Coal in the air

Jin Ai Yap YH Staff

The red-and-white striped tower of the Harbor Station power plant scars the skyline of Bridgeport, Conn. In the hot summer months, the tower belches out smoke: thick clouds of coal soot drift down to the street, settling on windows, cars, and lawns. But now, in early December, the smokestack lies dormant. Harbor Station rises cliff-like over Bridgeport’s South End neighborhood, looming over the houses, churches, and schools nestled below it. To Onté Johnson, Bridgeport native and community organizer, that’s a problem. Johnson wants to replace Bridgeport Coal with a healthier, more sustainable source of power.

Johnson is 30, young for an environmentalist. He’s black, wears a baseball cap, speaks with a slight mumble, and moves with urgency. Today, he’s canvassing across the street from the coal plant with two other volunteers. Johnson works for the Sierra Club, an organization that advocates for greener policies and climate change prevention, and has been circulating a petition to retire the coal plant. Every signature counts. They are here to search out the stories of a city besieged by respiratory illness, poverty, and a political headache—three issues that dovetail around the coal plant.

Such abstract problems require illustration, and Johnson is on the street with a team of volunteers in search of it. An organizer by trade, he’s experienced with this sort of thing; canvassing strangers door-to-door is the bread-and-butter of his work. As we walk down the street, Johnson spies a young woman in the distance carrying shopping bags into her house.

“That’s a person!” he shouts to a volunteer. “Right there, right there, right there!”

The other volunteers, students from Yale and Quinnipiac University, rush off to intercept the stranger as Johnson continues canvassing down the street. He gives me a crash course in the many ways to tuck fliers into screen doors. When we catch up with the other canvassers, they’ve already befriended their target. Her name is Charlotte, and she’s pissed about coal.

“I actually have asthma, and when I first got here I didn’t,” says Charlotte. “At one point, I was going to the hospital every other month.”

Johnson has heard this narrative so many times from Bridgeport residents that he can fill in the gaps himself. “You have asthma, but currently, you’re uninsured,” says Johnson, Charlotte nodding. He turns to me. “For one reason or another, they don’t have it. In between jobs. If you go to the hospital with no insurance, that’s out of pocket.”

He turns to Charlotte. Here comes the pitch. “You should be an advocate on behalf of your community.” You can see the gears turning in his head: she’ll be the another one holding a sign in front of City Hall.

Charlotte looks up at the coal plant with concern. “Every day I come home and I think twice,” says Charlotte. Johnson smiles. She’s in.


Americans have been thinking twice about coal for the last half-century, but that hasn’t stopped us from burning it. The fuel is the central pillar of our electricity grid; it provides the largest share of U.S. electricity among all fuels, at roughly 40 percent. By comparison, natural gas, despite all the attention that’s being given to the hydro-fracking boom, clocks in at about 24 percent. That number is increasing, but not quickly enough to unseat coal as king of the energy market. The U.S. government predicts that coal will remain our dominant energy source through 2040. We mine it, we burn it, and then we breathe it.

Coal is especially worrisome on a local scale, since power plants release smog and ozone—chemicals that cause coughs and damage to the lung lining. The soot released from coal power plants is fine enough to work its way through lungs into the blood; a host of health issues—chest pains, asthma, cancer—can follow.

Besides its direct effects on human health, coal is also one of the most environmentally destructive forms of energy Americans use. Burning coal pollutes the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, the gas that is the central culprit of climate change. Coal produces even more carbon than petroleum or natural gas, and so in order to avert catastrophic climate change, environmental groups argue that America needs to cut back on burning coal.

Public Service Electric & Gas (PSEG) built the Harbor Station plant in 1967, three years before the first version of the Clean Air Act passed in 1970. The plant was not built to meet air quality standards; after all, none existed at the time. Since then, the United States has tried to regulate its way to clean air—but even so, after 45 years under its towers, Bridgeport is still suffering. The asthma rate among Bridgeport adults is twice the Connecticut average; the rate of asthma-caused deaths is higher in Bridgeport than anywhere else in the state.

