Sierra Club stories from the front lines

New Power Plant Stopped on University of Delaware Campus

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The Sierra Club's Delaware Chapter celebrated a major victory when the University of Delaware decided this month to terminate an agreement to build a massive new natural gas power plant on the university campus in Newark. The university's announcement came on the 399th day of grassroots opposition to the power plant, proposed by The Data Centers LLC.

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"Our chapter was the first of the public to find out about the project, and we started organizing against it on Day One," says chapter conservation chair Amy Roe (above). "We immediately began informing neighbors of the proposed site, the media, and the Newark City Council -- none of whom had heard about the proposed power plant at that time."

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"A groundswell of local opposition from residents and UD students, faculty, and staff emerged after the first public meeting on the project in September 2013, which we pushed hard for at city council meetings," Roe says." We worked with and supported the Newark Residents Against the Power Plant, Blue Hens for Clean Air, the Delaware Audubon Society, and other groups in opposing the project for over a year -- this has been a completely grassroots-led effort from the get-go."

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Administrators and professors in UD's working group assigned to review the proposal concluded that the proposed facility, which included a 279-megawatt cogeneration power plant, "was not consistent with a first-class science and technology campus and high quality development to which UD is committed."

Below, students rally outside a UD Board of Trustees meeting this May.

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We'll let Stephanie Herron (below), volunteer and outreach coordinator for the Delaware Chapter, recap the Club's grassroots campaign:

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In late May 2013, The Data Centers -- then-unknown to us -- reached out to me by email about meeting with the Sierra Club. They didn't give many specifics other than the fact that they wanted to build a project in Newark, so I invited Amy Roe to join me.

Little did we know when we arrived that they would unfold their plan to build a massive gas-fired power plant on the University of Delaware campus. Needless to say, we were confused. Why would a company looking to build a polluting new fossil fuel plant reach out to us, the nation's oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization, for our "endorsement" --were they serious?

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We immediately began doing research and working to get the word out. (That's Herron above, getting the word out.) We discovered that The Data Centers had been meeting with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the Delaware Economic Development Office, other state officials, Newark city staff, and the university for well over a year in secret. Yet nobody else, including the homeowners directly adjacent to the campus, or the Newark City Council, had ever even heard of the project.

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Amy, Delaware Chapter volunteer leader Jen Wallace (above), and I began going door-to-door, spreading what information we could gather about the project and encouraging folks to attend that first public meeting. It was packed -- I think there were over 400 people there, and dozens more were listening outside the door.

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On UD Homecoming Day last September we held a rally in conjunction with 350.org's "Draw the Line" protest where we stood with banners and signs about the power plant across from the UD football stadium, right in front of the proposed power plant site. We went on to hold several more of these actions, handing out flyers to students, parents, and alumni.

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The Data Centers and other industry groups initially tried to imply that we supported the project by citing the fact that we'd met with them (we accepted their invitation, of course, before we knew anything about the power plant). When that was unsuccessful they began attacking Amy and others personally, they attacked state or local legislators who came out against the project, and they poured lots of money into political fundraisers and campaigns -- including almost $50,000 into the Newark mayoral race, in which Amy was a candidate.

Below, Stuart the direct action dog, a volunteer for Residents Against the Power Plant.

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An industry group formed to push the project any way they could, including getting the Newark Joint Finance Committee to try and force the university to approve the project by threatening to withhold $3 million in state funding. We were the only group at the city Legislative Hall pushing back against these kinds of actions.

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We held an Environmental Justice Lobby Day in March where we mobilized our supporters and local community members to come to Legislative Hall and give the legislators the real facts about the project -- and ask them to support a resolution telling the Department of Natural Resources to consider environmental justice before permitting new polluting land uses in communities. The chapter also testified at countless committee hearings and budget hearings on the proposal.

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This victory is the direct result of Delaware Chapter activists and local residents who showed up at our rallies and protests, put a sign in their yard, handed out flyers to students, parents, and alumni on campus, lobbied state and local legislators, testified at hearings, did community outreach and coalition-building, and much more. They proved that communities can take on big fossil fuel interests and win!

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Jen Wallace adds: "This project was stopped by a successful community movement fueled by a fact-based campaign spearheaded by two Delaware Chapter ExComm members who also happened to be Newark residents; both my home and Amy's home would have been about half a mile from the project. The fact that we were residents gave us legitimacy with the neighbors.

"As residents and Sierrans, Amy and I, with Stephanie's support, moved quickly to organize Newarkers. First we worked to uncover facts about the project and share those facts with neighbors, and then we worked to provide leadership for the creation of a local grassroots group, Newark Residents Against the Power Plant. We set up a website, created an email list, started using social media, and organized our first community-wide organizational meeting of residents very early on.

"We helped establish a structure for the grassroots effort by setting up a Steering Committee of residents to guide the movement; both Amy and I served on that committee. We suggested adopting neighborhood captains and working groups to reach out to more neighbors and to empower residents with special skills and interests. The Sierra Club played a critical leadership role in this movement. We helped give residents a voice and taught them the tools needed for advocacy. This empowerment of residents is much needed in our state and we hope it will serve as an inspiration for others to work on environmental issues in their communities."