Activists mount hunger strike over planned natural gas plant

  • Judith Black of Marblehead says there is an urgent need to leave fossil fuels in the ground and to progress from conservation to renewable energy to battery facilities, and to choose safer ways to meet energy needs. She was one of six that have been embarked on a hunger strike that participated in a standout in South Hadley on Saturday, March 19. STAFF PHOTO/EMILY THURLOW

  • People from all over the state assembled in South Hadley on Saturday, March 19 protesting the community's contract with the proposed fossil-fueled Peabody peaker plant. Six of the activists were on a hunger strike for No New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure and review of the Peabody plant. STAF PHOTO/EMILY THURLOW

  • Sue Donaldson of Northampton was one of six that have been embarked on a hunger strike that participated in a standout in South Hadley on Saturday, March 19. STAFF PHOTO/EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer
Published: 3/20/2022 6:17:08 PM
Modified: 3/20/2022 6:16:19 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — The transition from working life to retirement looks different for everyone. Some dabble with genealogy or playing in their garden, while others finally embark on that trip they never managed to make time for. For most, retirement is a time for rest as they leave the workforce.

That, however, is not the case for Sue Donaldson.

Since retiring from a career in psychiatry in 2014, Donaldson has become a full-time climate activist. A self-described “quiet introvert,” Donaldson, who moved to Northampton from Cambridge last year, has found herself yelling through a bullhorn in Harvard Square and has even been arrested a number of times for civil disobedience. And most recently, she added a hunger strike to her list of new life experiences.

On Saturday, Day Five of the hunger strike, she joined nearly 30 others from all over the state in front of the First Congregational Church in South Hadley to protest the community’s contract with the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. as part of a proposed natural gas plant in Peabody.

“We cannot keep making new ways to burn fossil fuels through fossil fuel infrastructure,” said Donaldson as rain started to sprinkle on her and her fellow protesters Saturday morning.

Donaldson is one of six activists of the climate group 350 Massachusetts who are engaging in a hunger strike for no new fossil fuel infrastructure and review of the Peabody “peaker” plant, which is designed to run during times of peak demand throughout the year.

South Hadley has contracted for approximately 10% of the energy from the plant as part of a 30-year contract, joining more than a dozen other municipal light departments. Holyoke, which had originally contracted with the proposed plant, has since requested that its shares be transferred elsewhere. In a previous interview with the Gazette, Holyoke Gas & Electric Manager James Lavelle said that Holyoke no longer requires the energy from the plant.

Donaldson and fellow hunger striker Judith Black of Marblehead said they hope that the other communities that have a contract with the plant like South Hadley will see the urgent need to leave fossil fuels in the ground and to progress from conservation to renewable energy to battery facilities, and to choose safer ways to meet energy needs — and find a way out of the contract.

Their hope is that if others join in asking to exit the project, there will be a larger effect and a more collective effort. Additionally, they hope to alert the public and invite others to join their movement.

While some have questioned the decision to embark on a hunger strike and even called the act “dangerous,” Black asserted that the planet is dying.

“We wanted to illustrate the urgency,” said Black. “Our species is on the brink of destroying the livability of our planet. We are on a strike to bring attention to that truth through this specific project, and demand its end.”

To end the hunger strike, the six activists are demanding that municipal electric boards rescind their contracts with the project, and that Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. CEO Ronald DeCurzio cancel the project and re-apply for the 100 MW Westover Energy Storage Center battery project.

The activists are also demanding that Gov. Charlie Baker and Energy Secretary Kathleen A. Theoharides conduct community health and environmental impact reviews, and that Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, order an investigative hearing into the electric company’s contracts for the Peabody plant as well as the Westover Energy Storage Center.

Creem is chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change.

“We’re hoping our demands will be met soon,” said Donaldson.

With signs advocating for clean energy, protesters proceeded from the side of the road to the gazebo across the street where they began chanting and sharing protest songs.

This is not the first time that the construction of the Peabody plant has been scrutinized. In December, the project drew protests in front of Peabody District Court, where demonstrators held signs calling the investment in non-renewable energy “peak stupidity.”

In November, protesters in Holyoke, whose electric company is no longer invested in the project, held a rally in front of the region’s wholesale power operator, ISO New England, joining organizers in Peabody in calling on the operator to move the electrical grid away from fossil fuels.

The six activists are encouraging anyone interested to join in a symbolic fast of any length to express support for their goals.

Because fasting is not for everyone, Black also suggested that those who are interested in supporting their efforts may instead “fast from fossil fuels” for a similar period, by not driving or turning down the heat, as much as possible.

Interested participants are encouraged to email climatecourageusa@gmail.com.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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