Julie Macuga paints two scenes when describing the Merrimack River – the first as a scenic site, where kayakers and canoers alike can float in nature. The second image is an ugly industrial site crowding the waterway with tall, brown smokestacks spewing clouds of carbon, polluting the water and air.
“It’s this beautiful place and it’s juxtaposed with this horrible coal plant,” she said.
Macuga was one of a group of protesters who paddled up and down the river on Wednesday in protest of the Merrimack Station power plant in Bow.
Just after the sun came up, she and eleven other “kayakativists” from the campaign No Coal No Gas took to the river at 6 a.m. in their latest demonstration in hopes of shutting down the plant.
The coal stack burned as the group sang and chanted, paddling up and floating back down in front of the plant.
“We do what we must be done,” they sang.
Taking to the river was a new approach – one that was part practical, from a legal standpoint since the river is a public waterway, and part fun.
“The people who were out in the boats, were out there lawfully, on the water, doing the things that lots of people do in New England every beautiful summer day,” said Marla Marcum, one of the kayakers. “It was a change of pace, it was fun and a new point of view.”
The kayaktivists deemed the day a victory. By 4 p.m., they said the plant had stopped burning coal.
Essentially turning off the plant, that only operates a few days a year, gave the group reason to celebrate – even if they didn’t see it stop themselves.
“It was our hope to be able to watch that smokestack to stop churning. I guess we just didn’t stay on the water long enough,” said Marcum.
Granite Shore Power, the joint venture company that owns the plant would not comment as to why the plant was operating Wednesday.
When the plant is operating at full capacity, it generates the same amount of carbon in one hour as the average American generates in 26 years, according to the No Coal No Gas campaign.
The plant, which is the last coal-fired plant in New England without a shutdown date, is funded at least through the summer of 2025. The activists want to change that.
The group knows how to draw a crowd – whether that’s supporters or police. In 2019, months after forming, the campaign led the largest green demonstration in New Hampshire since the 1970s.
Dressed in white hazmat suits, activists sang, chanted and marched around the plant with the same goal in mind: shut it down. Police arrested 67 people for trespassing that day.
On Wednesday, when the kayakers returned to their launch point on Ferry Street in Allenstown around noon, the police were waiting. No arrests were made even though protesters had left signs, buckets and a flower pot on the plant’s property.
The group said its work is far from over.
Atlas Holdings, one of two investment firms that make up Granite Shore Power, is not new to the fossil fuel industry. The company owns a gas-fired power plant on Seneca Lake in New York. This plant is currently operating to sustain the energy-intensive process of bitcoin mining.
Marcum worries this could be the future of the Merrimack plant, given how profitable the operation is.
“That is a scary idea that I would have thought is science-fiction a year and a half ago,” she said.
The next move for the campaign is a three-day mass action event in October. They don’t know what they will do yet. But they want it to be big, garnering a large crowd behind their mission.
In the simplest terms, the group’s goal with every demonstration is to shut the plant down, according to Marcum. But there are interim paths they can take to work towards this.
One route is through the regional power grid operator by forcing the ISO New England to rethink its strategy for electrical capacity in the area, without the use of fossil fuels.
If New England moves away from fossil fuels, Marcum hopes the region could serve as a model for other power grids.
But until these conversations become a reality, the group plans to continue to disrupt and dissent until their voices are heard. Macuga said she feels compelled to protest for a variety of reasons.
“It is the destruction of our planet, it is the ongoing injustices that you see with things like coal mining and coal burning. This is our home,” she said. “It is really our responsibility to shut this thing down so that we can continue to live on this planet.”