Shutting down the Merrimack coal-fired power plant

Protesters dasended on the Merrimack Power Station in bow, N.H. Photo by David Shaw.

The Merrimack power station in Bow, New Hampshire, is the last big coal plant in New England, and it doesn’t have a shutdown date. Instead it has huge heaps of fuel leaching into the banks of the Merrimack River.

Two years ago, on July 15, 2017, nine Quaker activists, including me, spent the night on the coal delivery tracks to bring attention to this problem. We left in the morning. The power company assumed we had given up.

Then, on August 17, 2019, a group of New Englanders grabbed white Tyvek suits, buckets and shovels and descended again on the Merrimack plant. Using buckets, they took as much fuel from the coal pile as they could, then dumped it on the statehouse steps in Concord as if to say, “We see that politicians and governments fail to act, but we won’t. We’ll take things into our own hands.”

On September 28, I joined over 400 people from all over New England in a mass action against the Merrimack plant.

The plan was for three groups of about 20 people to enter the grounds with buckets and Tyvek suits, collect as much coal as possible and take it away. I was asked if I wanted to be a scout. “What do I have to do?” I inquired. “Paddle a canoe across the river, then sneak through the woods to monitor and report back on the whereabouts of the police,” came the response.

In the headquarters room, I got to see the secret map with the action plan and downloaded a special app that allowed secret texting between me and the action leaders.

Early the next morning, my partner and I drove to the bank of the Merrimack River opposite the power station. Equipped with binoculars, snacks and water, we launched our canoe and began paddling across the river. We soon noticed a suspicious-looking, non-fishing boat. As it came closer we saw it was the police.

We paddled as fast as we could to a creek on the other side and hid the canoe above a beaver dam. I discovered a sizeable hole covered with branches on the bank and squeezed in, my buddy next to me. We watched the police boat as it puttered up the creek searching for us. I’m sure they saw the canoe and must have discussed what to do next since it seemed like an hour before the boat reappeared and slowly headed down river.
Uncertain what to do, I sent a text reporting the police boat. “Do what you think is best,” came the response.

It seemed risky to return to the canoe. Shaking from the cold and fear, I wanted to get to the planned lookout spot near the coal pile, half a mile through the woods from where we were, as quickly as possible. As we approached the tracks and road, however, we spotted police motorcycles passing every 10 minutes or so, then an ATV and a police van. A helicopter circled overhead.

Many times we threw ourselves to the ground to avoid being seen. We reached our assigned location on a steep slope below the tracks where the police couldn’t see us if we stayed flat on our stomachs. I started thinking of all the stories I could tell them if they found us. “We are bird watchers. A rare Rufus-sided towhee was spotted here. We are just looking for it.” But we were told not to lie to the police. Then I thought, “This is like being in an adventure movie. I’m glad I spent so much time playing hide-and-seek as a kid. The stakes weren’t quite this high back then, though.”

As vehicles continued driving past, I slid slowly down the steep bank until I came to a hole underneath some tree roots. I squeezed in, followed by my friend. There we were, stuck between marine police, land police and helicopter police. My friend was terrified. With tears in my eyes, I told him to remember why we were here…for our kids and grandkids.

What kind of a world am I living in when I, a 71-year-old woman, feel I must hide in a sandy foxhole to try to make a livable future for my children and grandchildren?

The next text I received suggested we bail out as soon as possible. By then the police boat was far downstream, but we didn’t dare move as long as we could hear the voices of the police above us. In the next message, the organizing team asked us to leave immediately.

We were relieved and disappointed as we squeezed out of the hole and slid down the bank, hanging on to tree trunks and other vegetation to get back to the canoe. “This is my favorite kind of hiking,” I said, referring to the challenge of the terrain, not the police. “Mine too,” my buddy echoed.
Once into the forest, we moved quickly. When we heard voices from the river, however, we again threw ourselves on the ground. Along came two rowing teams, with their trainer in a motorboat yelling instructions. We waited for them to pass, then ran the rest of the way to the canoe, launched it and quickly paddled back across the river.

On the other bank we met a couple who were supposed to film the action with their drone. We waited together until they got a text telling them that the drone filming was impossible.

We all had to figure out what to do next.

A demonstration was taking place by the power plant that we wanted to join, so we hid the canoe in the woods and started off. Once there, we joined 300 or so people listening to speakers, singing and chanting—and watched as the demonstrators decided to climb over the barricades en masse and head for the coal pile. They marched and sang, using the buckets for drums, until the police arrested 69 people for criminal trespassing. No one got any coal, but they kept singing.

Once they were on their way to the jail, we organized support. People would need their keys and rides to their cars, as well as snacks and water, when they were released. Many people donated to pay for bail. I contributed the $50 I had in my pocket. Our fellow scout used his credit cards to cover what remained. The Quakers offered to pay him back. In the end we gave the police a $2,760 subsidy, but the power plant had to pay for the helicopter and the boat and land police.

One of the organizers who was arrested wrote this about the experience: “When we were together, I felt our collective grief, our fear for the future, and a sense of determination born from our groundedness and principled action-taking. Even now, when I look back at the moment we decided together to climb over that concrete barricade, I feel tapped into something much larger than myself or even this one campaign. And that is the point—yes? We are not simply shutting down a coal plant here. We are modeling a world we want to see.”