Coal Protesters Call for ‘Just Transition,’ 8 Arrested on Merrimack River

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8 protesters arrested along the Merrimack River outside Merrimack Station Sunday

By ARNIE ALPERT, Active with the Activists

Arnie Alpert spent decades as a community organizer/educator in NH movements for social justice and peace.  Officially retired since 2020, he keeps his hands (and feet) in the activist world while writing about past and present social movements.

BOW—At a prep session Saturday, leaders of the No Coal No Gas campaign stressed that their planned demonstration at Merrimack Station the following day was not intended to provoke arrests, but the police had other ideas.  By early afternoon Sunday, eight protesters with canoes and kayaks had been arrested on the Merrimack River, alongshore of New England’s last running coal-fired power plant.

Four of the protesters said they never even got out of their boats.

Sunday’s action, which was planned for months, was intended to highlight the power plant site’s potential for generating solar electricity at a location with an existing connection to the power grid.  That, the campaign says, would be part of a “just transition” to a fossil-fuel free future.  “It can give back to the local community through good paying jobs,” stressed Emma Shapiro-Weiss of 350NH, one of the key groups supporting the campaign.  

Unlike many of the group’s other “mass actions,” No Coal No Gas did not publicize its plans ahead of time, but police got wind of the demonstration before most of the protesters arrived.  Carloads of activists who intended to set up displays near the plant’s gates on River Road found their way blocked by a sheriff’s van.   

“We never got out of the boat,” said Gregg Housh from Malden, MA, who was arrested on the river with three others.  “The Marine patrol came up to us and said you haven’t touched land yet. You’re not under arrest, just don’t touch land.”  But shortly after, he said, the officer “came back to us and said, never mind, we were told you did trespass.”

“And they arrested us,” Housh said after being released from the county jail in Boscawen with a new criminal trespass charge to add to his extensive record.  “We never got out of the boat. We never touched land. We never did anything.” 

The others arrested and charged with criminal trespass were Natasia Lawton-Stickler, Lauren Ockene, David Weinstein, Jeff Ordauer, Olivia Chatfield, Hanah Labarre, and Jacob Powsner.  They are scheduled for arraignment on Dec. 11.  

The protests will no doubt continue, as will the No Coal No Gas campaign’s efforts to close off funding for the power plant.  Formerly a baseload power producer, Merrimack Station operates only on the year’s hottest and coldest days when power demand peaks.  To keep the plant ready to burn coal and generate electricity on those rare days, Granite Shore Power, a subsidiary of a Connecticut investment firm, has relied on subsidies provided via ISO New England, which operates the regional power grid.  But in ISO’s Forward Supply Auction in March, Merrimack Station lost out, giving it no assured market in 2026 and beyond.  

“This year’s auction secured the lineup of resources—including clean electricity generation, energy storage, and resources that reduce demand—needed to meet the region’s power system reliability requirements, at a low price,” Peter Brandien, ISO’s VP of System Operations and Market Administration, said at the time.  “The results represent clear benefits to New England’s residents and businesses in the form of cost-effective resource adequacy and support for the clean energy transition.”  Instead of burning fossil fuels, ISO expects to meet increased demand from solar, wind, energy storage, and efficiency improvements. 

While some analysts believe Merrimack Station is in its final stages of life, No Coal No Gas doesn’t want to wait any longer.  According to the Energy Information Administration, the Bow plant burned 146,526 tons of coal last year.  “Hopefully, we will see a shutdown date announced any day,” Shapiro-Weiss said.  

In a statement released after the demonstration, No Coal No Gas said, “Stakeholders have an opportunity to choose a path forward for this plant that puts good union jobs back into the community – by converting the site to solar and battery storage and using soil remediation to clean up the damage that has been done on that land since 1960. If done properly, a just and sustainable transition is the healthiest option for the Bow community.”

No Coal No Gas burst on the public scene in 2019, when several dozen activists dressed in Tyvek suits and carrying plastic buckets marched onto the power plant property saying they would end the burning of coal there even if they had to remove the fuel “bucket by bucket.”  Sixty-seven of them were arrested, including Nathan Lyczak of Keene.

Lyczak heard about plans for the demonstration from a flyer or email notice, he recalled, but his interest was piqued when his daughter called him from Mexico and said, “You’ve got to go do this, Dad,” he said.  “So, I like to tell people that my children asked me to do it.”  Lyczak, a teacher, said he wants his students to understand that in movements like civil rights and climate justice, big changes have happened when “people were willing to go put themselves on the line” and take risks. 

“Being here in action is our way of saying it doesn’t have to be like this,” said Nastasia Lawton-Sticklor one of the eight people arrested on the river. “We know that the Merrimack Generating Station benefits its owners more than it will ever benefit the surrounding community or the New England energy grid. It’s time to change that, and transition this plant into a sustainable source of energy for the community.”

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