Bridgeport’s public health organizations, social justice advocates, and environmental groups searched for something to blame—but all they needed to do was look up. Harbor Station sits right in the middle of the city, between the South End, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and the downtown city center. There are six schools within a mile of the plant. There are libraries, government offices, churches, community colleges. The plant is on the waterfront, and just across the water is another residential neighborhood. Given the plant’s location and its history of releasing hazardous chemicals, the activists began to argue that Harbor Station is directly linked to the health crisis.

And so began the fight. As the other coal plants in Connecticut closed down in the 90s and early 2000s, attention coalesced around Harbor Station, which has been the most resilient in the face of public pressure.

To overcopme this attrition, environmental groups decided to settle in, and employed tactics of civil disobedience. In 2011, Greenpeace sent activists to scale the plant’s towers and hang up a banner that read “Quit Coal.” The Sierra Club and two of its allied organizations jointly filed a lawsuit that accused Harbor Station of violating the Clean Air Act; the suit remains in the state government’s bureaucratic limbo. All the standard techniques of activism—public comments, petitions, press conferences—have been employed. And yet, Harbor Station’s burns on.

Now, Harbor Station only switches its coal burner on for about 12 days a year—a number that indexes coal costs, not effectiveness of the protest movement. It’s a peaking plant, meaning that Connecticut only uses it in the direst circumstances, like an emergency ration of electricity. Somehow, Harbor Station’s coal burners have remained a part of Connecticut’s energy mix. The Sierra Club suspects that their push is needed to hammer the final nail in Harbor Station’s coffin. So in the hottest weeks of summer, when Connecticut switches on its air conditioners and fans and stays inside all day, Harbor Station kicks into gear. And so do the protesters.


Elaine Ward lives in Bridgeport and is elderly, black, and middle-class. She volunteers as a foster grandparent at a local school, serves as deaconess at her church, and spends her spare time speaking out against Harbor Station. Johnson and I met with her at the public library to hear her tell her story. Ward speaks with low earnestness, as if she could preach the plant out of existence if she tried hard enough. “I’ve been thrust into it,” said Ward. “And I don’t mind. Once I found out about the coal plant, it was automatic. I felt led to be there.”

For Ward, and for many other activists working on the campaign, the environmental fight is personal. Her sons use inhalers. “I know someone personally who has COPD [the condition which causes emphysema,] and when he developed it, he was just on the other side of the water here,” said Ward, referring to the neighborhood across Bridgeport Harbor from Downtown. “He had passed out for a few days in his apartment, and no one had any idea.” Ward’s friend survived, and now he lives downtown, where the soot still settles on his windows.

“We have so many people here suffering from asthma and cancer,” continued Ward. “My dad and two of my uncles died from the cancer. My dad used to live right across the street from the coal plant. It’s connected.”

Last year, Ward traveled to the PSEG headquarters in New Jersey along with a busload of activists from the Healthy Connecticut Alliance, a public health advocacy group which collaborates with the Sierra Club. They stood outside the building and demanded to speak to an executive. There were news cameras. Eventually, Ward and a few others were invited in to speak with a corporate spokesperson, but they left the meeting unsatisfied. “The gentleman proceeded to tell me that burning coal was clean,” said Ward. “That it was green, matter fact. How can you honestly sit and tell me that burning coal is green? That doesn’t make sense!”

At some point in the last decade, power companies learned how to talk like environmentalists. The CEO of PSEG, Ralph Izzo, has spoken before Congress in favor of a climate action plan. The company defends Harbor Station as being one of the “nation’s cleanest” power plants. To make this argument, they point towards their importing an especially low-sulfur coal from Indonesia, which releases fewer pollutants; on top of that, PSEG has retrofitted the plant to filter its exhaust.Their website celebrates their “significantly reduced emissions of particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury.” You would be hard pressed to find a more thorough defense of coal than what PSEG boasts: it’s cheap, it’s environmentally acceptable, and it’s necessary for a stable fuel market.

Even so, the Sierra Club rejects coal on principle. Missing from PSEG’s list of successes is carbon dioxide, the key driver of climate change. While PSEG pollutes less than they did in 1968, their plants still release pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, which have been proven to be detrimental to public health. And Bridgeport is still caught in its chronic asthma attack. The Sierra Club is pressing for a better deal: one that is healthy and carbon-neutral. Still, they have been met with reluctance and obstruction from the legislators on whom a transition depends.

