Day 1 with the Western NC Alliance

Today we learned specifically about the coal ash problem and several methods for engaging the public, such as canvassing. In the morning, Rachel told us about the history of the Western North Carolina Alliance (WNCA), which was founded 30 years ago. Next, we were given information about how coal ash affects the environment and human health, and we went through a workshop on how to make our voices hear, specifically by writing letters to the editor and to our local PA representative, Rep. Cartwright. Pennsylvania is actually one of the largest coal ash producers, and there are 3 coal ash ponds in Norhampton County (where Lafayette College is located). Hopefully we’ll actually mail these letters once we’re back on campus since 10 concerned constituents would make a statement to Rep Cartwright.

After a quick lunch, we started canvassing. We drove and walked around Arden Community (where the Ashville Power Station is located) to educate affected citizens about the potential harm and what can be done to solve it. Specifically, WNCA is working to make sure the EPA requires coal ash ponds like the one in Ashville to be dried, capped, and lined so that toxic pollutants would not percolate through groundwater or be spread by wind. Secondly, we were working to get the EPA to more strictly regulate treated coal ash slurry that is discharged to the French Broad River. Though the discharged water is permitted by the EPA, there aren’t actually and limits on the concentrations of those toxic pollutants in the discharged water. Many people mistakenly interpreted our mission as trying to shut down the coal plant and/or all coal plants, and they were frustrated about where energy would come from if not from coal. In reality, our goal was to make the plant more responsible for their impacts on the environment, just as any other industry (landfills, wastewater treatment, etc.) does.

After spreading literature, we took a quick break and returned to the WNCA to start phone banking. We would be calling up the Arden Community members who received flyers to make a more personal connection because studies show that making a these connections leads to better community involvement. Most of the group was nervous about calling up strangers about an issue we were still learning about, but as Sandra Diaz (one of the WNCA coordinator) said, we were practically experts on the issue compared to the general public.

Most people did not pick up the phone, but there were a few outliers. I personally got both ends of the spectrum. After mentioning some facts about the toxic pollutants that could be contaminating the groundwater and surface water, one person said that he didn’t care what the power plant did so long as he still had power. Another person I contacted was on the other end of the spectrum; he thanked me for my efforts and encouraged me to continue, saying that he was confused as to why the industry had been regulated so little for so long a time period.

Compared to GO, WNCA took a more factual approach to gaining community involvement, which our ASB group responded to with a mixed approach. Some people thought that Dwayne, Marilyn, and Anthony’s deeply personal and emotional approach to activism was more effective, but through phone calls and literature drops, we also found that some people were more passionate about concrete facts. We decided that a mixed approach is ultimately the most effective route for reaching our goals and talked about how to have such an approach in our reorientation project.