in Henrietta, about 10 miles east of Cliffside, stopped by the side of the road. Then I noticed one coming from the direction I was headed. A mile or so on, I saw two on the left, talking car to car. Then one on the right, and a bit farther, two more; then three on the left, parked in a huddle.

“They must have spotted me,” I think. “I’d better watch my driving.” By this time, I have at least two cop cars behind me, and I’m feeling some anxiety—but my son is sleeping peacefully in back, and things seem OK.

I must be within five miles of the plant. There are cops on both sides of the road, lined up as if for a parade. “Just focus on finding it,” I think.

I pass Cliffside Fire Station, then I see the plant but not the turn. I ask a cop for directions.

Thinking back on that day, I feel bad about having caused law enforcement such anxiety—and taxpayers the expense of protecting the plant from the threat of a nonviolent gathering.

So what did happen on Earth Day 2008 at Cliffside? I turned around and drove up Duke Power Road. The land on the left turned from spring green to dirt where the huge, black-diesel-belching earthmovers were pushing the Earth around. On the right, spring green turned to gravel. I found a small space to pull over for a few pictures. Alex was still sleeping.

Soon an unmarked car drove up, and the man introduced himself as a Duke Power employee. We drove onto the gravel, and he and two police formed a semicircle around my door. We introduced ourselves and talked about safety, and then he led me to a spot he thought was appropriate for the gathering. Alex woke up and got his bearings.

I started unloading the car: blanket, folding chairs, cooler, mini solar panel, battery and inverter, boom box, signs. Alex went around picking up trash.

I was there about 20 minutes before 5; the gathering was to last from 5 to 8. Around 6 p.m., Mike and his wife, Maggie, joined us, and then came a reporter from The Daily Courier. Soon after, Joe showed up from Asheville.

At full strength, there were five environmentalists, one reporter and probably more than 50 police within a two-mile radius. I’d asked Duke Energy to have a spokesperson available to accept a symbolic offering, and I presented corporate-security staffer Theo Lane with a small basket filled with painted clothes-pegs.

We walked to the intersection holding signs. Alex built an EarthSaver 3000 out of the cooler, battery backpack, solar panel and my energy-education board. I painted some mountain scenes on clothespegs while the police and Duke stood at their vantage point with binoculars. Around 7 p.m., we started packing up.

Before heading back to the mountains, we drove by the plant to say goodbye and joke with the folks who’d been watching.

There were three state troopers behind us as we headed out of town. Hoping to shake them, I stopped at the fire station and the police continued past. A firefighter showed us the fire trucks and diesel storage for the backup generator. I would estimate their reserves at less than 75 gallons. I wonder about these remote firehouses’ ability to operate if fuel is unavailable or gets too expensive.

By building Cliffside, we’re not challenging ourselves to change. We continue using a nonrenewable fuel that pollutes air, water, animals (including us) and accelerates climate change. We gyp our kids out of an opportunity to learn new skills, and we keep ourselves from re-learning thrift. We consign ourselves to the status of lemmings, throwing ourselves off the cliff.

I hope more and more people are reading the warning signs, and that more folks are willing to talk to Duke about alternatives to Cliffside.

I really hope that Duke starts listening.

For more information, visit www.stopcliffside.org.

[Abby Gage is a mother, a farmer, an environmentalist and a Madison County resident.]

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