Friday, July 25, 2014

So They're Building a Power Plant Next to Your House

Come with me, dear readers, as I take you on a journey into a typical summer day in Jen's hood.

As cliche as it sounds, I wake up every day to birds chirping like crazy. We have so many birds around here it's like Cinder-freaking-ella is about to open her tower shutters and yell at that old clock. My home faces east and my bedroom rises with the sun - all light and early shadows and dawn, completely. Every weekday I am serenaded by the thunder of trucks leaving for work and every weekend I rise to the rumbles of Harleys leaving for a Saturday ride.

By mid-morning the kids of summer are emerging from their homes, barefoot, golden, eager for the sun to rise higher and signal the start of a sprinkler or two. Joggers, dog-walkers, garbage men, and mailmen make their rounds. Bees and monarchs duke it out over a bed of coneflowers and the short, loud barks of chipmunks pepper the air.

As dinnertime approaches I hear the trucks returning from work, driving just a little faster than they did in the morning, eager to get home, crack a beer, and fire up the grill. Lawn mowers spring to life. The smell of burning wood and charcoal permeates the air. Garage doors stay open, years worth of paint cans, rusty tools, and licenses plates on display like a suburban museum exhibit.

The sun falls farther behind my house as the day slips away. Post-dinner walkers start passing by now, families with strollers, runners, the golf cart crew on their way to their neighbor's horseshoe pit. Old Style and obese dogs, moms yelling and lawn chairs creaking. Someone decides to crank it up and the local country station drawls into our lives like a soundtrack. The mosquitoes start biting. The air turns sticky and the sky purple with the promise of night. And still the children of summer keep playing.

When the last rays of sun have shone and the light takes on that weird, can-barely-see sheen, I stare out the windows, eyes strained, searching for the first few flickers of lightening bugs. My youngest has fallen into a deep sleep by now. My oldest is racing around outside on her bike. My cat and I share a look....another day is done. Another one to come. And we're alright. We're doing just fine.

I love my neighborhood. I love looking into my backyard and seeing the cornfield behind it. I love driving down the street and seeing chickens pecking the ground. I love sending my kid to a one-school district with ten bright yellow buses sitting neatly in a row. I love the hawks, the foxes, the family of deer living near the river. This is my home, the place I want to raise my kids, the place I find myself settling into like a favorite chair, soft, comfortable, relaxing.

And that's all threatened now. You see, they're trying to build a power plant a few miles from my home. It will sit about 200 yards from the school, on a plot of land currently filled with cornstalks. The gas-fired, water-cooled power plant is state-of-the-art, the energy company tells us. It is needed, they say. It is clean, they say. The site they selected is perfect, they say. They say a lot of things.

This particular plant is a joint venture, a project split 50/50 between Enventure and Northland Power. We're in the beginning phases, technically, as the zoning meetings began just last night. The power companies are looking to amend the current ordinances we have for the property. Although zoned industrial, the standing ordinances do not allow for 9-story-high smoke stacks, 9-foot-high barbed wire fences, and the immediate depreciation of property values. This is poor news for the power companies. Poor little babes.

I first heard about the power plant a few weeks ago. I feel like I could write a book on all I've learned since then. Although the site is located outside my neighborhood, it sits right next to my daughter's school. I am friends with families who live within feet of the proposed build site and drive past the place every day. I knew, immediately, that I needed to be involved.

Now those who support the plant have taunted people like me with the phrase "NIMBY - Not In My Back Yard." They're essentially saying I wouldn't care if it didn't affect me. They could not be more accurate. I wouldn't be upset if they'd chosen another spot. It wouldn't be my problem. It would be sad, but it wouldn't be mine. This is me, being honest, transparent, and completely flawed. I am human. As I've written before, many times, you can never truly appreciate the devastation of a situation until you've lived it. This is human nature. So shout NIMBY at me all you want - you're right. I don't want it in my backyard. But I think a more appropriate thing to shout would be NIABY...because in all of my research, in the countless hours I've spent glued to this computer, what I'm finding out is that we don't need these plants in ANYONE'S backyard. Refurbishing coal plants, continuing wind power efforts, and experimenting with solar power options are all sustainable, non-destructive, and yes, very expensive alternatives to plopping a pollution machine right in the middle of a neighborhood. Of those three adjectives, sustainable, non-destructive, and expensive, which do you think the power companies are most concerned about? Nobody deserves this. Which is why I've taken tonight to write about it.

