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IEEFA Energy Finance 2016: How Environmentalists and Labor Forged a Post-Coal Partnership in Western New York

March 16, 2016

When NRG announced last August that it would close its increasingly decrepit coal-fired power plant in Tonawanda, N.Y., the community stood ready with a plan for a future without the plant, thanks to the leadership of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York and the Western New York Area Labor Federation, a local affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Representatives of those two groups spoke at IEEFA’s Energy Finance conference yesterday, explaining how their alliance helped prepare the local economy for the long-anticipated plant shutdown.

Rebecca Newberry, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition, said that it was important for environmental activists to see past scoring short-term points against polluting companies, and to take into account the human consequences of ending reliance on fossil fuels. “There’s a history of pain when entire communities lose their source of employment and income,” she said, adding that future generations feel the effects of such wrenching changes.

The Clean Air Coalition’s starting point was different from what many environmental groups do: instead of demanding that the plant shut down, the group sought to establish that because coal was no longer financially viable, the plant was already doomed. They asked, in effect, ‘When that happens, how will it affect our community?’

To make the case that the economics were no longer viable, the group turned to IEEFA to produce the report Huntley Generating Station: Coal Plant’s Weak Financial Outlook Calls for Corporate and Community Leadership, which helped begin a conversation with union leaders, politicians and area residents about planning for an economically viable future.

The power plant wasn’t just the area’s largest polluter: it also contributed millions of dollars a year in revenue to the town, including the majority of funding for the school district. As Newberry pointed out, her group realized far in advance that if the plant shut down, schools would also shut down, meaning teacher layoffs and increased class sizes.

While activists fighting coal and other fossil fuels in other parts of the country have met with fierce resistance from unions—as one attendee detailed from her own experiences —the Clean Air Coalition found a partner in the Western New York Area Labor Federation and its president, Richard Lipsitz.

The two groups worked together to get the community’s input on its priorities for a post-Huntley plant future: good-paying jobs, financial support for laid-off workers and the school district, and mitigation of environmental impacts on the former plant site.

“The movement for a better, cleaner environment is a working-class imperative,” Lipsitz said. He cautioned, however, that achieving a transition to renewable energy had to take into account the impacts on workers. “The solution should not be placed on the back of working people, on their unions, or on the communities where they live.”



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