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April 19, 2013

Tribal Activist's Clean-Energy Quest

Vickie-SimmonsPhoto Courtesy of Chris Jordans-Bloch / Earthjustice.org

By Sarah Hodgdon, Sierra Club Conservation Director

Vickie Simmons of the Moapa Band of Paiutes in southern Nevada has known more than her fair share of loss. Her brother died, far too young, after working for years at the Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant, which sits immediately adjacent to the Moapa Paiute reservation. Several of her best friends on the reservation have also died too young, mostly from cancer or respiratory ailments, and many others, including her son, are sick.

And Vickie knows the cause—toxic pollution from the Reid Gardner plant, which she has been working for years to clean up or shut down. "I've seen so many people in my tribe suffer from debilitating respiratory ailments like asthma and sudden nose-bleeds from living and working near the plant," she says. "All of us have family members who've gotten sick or died. People's bodies aren't holding up. It feels like a ghost town sometimes."

Vickie serves on the Health and Environmental committees for the Moapa Band. Last year she and fellow tribal activists Calvin Myers and Vernon Lee worked with the Sierra Club to organize a three-day, 50-mile Cultural Healing Walk from the reservation to the federal building in Las Vegas, culminating in an Earth Day rally.

The purpose of the healing walk, which attracted participants from tribal nations and other supporters throughout the Southwest, was to draw attention to the devastating health effects of coal pollution on the Moapa Paiute community and call for Reid Gardner's retirement. It was also, Vickie says, "a memorial walk for all our friends and family members who have died."

Vickie's efforts were rewarded earlier this month when NV Energy announced that it would shut down three of Reid Gardner's four units next year, and the fourth will be taken offline by 2017

The tribe has organized a 16-mile Coal to Clean Energy Walk on Saturday, April 20, from the Reid Gardner plant to the site of a large-scale solar project planned to be built on Moapa Paiute lands. Construction is expected to begin this year on what will be the largest solar project on tribal lands in the nation. The city of Los Angeles announced last month that it will purchase energy from the Moapa solar project as part of L.A.'s commitment to get off coal by 2025.

"We've been working for this for so long, and for years nobody would help us," Vickie says. "We wrote letters, held meetings, spoke at hearings, asked NV Energy to do something about the problem, but nothing changed and people kept getting sick. We were naive enough to think that if our tribal council brought the problem to the attention of the public and NV Energy, something would happen. But it didn't. NV Energy would send people to our meetings, but no action was ever taken. No one was watching out for us."

Then about three years ago NV Energy announced plans to expand Reid Gardner. "That's when the Sierra Club joined into an alliance with us," Vickie says. "It was the first time anyone else had offered to help. Now we're close allies, and we've achieved this success by working together."

Vickie's contributions to the campaign, too many to list here, include speaking at EPA hearings on Reid Gardner and encouraging other tribal members to do so; testifying at a Nevada Public Utilities Commission hearing where Moapa Paiutes spoke about the impact of Reid Gardner; and organizing buses of tribal members to come to Las Vegas for the Clean Energy Summit last August, where Senator Reid made a statement in support of the tribe.

"Ever since I started working with the Moapa Paiutes, Vickie has been my go-to person," says Sierra Club organizer Elspeth Cordua. "She was crucial in organizing last year's Earth Day walk, and she's the main organizer of this Saturday's Coal to Clean Energy rally. I can't say enough about how integral Vickie has been to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in southern Nevada."

In typically modest fashion, Vickie says many others, including Calvin Myers (now hospitalized) and Vernon Lee, have worked just as hard. "There's a whole crew and I'm just one," she says. "If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be able to do this. And we'll keep working with the Sierra Club. They're helping us, and we'll keep helping them fight for clean energy."

The Coal to Clean Energy event will feature a drum circle, speakers (including William Anderson, chairman of the Moapa Paiute Tribal Council, and Allison Chin, president of the Sierra Club), and a Native-American round dance at the conclusion of the rally.

Grassroots supporters will meet at 1:00 p.m. this Saturday at the Moapa Paiute Travel Plaza, located at the Valley of Fire exit #75 off Interstate 15, about 40 miles northeast of Las Vegas. RSVP here to participate in the event. Carpools from Las Vegas will meet at noon at the Sierra Club's office at 708 S. 6th St. Questions can be directed to Elspeth Cordua at elspeth.cordua@sierraclub.org.

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