[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 3/18/10] Unless you’ve been holed up in a fallout shelter for the last several years, you’re probably well aware of the controversy surrounding the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant’s bid for relicensing. Amidst all the politics, debate and rancor, the fact remains that this is an issue that affects all Vermonters. Pro or con, we all have an opinion on VY, and on nuclear power in general. To that end, it is imperative to remain informed, active and engaged so that we can all reach an intelligent and responsible solution to this problem.
While the pro-Yankee side has the benefit of Entergy’s PR machine, everyday citizens are decidedly less equipped.
Grassroots organizing can be daunting work – oftentimes, it’s lots of effort with little return. Success requires the commitment of individuals who are passionate about the issue, and able to extend that passion to others within the community.
Enter Greenpeace. A few weeks ago, John Deans – a field organizer for the nongovernmental organization whose mission is to “ensure the ability of the earth to nurture life in all its diversity” – arrived in Rutland to work with concerned citizens on taking action ahead of VY’s scheduled shutdown when its current license expires in 2012.
I caught up with Deans following a recent “action night” where he and other Greenpeace volunteers instructed attendees on how to write effective letters to the editor of their local newspapers.
“It’s important to give community members the capacity to see the change they want,” he said of the evening’s activity.
The Topsham, Maine, native has seen the result of action firsthand. His father worked on the effort to decommission Maine Yankee, the Wiscasset-based nuclear power plant, which ceased operation in 1997.
Growing up in an environmentally conscious family had a definite influence on Deans’ future work with Greenpeace.
“In my hometown, we watched development and construction overtake the natural land,” he says of the unchecked sprawl that plagues so many communities today.
Deans joined up with Greenpeace in 2008 after earning a degree in human ecology from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. His first gig was in Elmira, N.Y., where he focused on encouraging congressional candidates to listen to public concerns about global warming. Interestingly, one of those candidates was Democrat Eric Massa, who drew attention last week over disparaging comments he made about his own party and his surreal implosion during an interview with Glenn Beck.
“I never encountered any tickle fights,” Deans joked as we discuss the litany of Massa’s bizarre revelations.
Getting back on track, I ask Deans about his work here in Rutland. While he is buoyed by the Vermont Senate’s recent 26-4 vote against re-licensing Yankee, he is quick to remind me that a declaration of victory is premature. The House still needs to vote, and until that vote occurs Entergy is not going to give up an inch.
“We’re up against an incredibly well-funded corporation. That’s hard to beat,” Deans said, of Entergy. Indeed, Entergy does have deep pockets. In a small state like Vermont, a little money can go a long way in a public relations campaign (or a political campaign, for that matter).
“They’re not quitting,” said Deans. “We can’t either.”
In the face of such adversity, it’s easy for people to get discouraged, to feel like they can’t make a difference. As a field organizer, Deans’ job is to get people involved. He identifies, recruits and works with local volunteers, helping them set up activities and events, and encouraging them to contact their local representatives. His goal is to equip people with the resources and confidence necessary to take action and make that difference.
“The Senate vote has shown that we can,” Deans said resolutely.
The vote was a big win; though, I suggest to Deans that the move to vote was accelerated in large part because of Yankee’s own missteps – the undisclosed pipes, the tritium leak, the “miscommunications” (at times under oath) – it seems that, at the end of the day, Entergy was its own worst enemy.
“We appreciate all the help that they’ve given us,” he said with a slight smile.
Nonetheless, it’s going to take sustained citizen action to ensure a similar vote in the House.
As for all time he gets to spend in Rutland, Deans is enjoying it. When Greenpeace assigned him to southern Vermont, he could have settled in any number of other places in the region.
“A fellow organizer up in Burlington spoke highly of Rutland,” Deans said, citing amenities such as an active downtown with a co-op and coffee shops, abundant recreational activities and the city’s convenient location in relation to the rest of southern Vermont.
“This is a great community,” he said.
That statement might be a surprise to some locals who tend to only see the negative aspects of Rutland. However, as we’ve seen time and again, visitors consistently discover the positive. Maybe, it depends on what you’re looking for. And maybe, we’re actually doing something right.
Our conversation drifts on and off topic (and the record) as we digress into a broader discussion of the decline of intelligent discourse in the mainstream media and in government – tea baggers, political celebrity, the increasingly obscured line between fact and opinion – it’s the risk you run when you put a couple of politics wonks at the same table.
Soon we bring it back around to Yankee. He once again stresses that the battle is far from over, and that continued citizen action is paramount.
“A problem with democracy is that it’s latent,” Deans says, noting that people often neglect their civic duties due to busy lives spent working and managing their families and finances. “In my opinion, voting isn’t enough for citizenship.”
Seeing people make that turn to activism keeps Deans going. He marvels at how the simple act of asking can make people feel empowered, feel like they are needed. “It’s so rewarding to see, time and again, people show their true color and make a difference when given the chance.”
He is also quick to note that Vermont is special. “More people just ‘get it’ here.”
But for Deans, any victory over Vermont Yankee will be bittersweet. In many ways the damage is already done. He acknowledges the cost of nuclear energy – especially, when managed irresponsibly – on the local ecosystem. Water and land has been contaminated. And Vermonters will be fighting that battle long after Deans’ work here is done.