“In New Jersey, PSEG got a one billion dollar solar panel project,” Johnson said. “They’re involved with Cape Wind. They have the technology and the capability. Why, in Bridgeport, are we getting the dark side of what you offer? Their argument is, it’s your mayors, city councils, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. In Connecticut, our legislators don’t want to give one dime to a transition.”

Bridgeport is legislated both by a city council and, less directly, by the state of Connecticut. These bodies control many of the variables involved in a transition to clean energy: tax law, zoning, subsidies, and incentives. The central committee for environmental issues in particular is the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (D.E.E.P.). The Sierra Club is hoping that its campaign will sway the minds of both D.E.E.P. and the Bridgeport City Council, both of which have a stake in deciding what happens next.

But Dan Esty, LAW ’86, the commissioner of D.E.E.P., believes that the campaign is barking up the wrong tree. Direct attacks against Harbor Station are liable to fall on deaf ears at PSEG, which is confident in its defense of responsible coal. Esty argues that, instead of campaigning against the plant directly, the Sierra Club should work on increasing energy efficiency or bring in an alternative energy supply—for instance, import hydropower from Canada. “It would knock that plant out in a day,” said Esty. “The first day you bring hydropower in, that plant’s gone.” To Esty, with the right balance of governmental guidance, market pressures will kill the coal plant.

Until the coal burners are replaced by solar and wind, the Sierra Club will keep making noise. And that means canvassing, protesting, letter-writing, and organizing until something gives way. To change the minds of Bridgeport politicians, the Sierra Club needs people power. But they have the man for the job.


Johnson gives off the impression of being much younger than he is; when I met up with him before canvassing, he had just picked up the new Playstation 4. He grew up in Bridgeport, and it seems like we bump into one of his friends every few minutes: in the public library, driving down the street, walking into a Dunkin Donuts. He greets the staff of the city clerk’s office by first name. His job is to be popular, and he’s a master at it. “Organizing is like dancing, you know?” he told me. “Some people are born with it.” I asked him if he’s one of them. “Of course!” he replied.

One proverb of activism is that the best organizer will organize herself out of a job. The classic example is Tom Sawyer, of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, who convinces his friends to paint his fence, a dreaded chore, by making the task seem like a privilege. Tom, with his powers of persuasion, would be an excellent movement-builder, if only he had the moral high ground in addition to his managerial acumen. Call it organizing math: Johnson says that if he needs to call up five hundred Bridgeport residents, he’ll find five people to call one hundred each.

Walking through the South End, the neighborhood of Harbor Station, every door we knock on is a window into someone’s life. A petition signature can send a clear message to industry, but a scribbled name hides the personal narrative that produced the need to write it. Johnson opens his canvassing spiel with a basic overview of the plant—its function, its pollution—and then searches for this personal connection. He quickly finds it. One woman is reluctant to give her signature until Johnson draws the link between coal pollution and respiratory illness. “My daughter does have asthma,” the woman says. That’s all it takes; she writes her name.

Another woman answers the door a bit nervously. When she hears that we’re there to discuss the coal plant, she relaxes. “I thought you were religious or something,” she says. A volunteer asks her what she would like to see in place of the coal plant. “Make more parks and gardens and stuff,” she says. “If you’ve ever taken the ferry here, that’s the first thing you see, is all our factories. It’s this very unpleasant thing. I’d like to turn it into something the community can enjoy.”

A young man answers the next door. He’s a Chinese immigrant studying at the University of Bridgeport, one of the most racially diverse colleges in the United States, less than a mile from Harbor Station. When Johnson starts talking about pollution, he replies, “The environment here is much better than in China.” The student asks us what we’re suggesting instead. Johnson suggests a solar array. “I was writing an essay about solar energy,” says the student. “It’s kind of expensive to install the equipment. It’s a nice plan. But it’s going to cost.” He lends his support as well with a scribble of his pen.

To complement his petitioning, Johnson is doing a statewide tour of colleges and high schools to build resistance to Harbor Station. While Johnson understands and organizes Bridgeport well, if he wants to achieve his dream of having protesters crowd the governor’s office, he’ll need passionate students to help him organize on a statewide level.

“I’m trying to get people to realize that [Harbor Station] is not just a Bridgeport issue, that this is a statewide issue. And it’s not going to be a coal-free Bridgeport, it’s going to be a coal-free Connecticut,” Johnson said. “The more support we have, the more pressure is put on decision makers, the easier for us to put pressure on coal companies.”

