- by Jan Baty, Newark Residents Against the Power Plant
As I saw Alex Lotorto (campus and community organizer for Energy Justice Network) step out of his car, unloading materials for the meeting he was to lead at my house, I had a flash back to how I had discovered the Energy Justice Network. In Newark Delaware, residents had taken on the enormous task of stopping a project the University of Delaware was considering, a data center power plant, proposed by The Data Centers, LLC (TDC), to be built in the heart of this college town and the university, at a former Chrysler plant site. The plans for the power plant had now grown to 279 megawatts —at least two times larger than any other on-site power generation facility at data centers in the US.
News of this proposal had been kept tightly under wraps for over a year by City of Newark staff, TDC, the State of DE and the University of DE until June 2013, when the CEO of TDC approached the local Sierra Club chapter seeking an endorsement for this project as being “green.” The alarm was raised by the directors, Stephanie Herron and Amy Rowe.
An official resident’s group was formed, Newark Residents Against the Power Plant (NRAPP), which by now had hundreds of members and dozens of working groups and neighborhood groups across Newark. Much effort was going into persuading city council to withdraw their support of this proposal. City council meetings were filled with passionate statements by citizens, including revelations of results from FOIA requests, and uncovered information about TDC’s plans. There was a continuous stream of letters to the editor of the Wilmington News Journal. Knowing how long it often takes for governments to respond, some of us were eager to pour our energy into educating university faculty, and students about this —since most knew nothing about it! We realized that if given enough pressure the University could certainly stop this project.
We formed a group of residents, faculty, and students, which became a resource for motivating the university community. Faculty (mostly in environmental studies) began reaching out to colleagues—students were quick to connect with environmental and other student organizations.
I remembered an environmental lawyer I had met in Washington, DC. Perhaps he would know of a regional organization that could help us learn about how to make a difference on campus, that was also documenting evidence about the dangers of ‘natural’gas. We had a brief conversation. “Here’s Ralph Nader’s phone number. Call him.”I did. After leaving a message about our needs, I received a short message back. I could hear a humming sound of other people talking in the background, and a man’s voice in a hoarse whisper said “Energy justice.net …Mike Ewall”, and gave me his phone number. Feeling somewhat like a character in a detective novel, I phoned Mike. What a relief to connect with this organization and to find out what a resource they are. A later conversation with Alex revealed that he was traveling to DC and could stop on the way to give us a presentation. Support was showing up.
Alex is a person of considerable warmth, intelligence, humor, courage and dedication. I cannot imagine surviving with what he takes in stride day after day. His presentation was organized around how to take an increasing complexity of information and possibilities and organize that into a more usable context. One chart, “The Midwest Academy Strategy Chart”, had five headings: GOALS, RESOURCES, PEOPLE, TARGETS, and TACTICS.
As we organized our conversations around these, we began to realize how much we were already doing, and how to strengthen the contacts we were making. For all of us, this meeting gave us courage. There was a larger supportive world out there.
A series of actions and events evolved.
• We set up a Google group for sharing information, and a local Episcopal church offered us meeting space near campus for our increasing number of meetings with students.
• We started planning a Teach-In on campus for the spring semester, which would present spokespeople from the residents, the TDC, and environmental faculty from the university. This eventually happened and was a great success.
• A few people designed a White Board video presentation, (with hand drawings and a voice - over explaining the dangers of this project), that went viral.
• A number of concerned faculty wrote dynamic letters explaining their opposition to the project for the student newspaper.
• We were interested also in educating students to the Indigenous perspective. An opportunity opened up when a visiting outside environmental group traveling from campus to campus to raise level of awareness regarding environmental concerns, gave us space for a presentation at a free student dinner. We were able to invite two presenters, Dennis Coker, the Lenape Indian Chief and Amy Rowe, one of the founding members of NRAPP. Amy’s message was about the excitement of becoming an activist with heart. Dennis spoke of the importance in native tradition, of “Everything done for the community…A simple life…respect for self extending to respect for others and the planet.”
• Out of that gathering came students’suggestion to have a rally on the main campus green (this was the first time since the 80’s when something like this had been done) where they cut out silvery grey strips of fabric donated to us —representing smoke—and waved them around as they danced in a circle, chanting enthusiastically. Even some professors chimed in.
As NRAPP began taking a more active role on campus in addition to all of their speaking out at city council meetings, continual FOIA requests, and pointing out inaccuracies in the TDC’s continually changing proposals, they organized letter writing to the board of trustees, and alumni. To create a strong presence at Decision Days on campus (when perspective students and parents would be visiting), the need for striking banners became clear. I went around to local hotels, asking for old sheets and then found people to make dramatic banners we could hold, one of them saying “Which Future Do We Deserve?”with smokestacks carefully painted on one side and flowers on the other.
And one more event that I found particularly moving—for the last board of trustees meeting before the summer break, students were asked to make and hold ‘Selfies’containing their picture, what they were studying and that they were in opposition to the power plant. What a feeling it was to come into the foyer from the parking garage to find a circle of young people standing quietly--their presence and statements saying it all. Certainly even a board of trustees would be moved by that!!
By May, as the momentum of concern within the town and the university continued to grow, the faculty senate voted 43-0 against the power plant, saying that the plant would be inconsistent with the university’s core values and signed commitments to environmental sustainability. Then from a July 11 News Journal article came the welcome announcement that the University of DE had terminated its lease with TDC after a year long debate over green energy and economic development in Delaware. “After more than a year fighting the project, opponents celebrated, gathering outside Old College Hall on Main St., hoisting signs thanking UD for its decision.” NRAPP co-founder Amy Rowe was quoted as saying “I think the University has learned that the University and the community are partners.”
Many yearn for community—people helping each other with shared concerns for the planet, which is our home. Sometimes this community emerges due to a shared threat, and then the ongoing challenge is to keep growing community to build the “art of the possible.” The acronym NRAAP has now changed to Newark Residents Alliance Project. The ‘immune system’ of the planet seems to be working. Organizations and resources such as The Energy Justice Network are at its core. Thank you for all you do.