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Environmental activists demand UNC end coal usage virtually and in-person

Students march down Cameron Ave. on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 to protest UNC's coal plant.

Environmental activists held a “No Coal UNC” rally in-person at the Old Well and virtually on Zoom Tuesday, demanding that the University stop using its coal-fired power plant by 2023.

Drawing from the University’s response to COVID-19 and the national reckoning on racial injustice, speakers condemned UNC's coal use for its disproportionate effect on the historically-Black community around the plant. 

Claire Bradley, a UNC junior and co-hub coordinator for the Chapel Hill & Carrboro Sunrise Movement, said coal use intersects with the Black Lives Matter movement, community safety, and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"I think UNC has mishandled all three of those," Bradley said. “The use of coal is a risk to public health, the continued use of University police and our relationship with the Chapel Hill Police Department is harmful to BIPOC students, and our mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of people harm."

Gabriela Alba, a junior environmental studies major, addresses her peers during the protest against UNC's coal plant on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club organized the rally following recent legal action they have taken against UNC. The complaint, scheduled to enter mediation on Friday, alleges that the power plant has violated the Clean Air Act. 

“There are 10 claims in the complaint and they fall roughly into three categories,” Perrin deJong, the Center’s North Carolina staff attorney said. “There are substantive pollution control violations, there are failures to monitor pollution from various parts of the facility, and then there are failures to report those violations to the regulatory authorities.”

At the Old Well, activists staged a socially-distant protest, holding a large black-and-white banner saying “No Coal UNC” towards South Building, chanting “people over profits, justice over greed, we demand accountability!” 

On Zoom, professors, student activists, and Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos spoke about the danger of the coal plant and its impact on communities of color. Attendees were invited to call Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and read a script calling for the end of coal use on campus.

A group of students protest UNC's coal plant at the Old Well on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. The protest was organized by multiple local and university groups, including the Student Environmental Action Coalition and UNC Reinvest.


The coal-fired power plant has been a source of controversy for years. In 2010, then-Chancellor Holden Thorp pledged that the University would stop using coal by 2020. It was clear by 2014 that this goal would not be met. Last year, former Chief Sustainability Officer Brad Ives was fired following a disagreement over the future of coal use on campus. Ives demanded that the power plant move to 100 percent natural gas with carbon offsets. 

Now with the U.S. reaching 200,000 deaths from COVID-19, activists are highlighting the disproportionate effect both the virus and the coal plant have on Black and Brown communities. Pine Knolls, a historically-Black community, is directly next to the coal plant.

“At a time when we are calling for reforms in justice, we must call out the history of racism on the UNC campus, including the fact that this coal plant is located in a historically Black community now facing the extra burden of gentrification,” Jovita Lee, state campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release. “How many people who grew up around here and suffer from asthma are now at greater risk from COVID-19?”

Mike Piehler, the University’s new chief sustainability officer, said ending coal use is a priority, but did not agree to a specific timeline. 

“We are committed to ending the use of coal,” Piehler said in an email statement. “We have already made meaningful progress toward this goal and the University has cut its coal use in half over the last two decades. We will continue moving off coal in a realistic time frame using technologies that are technically and logistically feasible. The University will continue our work to reduce our environmental footprint and advance sustainability on campus and in the local community.”

For Lee, there isn’t any time left to wait. 

“We don't have time to play any games with the state of emergency that we're in right now,” she said. “So we are definitely putting a hard deadline of 2023 on UNC to shut it on down.”

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