Toxic Tour Energizes Activists

On a Saturday in late August, more than 20 Florida residents participated in a Sierra Club “Toxic Bus Tour” of four sites around Tampa, which showed the impacts of Tampa Electric Company's (TECO) addiction to fossil fuels.  

“This was a tour to show people the realities of frontline communities and the impact of energy burdens,” said Walter Smith, Sierra Club Beyond Coal representative in Tampa. Smith and team had several goals for the four-stop tour: 

  • To show which communities are most affected by environmental injustices, especially when major hurricanes come; 

  • To see what happens when you have an energy provider like TECO that continues to conduct business without considering the environmental repercussions of fossil fuel use; 

  • To see how badly frontline communities have been, and still are, overlooked by local government; and

  • To see how communities can organize to fight against these environmental justice issues and prepare to save lives. 

The tour’s stops included sites in west and east Tampa and at TECO’s Big Bend coal plant and coal ash ponds, which are situated on the coastline, exposing them to tropical storms and hurricanes. The tour stopped at the new Southshore Bay community to show what it’s like when TECO takes climate and clean energy into account when supporting a neighborhood. The community is out of the flood zone and is mostly solar-powered. 

From there, the tour ended in the Progress Village neighborhood. Smith said the aim was to show the contrast between a community where state and local officials invested in safety and clean energy (Southshore Bay), and one that’s been subjected to environmental injustice for decades. Several Progress Village residents also spoke in-depth about their community to the tour participants.

Smith said tour participants really took it all to heart. “It helped people to see, firsthand, what they would never have seen on their own,” he explained. “There were a myriad of emotions because they saw the critical nature of something that has been happening for a long time; TECO's use of fossil fuels and what it has caused.” A local radio station also reported on the tour.

Throughout the tour, Sierra Club organizing manager Gonzalo Valdez simulated a major hurricane event using text messages to the tour participants at each stop.

“This brought home the fact that TECO is contributing to major storm events but also the vulnerability that frontline communities face when such an event occurs,” said Susanna Randolph, a Beyond Coal senior representative in Florida.

Smith said the tour’s success has him planning another one for October. “Many (participants) were angry and became motivated to do more [about these issues],” he said.

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