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Coal protest returns to Chapel Hill amid COVID-19 concerns

Memembers of the community protest in front of the coal power plant on Cameron Avenue on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020. The protestors have gather here every Friday morning since May 2019 to complain that the plant is still operating. In 2010, former Chancellor Holden Thorpe said that UNC would stop using the plant by 2020.

On the first anniversary of the coal plant protests that he organizes, climate activist Gary Richards gathered with a small group of protesters on West Cameron Avenue in front of UNC’s Cogeneration Facility.

Richards said the Friday morning demonstration, which was the first one since March 6 when protesters stopped because of coronavirus concerns, is back because of this anniversary. 

He said to protect each other from the virus, all protesters wore masks and stayed at least 6 feet apart.

“It has been proven that plants like the one on UNC’s campus put carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and other chemicals into the air that can cause people to have asthma or heart conditions that make them more prone to getting the virus,” Richards said. 

Kim Piracci, chairperson of the Climate Reality Project's Orange County chapter, usually joins Richards at the protests, but was unable to attend this past Friday. 

Piracci said in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, closing the plant is probably more important now than ever before.

“That plant causes pollution, and now we know the virus lives on pollution,” she said. “That coal plant really shouldn’t be in the middle of a densely populated area.”

Piracci said that if the pandemic causes changes in society, it only makes sense to build a green economy and a society that is equitable and more sustainable for people.

Richards said the plant's current location represents an inequity from when it was built and an inadequate climate response from UNC as a leading scientific research university.

“There’s an environmental justice issue where it is too,” he said. “Currently, it’s in a majority white neighborhood, but when it was built in the 1940s, the neighborhood was majority people of color.”

Catherine Lavau, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at Duke University and a regular attendee of the Friday morning protests, said she attends to find "camaraderie" with other climate activists. 

“I’ve always been super conscious about climate change and I do everything I can,” Lavau said. “In the big scheme of things, all the sacrifices you make cannot change how many greenhouse emissions are being released.”

Elizabeth O’Nan serves as the chairperson of the Chapel Hill Organization for Clean Energy, a chapter of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League primarily focused on halting the use of coal and other polluting energy sources by UNC.

O’Nan said she and her daughter both have health issues and noticed some additional problems with breathing and lung issues when they moved to Chapel Hill about a year and a half ago. 

“We tried to investigate,” she said. "The most glaring potential issue was the coal plant located in the middle of town on UNC’s campus.”

She established CHOCE in her living room about a year ago to look into the coal plant and why it was still operating even after UNC promised it would stop burning coal by 2020. She said she was also concerned about the coal ash disposal site in Chapel Hill, where UNC’s coal plant is likely one of the larger users in the area. 

“Even if UNC is not directly proven to be responsible for the coal ash dump, it should act as a good neighbor and help the town of Chapel Hill do something about it,” she said.

Although O’Nan is not currently attending the coal plant protest because she is at high risk for the virus, she said people who are able to participate safely should consider joining the movement. 

“I think it’s a moral imperative that all of us do anything we can to stop further poisoning of our community,” she said. 

@DTHCityState |  

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