Activists block coal-carrying train for hours

Goal is to shut down New Hampshire coal-fired plant

CLIMATE ACTIVISTS USED AN UNUSUAL METHOD Thursday night to stop a delivery to the largest coal-fired plant in New England — erecting scaffolding directly on the tracks.

A group of about 30 protesters refused to leave train tracks in the woods of Harvard, Massachusetts, in an effort that delayed delivery of coal to Merrimack Station in Bow, NH for over eight hours. Their goal, they say, is to get parent company Granite Shore Power to set a date for the plant’s shutdown, with regional grid operator ISO-New England facilitating that move.

This is the sixth blockade of a Bow-bound train since December, and one of over a dozen related protests. The protesters come from all over New England for each of the blockades.

This time, members of Climate Disobedience Center called Pan Am Railways–which operates that area’s portion of the tracks — to report the blockage and stop the train. They were successful, at least for a little while.

The train was carrying 10,000 tons of coal, according to the organization.

Local law enforcement joined railway police at the site and began negotiating with the protesters to leave the tracks. Four people refused to leave the 16-foot-tall scaffolding and were removed by fire department’s tactical team. “They were passively resistant,” said Harvard Police Chief Edward Denmark. “Protesters were intent on sleeping there,” he continued, mentioning there were concerns over the cold ad how the protesters were faring. The last protester was arrested by State Police around 7 a.m, and the train chugged through soon after. Protesters were arraigned in Clinton District Court Friday morning on charges of walking on railroad tracks, obstruction of a passing train, and trespassing. All have been released.

The coal-fired Merrimack Station only operates 23 days a year, according to the Concord Monitor, and is used to supply the electrical grid during peak heating times in the winter. It’s the only coal plant in New England without a date set for shutdown.

Other protests, like one in Worcester on Dec. 28, led to 10 arrests. Activists hope this drum beat of actions ends the use of coal in the area once and for all.

Climate Disobedience is part of a broader environmental campaign called No Coal No Gas, as a part of a coalition of organizations in the region.

Scaffolding on train tracks in Harvard. (Photo by NoCoalNoGas.org)

“We’re building a very substantial climate activist movement, with people willing to do direct action across the state,” said Sabine von Mering, a Brandeis University professor who was the press representative for Climate Disobedience.  She added that she believes ISO-New England, the region’s grid operator, should “prioritize clean energy.”

That organization operates the region’s competitive wholesale electricity markets, where resources of all fuel-types compete at an open auction. Coal is part of this, but usually at a much smaller percentage than natural gas, nuclear power, or renewables.

“The ISO does not have the jurisdiction to build or shut down any power plants. We also have no authority to convert a power plant. These decisions are all made by resource owners,” said Matthew Kakley, a spokesman for ISO-New England.

As of press time, less than one percent of ISO-New England’s fuel mix was coal. That can fluctuate during cold weather when coal reserves may be used. There is no easy way to measure how much of an individual customer’s energy is coal, or any other kind of energy.

“Step one in this would be having a forthright conversation about ending use of coal in New England and decertifying this plant for grid reliability,” said Climate Disobedience Center co-founder Jay O’Hara, who was on the tracks.

‘”When law enforcement was asking folks to come, protesters were saying “we’ll come down if and when ISO-New England, which manages the grid, and Granite Shore Power agree to a shutdown date for the plant,”‘ said O’Hara. “There’s no excuse for burning coal on our grid.”

Protesters are also incensed that Merrimack Generating Station continues to receive a total of over $180 million in forward capacity payments until 2023. These are payments through a market that pay plants ahead of time so they’re able to produce electricity when needed. Von Mering called it a fossil fuel subsidy.

There are three coal-fired plants remain in New England– Bridgeport Station in Connecticut, the Merrimack, and Schiller Stations in New Hampshire. Merrimack is the only one that runs often and doesn’t have a conversion plan to another kind of energy.

Granite Shore Power is a joint venture between hedge funds Castleton Commodities International LLC and Atlas Holdings LLC, in Connecticut. The hedge funds did not respond to requests for comment. An attorney from The Dupont Group & White Birch Communications Group, which represents Granite Shore, said they had no statement because they do not yet know enough about the situation.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

In November, a group of New England’s Senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, sent a letter to ISO-New England president Gordon van Welie, expressing concerns that the organization is not supporting climate and environmental goal set by area’s state governments. “Unfortunately, ISO-NEW appears to be pursuing a patchwork of market reforms aimed at preserving the status quo of a fossil fuel center resource mix,” it read. They called on ISO-NE to develop electricity market frameworks focused on using clean energy.

In December, state Attorney General Maura Healey weighed in, launching a campaign with Barr Foundation cash to convince the grid operator to embrace renewables and move away from electricity produced using fossil fuels.