I asked Johnson how many people he thought he might need. “We’ve sent out hundreds of people, but we realized that hundreds is not enough,” he said. “The ideal number is ten thousand.”

That’s a lot of time and effort spent to counter one coal plant, given that Harbor Station is just one of the hundreds of coal plants still active in the United States, but the Bridgeport plant is a particularly important piece in the Sierra Club’s nationwide anti-coal campaign. At first glance, the environmental fight is scientific rather than social. Activists have traditionally considered environmentalism and social justice to be separate spheres. But according to the logic of environmental justice, a doctrine advanced by the Sierra Club, activists on either side need to collaborate. The victims of environmental degradation tend to be marginalized groups, whether by race or class. The same tactics—disobedience, nonviolent action, education—are in each movement’s toolkit. And if the most motivated environmentalists and community organizers join forces, each movement gains a new constituency. Why not join forces?

Activists are fond of using precise terminology to characterize their strategies; this one is called “intersectionality”—identifying the overlap that could unite environmentalists and social justice activists under one quest.

Harbor Station is prime ground for intersectional organizing. The NAACP points out that toxic facilities, including coal plants, are usually located in communities of color. Harbor Station is in a neighborhood that is 87 percent of color, and so the NAACP has joined the war on Harbor Station as well. In 2010, the NAACP released a comprehensive report, Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People, which ranked U.S. coal plants in terms of pollution toxicity and impact on marginalized groups. Of the hundreds of plants profiled, Harbor Station ranked tenth-worst.

The NAACP’s report justifies what the campaign has been arguing: that Harbor Station is part of a broader narrative of exploitation. “Why is it always in the minority people’s backyards where these plants are built?” asked Ward. “Where is the garbage plant? It’s over on the West End. There’s hundreds of people live over there in the projects. Is it a coincidence? No, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. No, I don’t. Why didn’t they take it to Greenwich?”

Greenwich, Conn. is a white, affluent enclave composed of many Wall Street financiers and lawyers, only 20 miles away from Bridgeport. The disparity in wealth between Greenwich and Bridgeport couldn’t be starker: Bridgeport’s downtown is a graveyard of industrial buildings; its Main Street sports a Dunkin Donuts and a Subway, but few other restaurants or businesses. After Hartford, Bridgeport is the second-poorest city in Connecticut; the average income of an individual living within a mile of Harbor Station is less than 12 thousand dollars per year.

With Bridgeport’s rich, white neighbors breathing clean air, the coal plant isn’t just an environmental issue; to the residents of Bridgeport, Harbor Station is social injustice. “In all those areas, whether the environment, or education, or health, we’re still struggling,” said Johnson. “We’re still, you know, down in the dirt.”

The great struggle for Johnson and his team is getting politicians like Taylor-Moye to connect the dots between Harbor Station, Bridgeport’s health crisis, and the unstable climate. And for the politicians, the difficulty is squaring the Sierra Club’s request—carbon-neutral, healthy energy—with the needs of a city that is barely scraping along as it is.

“Everybody’s just sort of waiting, like, oh, it’s not going to be around forever,” said Johnson. But he and his team can’t wait for the plant to disappear. To wait means more asthma attacks, more carbon in the atmosphere, more floods. So they will keep pushing.

At the end of one conversation I had with Johnson and Ward, they were particularly excited. They had just made plans to speak before the entire city council. “We need to do everything that we can possibly do, right now, to protect our future generations,” Johnson told me. “We know that climate change is real. We see it every day. I mean, look, we’re going to experience something tomorrow. There’s going to be this huge rain that’s going to be covering the whole entire nation.”

“My god,” said Ward.

“Nowadays, tornadoes, hurricanes, you’ve seen what just happened in the Phillipines,” Johnson continued. “This stuff is reality. We have to ask ourselves, 50 years from now, did we do everything that we possibly could do?”

It was getting late, and it was time to for me to head home. Following Johnson through the streets of Bridgeport had tired me out. The sky was dark, but Harbor Station was visible anyway, a tall silhouette above the city. As my train left Bridgeport on its way back to New Haven, the plant was the last thing I could see. Clouds were overhead. It began to rain.

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