I never truly appreciated the struggle communities went through when faced with challenges like this. I don't guilt-trip myself about it too much - like I said, how could I have possibly understood without going through it myself. Ignorance is bliss. Now that I'm in the thick of it, though, I've learned a couple of critical things I feel I can pass down to anyone who is or might be dealing with these circumstances in their own town. Maybe by sharing what I've learned, I'll save at least one of you the heartache of starting from ground zero.

1. Identify a leader. My opposition group is led by two guys, both from the neighborhood, both with full-time jobs and (because I'm a picky writer) both with some pretty bad (but adorably real) grammar. It wasn't punctuation, though, that gained the support of over 1k Facebook followers in just two weeks. It wasn't spelling that raised almost $12,000 in under 6 days. It wasn't a professional event planning team that earned a crowd of over 800 people at the first zoning board meeting. These are regular guys with one very important, contagious character trait....passion. They are communicative, organized, but most importantly, dead-set on learning the most they can about the power plant and sharing their knowledge with their neighbors. Find a good leader and the troops will follow.

2. Use social media. No need to elaborate here too much. Everyone uses it and word spreads fast. It's easy to stay organized with invites, postings, polls, and shared links.

3. Educate yourself before siding with someone else's opinion. This one is really hard. The accusations against power plants are scary. The thought of your kid becoming sick is enough to cause immediate panic. I am particularly prone to jumping to conclusions. Calm down. Research. Plan your thoughts well. A few things I've learned about the power plant they're building in my area:

Water: The plant needs water to cool itself down. They plan on drilling a well to tap a major aquifer that runs through the state of Illinois and into parts of Wisconsin. This aquifer is already tapped by a number of other cities and at the rate at which we are pumping from it now, we won't be able to sustain water levels. This isn't the upper-level of water here, people...they want to draw from the lowest water level we've got. When it's gone, it's gone. The power plant needs 1.5 million gallons of water each day. The energy company has tried to circumvent our concerns about this by reaching out to local water treatment facilities. They've changed their stories a few times, the latest of which is that they will now be getting 100% of the water to cool the plant from waste treatment facilities. They've talked to the other cities, they say. It's a verbally done deal, they say. But they're still going to drill the well, they say. You know. Just in case.

Air: Gas combustion creates fumes. It's a chemical reaction. The plant will release nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide, and very small, hard-to-measure fine particulates. The power plant will filter out 90% of the nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide and produce only 10% the amount of fine particulates as coal-powered plants. Unfortunately, this still means pollutants will be added to the air. These pollutants contribute to respiratory disorders, stall lung development in children, and cause asthma. Because fine particulates are so small, researches have trouble studying them. The few studies they have done, however, show there is no safe level of exposure to these particulates. They bypass our lungs' defenses and infiltrate our system with ease...especially for the young and old.

Noise: Construction noise can reach upwards of 100db, depending on the equipment and the range at which you're listening to it. The human ear is damaged at 120db, or 85db if heard for a prolonged period. A child's learning, development, emotional state, and physical ability to concentrate is heavily affected by noise, especially if they have learning disabilities. Schools in my region have no air conditioning and will have windows open for about half the school year. Plant construction is estimated to take 2 years. They need to dig tunnels both in front and behind my child's school to transport waste water. I don't imagine the power company will be sharing their earplugs with my babies. Oh well. What's a lifetime of learning and hearing loss.

