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May 31, 2012

A Big Week for Public Health, Grassroots Activism

SmokestacksThis has been a big week for clean air, public health, and grassroots activism that is moving America beyond coal.

First, we can breathe easier this week knowing that more aging, polluting coal plants are being retired as South Carolina Gas & Electric announced the retirement of six coal boilers.  As I've said with other coal plant retirements, now we must ensure that the transition from coal to clean energy happens in a way that protects workers and communities. We've seen it happen before – from the Pacific Northwest to the Tennessee Valley - and today we call on SCG&E to work with the employees at its affected plants.

Then yesterday we saw a victory against coal exports when the Seattle City Council voted "Unanimously (and Symbolically) Against Transport of Coal"- marking their disapproval of coal exports through their city and the region. We've seen amazing work by dedicated residents of the Pacific Northwest to get communities along the coal export rail lines to oppose or raise objections to new coal export facilities. With six new coal export terminals proposed that would ship 150 million tons of coal per year to Asia, these hard-working activists have been sounding the alarm all along the train routes - from points east, to Spokane, through the Columbia River Gorge; and from Portland, Oregon, to Bellingham, Washington.

This news came just as the Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its latest numbers, showing that coal generation was down to only 34% of US electricity in March - its lowest level since 1973, the first year the agency started keeping records. Meanwhile, wind increased by 28% from this time last year nationwide - Iowa is now getting 29% of its electricity from wind, and South Dakota hit 30%!

King Coal is struggling - they know Americans are fed up with their life-threatening pollution and their excessive lobbying for loopholes in our clean air and water laws. Americans wants clean energy. These winds of change are blowing not just on our coasts, but even in the heart of Appalachian coal country. Yesterday, the New York Times ran a major front page article that featured American Electric Power's massive 800MW Big Sandy coal plant as a symbol of both coal's decline, and the increasing pressure on ratepayers to prop up aging coal plants.

Later that same day, AEP announced it was withdrawing its plans to put a $1 billion scrubber on the Big Sandy coal plant, which would have caused local rate-payers' bills to skyrocket. It was a stunning reversal.

Until yesterday, American Electric Power was planning to sink over a billion dollars into new scrubbers on the plant. However, AEP faced strong criticism from the local community over a 30% increase in rates that would be required to finance the upgrades. This rate increase would have taken the average energy bill for a household from around $1,500 per year to over $2,000 a year.

"I went to the hearing and listened to AEP explain their plan," said Patty Wallace, an 82-year-old resident of Louisa, Kentucky and member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. "Their own presentation showed exactly why the proposal to invest more money in that old coal plant made no sense. On top of our existing bills, all of us would have to pay a billion dollars in surcharges. I said, 'We'd be fossil fools for sure to do that.' I'm glad to see that they are beginning to pay attention to what's going on in the world. It's time to invest in energy efficiency and clean energy."

Finally, there is a new voice in that fight for clean energy this week - in Indiana, the Sierra Club's new state Beyond Coal campaign representative, Dave Menzer, was the subject of a full-page profile in the Indianapolis Business Journal (article is behind a pay-wall). While the Journal said that coal interests in the state might see Dave as "the devil," his vision would seem pretty reasonable to most Hoosiers, and most Americans:

"It really makes sense to put that money into something cleaner, in our view, than into something past the point of its useful life," Menzer said.

Indeed.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign

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