The Salem Coal Plant Trial

A little over 20 miles from Tufts University lies the city of Salem, where the presence of the Salem Harbor Coal Plant, one of the largest coal plants in the state of Massachusetts, is just another fact of life. So is the black powdery film that is reported to cover windows of houses and cars nearby. And so is the highest rate of cancer in the state.

Salem Harbor Coal Plant is one of Massachusetts’ ‘filthy five’ , that is, one of the five dirtiest coal plants in the state. Built in 1952, Salem Harbor is exempt from numerous environmental regulations required of more modern plants, as are the rest of the filthy five, all built before 1977.

The plant contains one 38-year-old oil burner and three coal burners, two of which are 47 years old, and the third of which has been in use for 54 years. According to preliminary data from the EPA, in 2010 the Salem Harbor plant emitted 5,6161.2 tons of sulfur dioxide, 1,421,294 tons of carbon dioxide, and 1,224.4 tons of nitrous oxides, released into the air breathed by over two million people within a 30-mile radius.

A Harvard University study concluded that pollutants emitted by Salem Harbor cause 30 premature deaths annually, and figures published by HealthLink, an environmental and public health nonprofit, total 2010 healthcare costs at approximately $150 million.

Here’s where Tufts enters the scene. Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF), a national environmental awareness organization with an active branch on campus, is dedicated to combating the lethal effects of toxic waste. In the Massachusetts chapter students aim to completely eliminate coal burning in the state, working through legislative and educational venues. In coordination with other SJSF Boston chapters and environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, Tufts SJSF have been busily advocating for a shutdown of this toxic plant.

In late 2010, student efforts were finally rewarded. Salem Harbor announced plans to close down the coal plant within five years, just days after a protest organized by SJSF in the local town. That day, over 50 SJSF members from Tufts and other Boston area schools rode bikes from Davis Square to protest the noxious consequences of the Salem plant, waving Quit Coal flags as residents of local towns cheered them on.

Unseen Consequences

Although epidemiologists have detected increased cancer rates, asthma, heart attacks, and other serious health consequences of  toxic waste, a large proportion of local residents remained skeptical of efforts to shut down the coal plants.

In an April 2010 Boston Globe article, Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll stated that much of Salem’s economy benefits from the coal plant, which employs 145 Salem residents and pays the city millions of dollars in property taxes.

As recently as 2008, the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA) cited Salem Harbor with 10 serious violations, all of which remained untouched. Unsafe work conditions spawned the deaths of three workers in a steam explosion in 2007.

But the repercussions of the dubious actions of Salem Harbor and numerous other coal plants in Eastern Massachusetts are not only felt locally.

Much of the coal burned by Salem Harbor, Mount Tom, and Brayton Point, the three largest coal plants in Massachusetts, is shipped overseas from mines in Colombia. Salem Harbor specifically obtains coal from El Cerrejon, the world’s largest open-pit mine, jointly owned by Anglo American, BHP Billiton, and Xstrata and located in rural, indigenous Colombia.

According to Aviva Chomsky, a professor of history and coordinator of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean studies at Salem State College, numerous criticisms surround the conduct of El Cerrejon mine. Local policies infringe on citizens rights, seen especially in the use of paramilitaries to terrorize residents. The mine’s expansionist agenda has also afflicted communities with extreme poverty. After being forced off their land for mine expansion purposes, residents of the resettled village of Tamaquito, have no access to electricity, running water, or educational resources. What used to be a productive society has become listless and isolated, surrounded by property bought by the owners of El Cerrejon, where residents are not allowed to plant crops or hunt.

Looking Ahead...

The closing of Salem Harbor would be a battle won for students of SJSF, still waging war against the coal plant and its lethal effects in the community. The group is attempting to close down all of the filthy five coal plants in Massachusetts—a lofty goal for a student organization—through Massachusetts state legislation. Arlen Weiner, the Campus coordinator for Tufts SJSF chapter, voiced her support for student efforts.

“A lot of people just don’t think it’s possible, and a lot of people in the [environmental] movement understand that. But we’re at least trying to get the conversation going, put the topic on the table, make people more aware,” Weiner said. “At least for me, I feel that wouldn’t necessarily feel like we failed if the bills don’t get passed as long as people are talking about [the issue].”

As the new legislative session begins, SJSF will be bringing its environmentalist agenda to the Massachusetts state assembly. A previous bill drafted by SJSF members, titled An Act to Create a Repower Massachusetts Emergency Task Force, died in committee. Now, however, SJSF has two more bills waiting to be voted on: An Act to Eliminate Coal Burning and Use by 2015, and another, essentially the same but with a 2020 deadline.

The SJSF campaign includes technically illegal sleep-outs in Boston Common, an attempt to raise awareness and protest in favor of environmental legislation. The Trinity Lutheran church around the corner from the State House, however, has opened its doors to SJSF students who would rather avoid citations from police officers.

“People who aren’t comfortable with sleeping outside because the police will come around and give citations, can sleep in the church,” Weiner explained. “I don’t think [our activism] scares people off.”

Four protests to raise awareness about the adverse effects of coal are set to take place this spring in Boston, in addition to one in Washington, DC. All of the protests are set to culminate on Earth Day. SJSF members will be afforded training for lobbying, climate science, and coordination of the march on coal. More collaboration with national environmental action groups is expected in the spring.

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