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Quakers go on 60-mile pilgrimage from Portsmouth to Bow in protest of coal-fired plants

New Hampshire Sunday News

July 15. 2017 7:15PM
Quakers participating in a “climate pilgrimage” hang banners from scaffolding as part of their encampment ona railroad spur north of the Merrimack Station coal plant in Bow. The plant can be seen in the background. (Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News)

Peter Blood was thinking about his grandfather last week as he walked across the state as part of a "climate pilgrimage" organized by New England Quakers.

A Quaker from Amherst, Mass., Blood is the grandson of New Hampshire's 65th governor, Robert O. Blood.

"I think he would have been very sad about what's happening to the land," Blood said, after the group ended its 60-mile pilgrimage with an encampment near the Merrimack Station coal-fired plant in Bow Saturday. "I don't know if he would have approved of demonstrations."

But he believes his grandfather, a physician who grew up on a farm in Enfield and later had his own farm in East Concord, would have been proud of what he was doing. "I think he would have approved of trying to act for the Earth."

About 50 Quakers participated in some portion of the pilgrimage, which began last Sunday at the Schiller plant in Portsmouth, which burns both coal and biomass.

Churches hosted the group along the way, offering meals and shelter.

After staying overnight at the Hooksett Congregational Church Friday, the group walked the last few miles to Bow, arriving right on schedule for a 10 a.m. worship service near the plant's front gate, where they shared songs and prayers.

Then there was just a final mile to reach the railroad tracks where they plan to camp just north of the plant, blocking any coal deliveries that come by rail. The spur off the main line is used by coal cars to unload deliveries.

Rob Spencer, a physician and member of the Concord Friends Meeting, was part of a local group that welcomed the travelers Saturday with lunch and moral support. For him, the day was "about coming together in search of a better understanding of what we as humans can do to help the planet," he said.

"I hope we as a community find comfort in coming together, and discomfort in the recognition that we as a community need to do more."

Mark Barker of Boscawen, a retired systems analyst, was also there to welcome the group. A bad foot prevented him from walking, but he said, "I'm supporting those who are witnessing by doing an ancient act of pilgrimage."

He hopes the group's actions inspire others. "Really, my hope is that people will ask themselves the hard questions: What can I do to keep the Earth alive, and to help others?"

About 20 people are staying at the encampment. They knew they risked arrest, some said. But they all seemed cheerful as they erected scaffolding, banners and tents.

Shortly after 1 p.m., two employees from Eversource, which owns the plant, arrived. Marla Marcum of Arlington, Mass., the group's designated police liaison, talked with them while the rest continued setting up camp. "It's a dangerous situation," one of the men told her as they walked away.

Marcum reported back to the group. "They were concerned this is an unsafe place for us to be. They say a train could come at any time," she said.

The coal trains would be coming from the south, the men had confirmed. "But they said sometime engines come from the north to pick up empty cars," she said.

Martin Murray, spokesman for Eversource, said the company has no plans to ask police to arrest the protesters. "We're aware that they're there and we're monitoring it, but we just want them to be safe and they appear to be safe."

The plant isn't operating currently and there's plenty of coal inventory on site, he said. "I'm not aware of any scheduled deliveries via rail at this time," he said.

Among those staying at the site is Nelia Sargent of Claremont. Visually impaired, she used a cane to confidently maneuver over and around the railroad tracks as she carried pieces of scaffolding to the camp.

"I'm here because of a deep concern for climate justice," she said. "I don't know what the answers are but I know we must make radical changes in our daily lives."

Sargent was once the nonviolent training coordinator for the Clamshell Alliance, which held demonstrations against the Seabrook nuclear power plant then under construction. Decades later, she again feels compelled to act.

"I'm here to try to wake up both myself, and anyone who cares to listen, to the choices we have," she said.

John Humphries of Hartford, Conn., one of the organizers of the pilgrimage, said the Bow plant is the last coal-fired plant in New England without a definite shut-down date. That's why the group chose it for its civil disobedience action.

"We know that in order to avoid the climate cataclysm that is coming, we have to rapidly move away from all fossil fuel use," he said. "And so it's not just these plants, but all of us have to move away from fossil fuels."

But Murray said the group is "looking in the wrong direction" when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. The Schiller and Merrimack plants are the last two plants in New England that burn coal, he said, after the shutdown of the Brayton Point plant in Massachusetts in late May.

Coal produced just two percent of the region's energy last year, Murray said. "Emissions from natural gas plants are 10 to 15 times larger than emissions of carbon from coal plants."

Eversource is in the process of divesting itself of a dozen power plants, including both coal-fired plants. Murray said a comprehensive settlement among Eversource, the state and other parties requires the new owners to continue operations for at least 18 months.

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