Plumes: Gas-powered, water-cooled power plants create steam. That steam creates plumes. In the winter, these plumes freeze and form ice over surrounding roadways. The Enventure director who sited our plant and sits opposite of my community in the zoning hearings, Conrad Anderson, actually wrote a paper detailing the dangers of plumes in northern states and described how some governments are demanding gas-fired plants be cooled by air instead of water. He also mentioned converting from water-cooled to air-cooled will increase the cost of plant installation and reduce plant capacity, increasing total production costs by 5-10%. Some good research there, Conrad. Appreciate the education. Ooop! Don't want to forget to cite my source. Wouldn't want to get sued! Click here or in any of the other blue areas in this paragraph to read good ol' Conrads professional analysis:

Security: Power plants need to be monitored around the clock. Power companies who propose plants next to schools, however, are not required to come to preliminary zoning hearings with security plans on what type of weapons their guards will be carrying or what caliber they will be discharging from with children playing 200 yards away. Those are not things the power plants came to the school or zoning board with, knowing ahead of time. No, no...instead they can wing it. Just a batch of unknown guns and a playground full of kids. What could go wrong?

Property values: Studies have shown neighborhoods within 2 miles of a power plant experience a 3-7% decrease in housing value. To do the math for you, if a home is worth $145k, it will drop in value by $4,350 - $10,150. Those are fun, numbers, right? Especially for blue-collar, middle-income families who get to experience the added sting of watching prairie grass turn into pavement.

Money: I'm not a numbers girl. Honestly, to do that math up there, I needed to break out a calculator. I don't know much about taxes, aside from they keep going up. I don't know much about hosting fees, except that they are paid to the township, village, or city directly. What I do know is that no amount of lipstick, no matter the shade, will make me wanna kiss a pig. Sorry, Wilbur.

School boards: School boards care about things like enrollment. Yes, they care about children's health and safety, but they also care about populations, numbers, and butts in seats. Decreases in enrollment mean decreases in money. I never thought about it from this perspective before; power plants drive people away. No new kids means no school. School boards will side with the citizens because it's the citizens they want to attract. Powerful allies!

Ok enough about what I've learned. Moving on to number four in my tip list.

4. Attend every meeting you can. Even when you're tired. Even when you've been working all day. Even if it means skipping dinner and missing out on time with your family. The community cannot be heard if the community is not there. Show up, wear the same color shirt as everyone else so your presence makes an impact, and stay for the whole thing. You honestly have the ability to make a difference. It's not just something they tell you in those feel-good self help books.

5. Donate. Donate your time. Donate your energy. Donate your money if you can. If you can't, no big deal. Make signs. Tie ribbons around trees. Write your political leaders. Contact environmental groups. Talk to attorneys. Spread the word door-to-door. Volunteer to lead research efforts for one of the major areas of concern. Give what you can and then give just a little more. The combined efforts of many can move a mountain.

6. Keep it classy. Emotions run high. It's expected and well justified. Don't let the anger get in the way of speaking clearly and being heard. You want people to want to listen to you. Don't lose sight of your goal - to get this plant out. Screaming is what these companies want to hear - it's unprofessional noise. Distracting. Dismissed. Calm voices, however....educated voices, voices that speak with respect and courtesy...those voices demand attention. Choose your voice wisely.

7. Don't give up. Don't let yourself get rattled by the opposition. You've researched this. You know where you stand. Have faith in yourself and your community. You will be challenged. Deal with it. You can't educate anybody unless they want to learn. Picture a kid with his fingers in his ears. He isn't going to hear you until he wants to. Let it be. Focus on you and those like you. Get the job done.

I won't know whether our efforts were successful or not for a while. What I do know, though, is that I will never, ever regret making the decision to join forces with my community and take a stand against something I know is wrong.

I drove home from a school board meeting this week and the craziest coincidences hit me like a splash of water. I was tired after the meeting and was driving barefoot, sick of wearing my work heels. I stepped on the brakes to stop at a light, looking through the fading daylight at the same farm I'd passed by hundreds of times, the one with the barn roof done by Copley roofing and the yard full of chickens and horses that always cause my girls to squeal and clap with delight when we pass by. In the pasture I noticed something I'd never seen before...a large, white, marquis sign, the words "STOP THE POWER PLANT" emblazoned on both sides. It detailed the time and place of the zoning hearing, imploring people to go and put an end to this madness. I squinted through the dark and saw, in very small letters on top, the words "Ed's Rental." My favorite farm, who'd done business with my favorite roofers, had rented a sign from good ol' Ed's Rental, a place I've also driven by a thousand times, always thinking about renting that rototiller or someday granting my big girl's wish and getting a blow-up castle for a day.

