As the sky grew light this morning out at the Cliffside power plant construction site in Rutherford County, half a dozen activists chained themselves to the heavy earth-moving equipment that was parked there. Among the 20 or so people who were initially gathered there were at least three Asheville residents, who had traveled out to Cliffside to join others from across the state in staging a protest against Duke Energy’s recently permitted, 800-megawatt coal-fired facility. The activists roped off the construction site with tape that read “global warming crime scene,” and held banners with the slogans, “social change, not climate change” and “coal fuels climate change.”
Within half an hour of their arrival, the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office responded, and eight people were arrested on charges of trespassing. Some faced additional charges of resisting arrest. Records showed that those arrested were David Elliston, Brittany Cusworth, and Clare Rappleyea of Asheville, and Matthew Wallace of Hot Springs. Also arrested were Christine Irvine, Attila Nemecz, Joseph Monteleone and Evan Webb.
“The new plant will increase greenhouse gas emissions substantially — which we can’t do,” said activist Liz Veazey, a native of Morganton, who spoke with Xpress outside the Rutherford County Jail. “We need to reduce our emissions 80 to 90 percent, James Hansen and other scientists are saying. So we’re here to say that we have to stop that and all fossil-fuel projects.”
Veazey described the scene that unfolded at the plant at daybreak: “People [were] locked down with lock boxes around some of the machinery,” she said. The activists had appointed a liaison to communicate with law inforcement, she says. “We had a police liaison, and people were standing along the side of the street with signs, and we were taking pictures. The police liaison got arrested really quickly. Then our photographer got arrested.” Veazey asserted that tazers were used during the arrests, and said she’d heard people screaming while they were locked down.
According to Rutherford County Sheriff Jack Conner, tazers were used as stun guns, but the nonlethal weapons were not used to deploy the full electric current. “It’s just like sticking it right up against them and stunning them, like a stun gun,” he explained. “The actual tazers were not used, just the stun position.”
One week ago, Duke Energy held a groundbreaking ceremony and tour at the construction site, which straddles the Rutherford and Cleveland county lines. The Division of Air Quality granted approval for the plant in January. Since then, legal appeals have been filed by grassroots environmental organizations from across the state.
The day after the arrests were made, Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition, issued a statement supporting the activists. “Eight courageous, young non-violent protesters were brutally arrested at the construction site of Duke Energy’s planned new Cliffside coal-burning power plant in Rutherford County yesterday,” he wrote. “Two of these people of conscience were tasered for no apparent reason by police. The police, whose salaries are paid for by taxpayers, not by Duke Energy, arrested the wrong people. The protesters chained themselve to bulldozers to prevent a crime.”
In a letter sent March 25, NASA climate expert James Hansen urged Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers to abandon the project. “It would be a tragic mistake for Duke to proceed with plans for new coal-fired power plants in Cliffside, North Carolina and Edwardsport, Indiana,” Hansen wrote. The new coal-fired generator would emit some 6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Marilyn Lineberger painted a much different picture of the controversial project. “The Cliffside permit is a legal permit, and the project is a good project for North Carolina and the environment as it continues forward,” she told Xpress. As to this morning’s protest, she noted, “Clearly, people were trespassing and causing some illegal activity on Duke property, so the local law enforcement was handling that, and we appreciate their support in that situation. At Duke Energy we have zero tolerance for illegal activities.”
“The activity this morning had no impact on construction or plant operations,” she added. Conner, the sheriff, echoed her statement, and said, “Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office will do whatever is necessary to protect that plant, along with the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office.”
Veazey, who was not arrested, said the protest was organized by Rising Tide, a network of grassroots organizations dedicated to “fighting the root causes of climate change.” According to a press release sent out shortly after the event, this was one of more than 100 protests worldwide that were planned for today, which Rising Tide has dubbed “Fossil Fools Day.”
When asked what the central message of the protest was, Veazey responded, “No more fossil fuels, and no more fossil fools – like Jim Rogers of Duke Energy, who likes to say good stuff like energy efficiency is good and we need a carbon tax. But he can’t really mean that if he’s going to build a coal plant at the same time.”
The message seemed to have gotten across to Sheriff Conner. When asked if he knew what the protestors’ objective was, he replied, “The only thing that we can determine is, their objective was ‘no coal.’ No coal, and ‘earth first.’ That’s basically what we noticed on some of the units that they were using to hold onto around the equipment. They said, ‘no coal’ and ‘earth first.’”
— Rebecca Bowe, contributing editor
In this video clip, handcuffed arrestees are led to the transport vehicle at Duke Energy’s construction site.