North Carolina state Reps. Susan Fisher, Bruce Goforth and Sen. Martin Nesbitt formally received a thick stack of petitions signed in support of the North Carolina Energy Future Resolution at a Jan. 8 press event. Spearheaded by Sylva-based clean-air advocacy group The Canary Coalition and Asheville’s Nuclear Information and Resource Service, the proposed legislation would require the state to study the projected costs of new nuclear and coal-generating facilities before permitting any new ones — factoring in not just direct construction costs, but the financial impacts on public health and the environment as well. The resolution also calls for a restructuring of utility rates to reward energy conservation.
Utility companies generally characterize coal and nuclear energy as the cheapest sources of electricity, says Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition. But that only holds when analyzing the cost of construction alone, without looking at the economic effects of pollution or health-care expenses linked with degraded air quality, he says. “Those are usually referred to as external costs,” notes Friedman. “But they’re only external with respect to utility companies.
“The medical community is being overburdened by respiratory diseases, heart diseases and pulmonary diseases,” Friedman said on a separate occasion, while speaking about the resolution. “And that is directly linked to the burning of coal.”
Other items on the Canary Coalition’s legislative agenda include implementing a pollution fee against the purchase of nonefficient light bulbs, eliminating the legal obstacles to developing large-scale wind energy, and developing a comprehensive statewide public transportation system.
A total of 3,649 signatures were handed over to the three state legislators at the event, which was held at Quality Forward’s office in Asheville. And 2,812 of those signatures were obtained through the efforts of one individual: Ruth Clark, a resident of Brooks-Howell, a Methodist retirement home in Asheville. When she first set out to collect signatures for the resolution petition last April, Clark found it easy to get people to sign. “It went so well that I thought, ‘I wonder if I can get 50. I wonder if I can get 100,'” she says. “The goal just kept getting pushed up by the hundreds.” Going on foot or using the bus for transportation, she began circulating petitions in store parking lots, on the streets in downtown Asheville and even at a public hearing concerning a power-plant proposal.
Sporting buttons with the phrases “War is a Crime Against Humanity” and “Will Work for Peace,” Clark is no stranger to activist causes, and once collected more than 2,000 signatures to support a moratorium on the death penalty in North Carolina. She learned about the Energy Future Resolution from a presentation by Mary Olson, director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.
Olson is one of the organizers behind Energy at the Crossroads, a regional campaign tour launched last spring to spread public awareness about energy issues, and the driver behind the Energy Future Resolution proposal. “The reason we’re focusing on the entire region is because our region is where all the nuclear-power reactors and all the coal-plant proposals are,” says Olson. The resolution, which describes North Carolina as being at a “critical energy crossroads,” suggests that efficiency and conservation measures could reduce the need for new coal and nuclear plants.
Friedman and Olson said they felt the state legislators were committed to working with them to develop the proposed legislation. “Our legislators are essentially asking us to … educate all of them,” says Olson.
Rep. Fisher says she is “encouraged” by the public support for a new approach to the state’s energy policy. “There seems to be more and more public demand for less dependence on oil and fossil fuels,” says Fisher. “I think the mood is changing — people are becoming impatient and more concerned about the environment.”
The Energy at the Crossroads tour is gearing up to hit the road once again in coming months, this time heading for Georgia, Alabama, Virginia and Washington, D.C., where they’ll circulate similar petitions for energy resolutions. And Clark, who had to take a break from gathering signatures to recover from back surgery, is looking forward to returning to the streets to get more signers. “As soon as I’m able to navigate better, I’ll be back at it,” she says.