Larry Beahan: Help free neighbors from fossil-fuel trap - The Buffalo News
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Larry Beahan: Help free neighbors from fossil-fuel trap

Barcelona is a friendly little summer colony on the Lake Erie shore 20 miles upwind from Dunkirk’s polluting, coal-burning power plant. Barcelona has sunsets, a light house, sailboats, a smoked-fish store and joints where you’d expect to meet Popeye. We have a summer place nearby. Talk around town has been excited about the Dunkirk economy being rescued by the power plant switching to gas.

To avoid offense, I kept quiet, though I know gas is worse than coal for global warming. On a sweltering evening in July, I joined 2,000 Chautauquans at the Public Service hearing on the Dunkirk plant and I spoke.

There were two options. NRG proposed to spend $506 million of rate-payers’ money to convert the plant to burn natural gas. National Grid proposed a much-less expensive plan to close the plant and modify its grid to import electricity.

I wanted to yell, “Don’t waste our money on gas. Gas does more global warming than coal, and you’ll have to frack Chautauqua County to get it.”

At 6:30 p.m. when I arrived at the Fredonia State campus, virtually every parking lot was filled with cars and buses. The Williams Center rotunda was jammed with old folks pushing walkers, teenagers lounging, children chasing each other and adults applauding, booing and holding signs saying: “Repower Dunkirk.” It seemed all of them were on the other side of the argument.

They demanded that the polluting power plant that had employed them and paid for the education of their children continue as the economic engine of the City of Dunkirk despite fracking, global warming and air and water pollution. These summer friends, neighbors and fellow citizens were caught in a hideous fossil-fuel trap.

They had swallowed the half-truth that NRG had sold them – that burning gas at the Dunkirk plant would be good for the planet as well as preserve their livelihood. Standing in that tsunami of sweating, yelling people, I knew my opinion was about to be swept away. I elbowed my way to the sign-in desk and told a red-faced staffer, “I’d like to speak.” He shoved an application at me, warning, “You’ll be 85th. That’ll be about 3 a.m.”

The NRG and National Grid “dog and pony shows” droned to a finish. The administrative judge in charge announced an unexpected question period, so I stepped to the microphone. “Have you considered taking that $506 million and buying 120 $3.5 million wind turbines? That would give us 240 megawatts of free energy without any need to buy coal or gas.”

They ducked my question. Then speaker after speaker demanded, “Repower Dunkirk.” They drowned out the few other cries for the environment.

This tsunami of desperate, trapped people left me brooding. Closing the Dunkirk plant means sacrificing their wages and their children’s education. It makes economic and environmental sense, but the people of Dunkirk should not bear this burden alone. New York State should offer a transition, subsidize the schools for a time and find a way to replace jobs. Let’s demand state intervention to rescue our fellow citizens in Dunkirk from this no-win fossil-fuel trap.

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