Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, June 8 2003
by Susan Ives

I boarded the bus at the Claude Black Community Center; others hopped on in Harlandale. The energy of the passengers, many of them elderly African-American East Siders, was stoked by righteous anger. We were on our way to the City Public Service Board of Trustees meeting to raise issues and, failing that, to raise hell. Power to the people!

Neighborhoods First Alliance president T.C. Calvert reminded us to stick to the message.

First, don’t cut off services for the elderly, disabled and others on fixed incomes unable to pay escalating utility bills. CPS predicts that rates may increase by 30 percent this summer because of a crack in Unit 1 of the South Texas Project Nuclear Power Plant and rising natural gas prices. Someone tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that the gas shortage was caused by a cold winter in the northeast, the Iraq war and strikes in Venezuela. “Make sure you write that down, she said. These folks have done their homework.

Next, don’t renew the permit for “Dirty Deely,” a coal-fired plant at Calaveras Lake, about 20 miles southeast of San Antonio. According to the Seed Coalition, a sustainable energy group that partners with Neighborhoods First on environmental issues, last year Deely emitted 4,924 more tons of nitrogen oxides and 13,553 more tons of sulfur dioxide than is allowed under today’s standards. Calvert had the group practice chanting – “Hey hey, ho ho, Dirty Deely’s gotta go” – as the bus cruised up Highway 37. The East Side is downwind of Deely and bears the brunt of the fallout from its aging smokestacks; 23 percent of the households there have at least one person with asthma.

Finally, don’t build a new coal-burning plant on the East Side. CPS is playing this one close to the vest and opponents fear that it will be rubberstamped without any chance for citizens to speak out. They don’t want coal burning in their back yard. T.C. pointed to me and said “these smokestacks would dump soot all over your North Side neighborhood too, Susan.” I wrote that down.

By the time we disembarked at CPS there were 70 of us. T.C. buttonholed CPS chairman Stephen Hennigan and asked, “When can we speak and how long do we have?”

Hennigan said that CPS doesn’t set aside time for citizen comments. “When can we speak and how long do we have?”

Hennigan said that this was a busy meeting with no room on the agenda. “When can we speak and how long do we have?”

Hennigan said that the trustees had not yet been briefed by staff on the proposed coal-fired plant and were not prepared to answer questions. “When can we speak . . . ?”
Hennigan caved. “Ten minutes, after the financials.”

In exchange for skipping a discussion of the coal plants during this trustee’s session, Hennigan promised to hold a public meeting in June, before any proposal was brought before City Council. Smiles spread among the standing room only crowd.

For most of the speakers, this was their first step onto the public stage. They spoke with confident passion about stretching pensions to keep lights turned on, of having to decide between buying their medications or paying the electric bill. But, they insisted, they don’t want dirty power. Use that $750 million earmarked for the new coal plant to invest in renewable energy like wind and solar power. We shouldn’t have to choose between affordable energy and clean energy, they said. This is the 21st Century. We can have both.

On the trip back everyone celebrated a victory for the power of the people. The next road trip will be to remind Reps. Charlie Gonzalez and Ciro Rodriguez to support the Clean Smokestacks Act and Clean Power Act, now before Congress. The wheels of the bus go round and round. I’ve already reserved my seat.

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