Communities rise up for a renewable region

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2004
SEATED IN FRONT of the mural presented to NIPSCO are the Steel City Academy students, who collaborated with other students to create the wall. It was designed to remind NIPSCO of the need to use cleaner energy sources.

For decades, NIPSCO has supplied electrical power to the Northwest Indiana communities, but its coal-fired generating plants have also exposed citizens to the risk of air pollution and groundwater contamination.

On September 15, residents gathered to screen a video that is the culmination of several community-led conversations across the Region telling NIPSCO, enough is enough.

The public event was hosted by the NWI Beyond Coal Campaign in partnership with regional allies, and entitled “Rise Up for a Renewable Region,” at Steel City Academy in Gary. The event included the premier screening of the documentary film, “Beyond the Current,” along with an art installation, a community meal and live music and spoken word performances.

“The documentary takes a look at the current effects of coal generated pollution in Northwest Indiana from the eyes of those most impacted,” said La’ Tonya Troutman, LaPorte County Branch NAACP Communications Director. “It discusses why there is a need to move beyond the current to rise up for a Renewable Region.”

“NIPSCO is guilty of failing the NAACP Coal Blooded report,” said Troutman, of the 2012 study “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People” which ranked more than 300 coal-fired plants based on their impact on low-income communities and communities of color.

“Having seen the aftermath of coal ash fall on the Fourth of July this year, I think it’s important that the public be involved in this process. Who better to protect the air we breathe than those who breathe it?” Low-income populations and people of color are disproportionately affected due to a deliberate siting of polluting industries in their communities, the study concluded.

Troutman is a member of the NWI Beyond Coal Campaign.

The documentary, “Beyond the Current,” draws from a series of community conversations held in Michigan City, Gary and Wheatfield. The film captures residents’ testimonies that show NIPSCO’s coal-burning plants and other polluters have reduced their quality of life and exposed them to greater health risks.

The film features Troutman, community members and leaders in Northwest Indiana who share their hopes for creating a region powered by renewable energy.

A panel discussion followed the film, addressing the question, “How do we come together to rise up for a Renewable Region?”

While coal trains are a common sight, “You don’t see freight cars loaded with solar panels, but you could,” said panelist Christina Zacny, a Wheatfield resident. “We need clean energy in the Region to make it healthier.  Your voices can make that happen.”

Attendee Don Thomas of Michigan City asked, “We have to have power plants, so what’s the solution?”

Progressive Community Church, which hosted a Beyond Coal community conversation event in Gary, has had solar panels on its roof for several years. Its pastor, and panelist, Curtis Whittaker Sr., asserted that the Indiana General Assembly, due to lobbying pressure by NIPSCO and other utility groups, has since handicapped future solar installers by reducing the credits NIPSCO and other power companies were required to award small solar array owners for their contributions to the power grid.

“The power companies should move to renewable energy sources,” Whittaker said, “but we should be able to do it on our own (too).”

Steel City Academy youth also presented a mural designed by their peers in the region. The youth mural entitled “Our Ecopolis” is a reimagining of Northwest Indiana’s industrial corridor, where NIPSCO’s coal plants and neighboring industries are transformed with renewable energy, utilizing localized food systems, greenways and other centers of community empowerment. This mural was created in collaboration with Krueger Middle School, the First Presbyterian Church of Michigan City, Steel City Academy, Progressive Community Church, Kankakee Valley High School and the Wheatfield Public Library.

A goal of the NWI Beyond Coal campaign is to encourage NIPSCO to switch as quickly as possible to renewable, green energy sources, such as wind and solar.

NIPSCO is scheduled to unveil preliminary findings from economic models used in its planning process at a meeting in September, at Fair Oaks Farms.

In an open letter to NIPSCO CEO Violet Sistovaris, released at the “Rise Up” event Saturday, the Beyond Coal campaign prepared “a summary of what everyday NIPSCO customers want.” The campaign’s demands are that NIPSCO:

Phase out its dirty and outdated Michigan City and Wheatfield coal-fired plants and invest in 100% affordable, renewable energy and energy efficiency by 2030.

Prepare a clean-up and recovery plan for all communities impacted by pollution from NIPSCO plants, including reclaiming the land fouled by their coal ash storage pits.

Develop a “just transition” plan and training programs for NIPSCO workers affected by the switch from coal to clean energy.

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