Activists recognized for role in Somerset Station ouster

Somerset, MA – Local residents Pauline Rodrigues, Dave Dionne, Joe Carvalho, Al Lima, Joyce Mello, Connie Brodeur, Emily Johns and others are being recognized for their leadership in the effort to protect the environment and the health of people in Massachusetts by closing down the Somerset coal plant. Members of the local Somerset group, the Coalition for Clean Air, have been selected from more than 100 nominees to receive one of Toxics Action Center’s 25 Years of Victories Awards.

Award winners were chosen by a selection committee of distinguished environmental and public health professionals and will be honored at the Environmental Action 2012 conference in Boston, Massachusetts on March 3rd. Lois Gibbs of the 1970’s Love Canal toxic cleanup case will hand out the awards and congratulate the winners.

“These volunteer leaders worked tirelessly to ensure cleaner air for their community, and their victories are testament to the power of citizen organizing,” said Sylvia Broude, the Organizing Director of Toxics Action Center. “We are pleased to see this old dinosaur retired, and we hope to see it replaced with clean, sustainable development that will revitalize the waterfront and strengthen Somerset’s tax base.” 

NRG Energy had committed to clean up or close down its old Somerset coal plant by 2010 in order to meet clean air regulations. Instead, the company applied for permits to convert to gasification and burn a toxic mix of coal and waste for fuel, continuing to emit almost two tons of lead into the air every year. Toxics Action Center and local residents called on the company to uphold its promise.

After two years of intense grassroots organizing, in January 2010 the coal plant shut down. When the company later announced plans to rebuild as a gasification incinerator, Toxics Action Center helped local leaders keep the pressure on, and in a major victory for the groups last February, NRG announced they would remain closed.

Coalition for Clean Air leaders didn’t stop there. Last year, they generated the support needed to pass a bylaw at town meeting instructing the town to develop a reuse plan for the old power plant site. Pauline Rodrigues is the leader of the volunteer group. She has lived in Somerset for nearly fifty years, and she decided to get involved in the effort out of concern for her grandchildren who live near the power plant. Pauline lives only a block away from the coal plant.

“The residents of Somerset have been breathing easier since Somerset Station ceased spewing toxic air pollution into our community two years ago,” said Rodrigues. “Today we can all breathe a deep, clean sigh of relief knowing that Somerset Station will not be coming back.”

The 25 Years of Victories Awards recognize 25 of the most successful local efforts to clean up or prevent toxic pollution across New England between 1987 and 2012. Those years correspond with the 25 years that Toxics Action Center, an environmental group based in Boston, has been working with neighborhoods and community leaders.

Toxics Action Center was inspired into being by the mothers of Woburn Massachusetts who took action to protect their health of their children when the chemical company W.R. Grace contaminated their drinking water. The Woburn leukemia-cluster eventually claimed the lives of 14 children. In response, in 1987 a group of public health and environmental advocates created an organization to help residents who faced their own Woburn situations.

Toxics Action Center – known in those days as the Massachusetts Campaign to Clean Up Hazardous Waste – began organizing citizens to pass ballot initiatives to protect residents from harmful toxic waste. The first initiative increased enforcement, cleanup, and citizen access within Massachusetts’s Superfund system. Now Toxics Action Center has offices in every New England state and works with more than 80 communities each year.

“Margaret Mead said ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.’ Toxics Action Center takes a lot of small groups, gives them what they need to grow into a citizen movement and fight the Goliaths they’re facing in their community and knit them together to be an effective force in the Commonwealth and beyond,” said Rodrigues. “We couldn’t have done it without Toxics Action Center, and we are grateful for their help.”

Toxics Action Center has worked side by side with more than 700 communities and directly trained more than 10,000 individuals.