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The Daily Tar Heel

Environmental activists protest UNC's coal plant, unsustainable energy sources

UNC students (from left to right) Jordan Brown, Caitlyn Flanagan, Marisa Romanat, and Tariro Magrira particpate in protest of UNC's coal plant in The Pit on Sep. 24, 2021.

This article has been updated to include additional information on the lawsuit against UNC alleging that the University violated the Clean Air Act.

Community and student environmental activists met Friday in the Pit to protest the University's coal plant — the Cogeneration Facility — demanding that UNC leadership transition away from unsustainable energy sources.

Organized by UNC first-years Margot Francini, Ember Penney and Sarah Zhang, the “NO COAL UNC!” demonstration was part of Fridays For Future, a global climate strike movement.

Francini, a public policy and environmental health sciences double major, said hundreds of other climate strikes happened the same day around the globe.

The demonstration featured three speakers who each addressed different issues surrounding the environment and climate change.

Hongbin Gu, a Chapel Hill town council member and faculty member in the UNC School of Medicine, said in her speech that it is unacceptable that UNC has delayed shutting down its coal plant because the climate crisis is already here. Gu is currently a candidate for Chapel Hill's mayor.

“It’s not a hypothesis, it’s not a prediction," Gu said. "It’s going on right now."

In an interview with The Daily Tar Heel, Gu said the council wants to hear more from Chapel Hill’s younger population because they are the voice of the future.

“Our government, lots of times, is not the leader," she said. "The government is following the public. So we need the young people to bring the new energy and tell politicians that they care about our planet, their interest aligns and actually depends on the government to take urgent actions now.”

Jason West, a professor of environmental sciences and engineering in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, said climate change is an established fact and will be the defining crisis of the next generation.

But, he said he sees hope in global climate agreements and activism by young people.

“It’s important to speak up, and to speak up repeatedly, by many students saying the same things in their own words — those messages, the more they’re repeated, the more they’ll get through," West said.

First-year Shaanty White, a political science major, spoke at the demonstration about the disproportionate effect of environmental issues on communities of color.

Francini echoed this sentiment and said social justice is a key part of what the demonstration advocated for.

"The coal plant, that's a major environmental justice issue because it's placed around lower-income housing as well as a historically-Black area, Northside and Pine Knolls," Francini said.

Penney said another goal of the strike was to show UNC students that, no matter their major or future career, they can and should work for an end to climate change.

“You can incorporate sustainability into your major,” Penney said. “It is an issue that’s going to affect all of us.”

In a statement to the DTH, chief sustainability officer Mike Piehler said the University’s new Climate Action Plan aims for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. Piehler said the University plans to end coal use at the Cogeneration Facility as soon as is feasible.

Recently, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality issued the University a new permit that does not include a heat input limit, the maximum amount of coal the plant may burn at one time, according to a recent press release by the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Center is one plaintiff in a lawsuit against the University. The lawsuit alleged that UNC had air permit violations regarding pollution control, pollution monitoring and noncompliance reporting requirements. A North Carolina federal court dismissed the lawsuit at the end of last month.

Zhang, a computer science and political science double major, said students of every major and career path can find their own ways to help the environment.

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“It’s important for us students to get involved and push for the school to make a change,” Zhang said. “It’s so important to get out here, figure out what you can do to help, get registered to vote and push for these policy changes.”

Students gather around The Pit to listen to Dr. Jason West during a protest against UNC's coal plant on Sept. 24, 2021.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article's photo caption misspelled Caitlyn Flanagan's name. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.