I kid you not, my eyes started welling up at the simplicity and pure defensiveness I felt at that moment for my town, for all these nooks and crannies I know so well, for all the memories I have etched in my brain. And if it wasn't mushy enough, as the light turned green I swear to you Rodney Atkin's voice started coming over my radio, singing in his sexy, happy way, "These are my people...this is where I come from..."

That moment, as I stared into the taillights of everyone who stayed late at the meeting, heading home like me, one long line of commonality and determination, that moment will stay with me for the rest of my life. My fight is far from over, and yours may not even have begun, but let me tell you, lovely readers, when you choose to inject yourself in the fibers of your community and fight toward a common goal side-by-side with your neighbor, you've already won.

I will keep you updated and as always, thank you so, so much for reading.

Update: August 8th, 2014: The power company lost their attorney (he was an elected official in the community and finally came to his senses after seeing over 800 people show up to the zoning meeting). The power company asked for a continuance until October. The zoning committee granted this continuance. I will post more when we learn more. Thanks again for reading!!

Update: September 24th, 2014: The power company has rescinded their proposal!!!!!! They are not moving forward with the zoning board (or any other board) to build their disgusting power plant. We've sent them running for the hills. This insanely favorable result wouldn't of been possible without the hard work and dedication of our opposition group leaders and the community members. Banning together with neighbors, gathering strength in numbers and governmental leaders, and staying dedicated to education - these are the three things I am proud to say we used to stop a power plant in our community! It can be done......we did it. We DID it. It's done :)


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Every Rose Does NOT Have Thorns, Bret

I was chillin outside the other day, checkin out my backyard flora, when I noticed these black thorns all over my Redbud tree. Now if any of you've ever owned a Redbud tree, you know these trees are the gems of spring. They sprout these gorgeous, bright-pink buds every spring....makes the whole tree look pink. A truly pink tree. 

In the summer the tree grows heart-shaped leaves. I kid you not - heart-shaped. In the fall it forms seed pods. They rustle in the wind all through the winter, dropping off one by one, making the coolest rattling noise I've ever heard. If I'd been a pioneer on the Midwestern prairie I would've used those pods to keep my babies happy. 

So you get it. I freakin love these trees. Some ladies love rosebushes. I love Redbuds...ahhhhh Cercis form of roses. 

Naturally, when I saw these thorns all over my Redbud, I wigged the frick out. I didn't want thorns all over my tree...what was this crap? Did some crazy vine start growing on it? Was it sick? Did I do something to the soil on accident? Was I overzealous or neglectful with my spring cleaning? Maybe I got the roots? How could my beautiful, most favorite tree become coated in thorns? I was on the brink of pure plant hysteria, people.

I decided to woman up and investigate. I reached out, tugged on a precious heart-shaped leaf,  and pulled a branch down toward me, gently, trying to get a better look at the thorns. They grew funny - not in a row or pattern, but more like clusters? No green under them....that's weird. So not some crazy creeping thorny vine. I slowly stuck out my index finger and floated it toward the thorns, wanting to test out the prick factor. Maybe they were those soft thorns ... there's such thing as soft thorns, right? Absolutely. So yes. Let's see if these are the soft variety.


Huh. I checked out my finger. Nothing. No mark, didn't hurt at all. In fact, everything was hunky-dory until I turned my attention back to the tree. I looked for the thorn...and it wasn't in the same place anymore. It'd moved. The thorn moved. Ah, there it is. I poked it again. It moved away from my finger. The thorn was walking.

For the record, I do not drop acid.

I stood there, gaping at the tree for a minute, seeing the thorns now not only on branches but also leaves. I'd lived here for 3 entire years, how could I have not noticed the trippy moving thorns all over my favorite tree? And I realized....all those thorns? The clusters of them? The random appearance? All characteristics of not a tree illness, not an invasive plant, not some caretaking mistake on my part.....but an innocent little bug, cleverly disguised as a thorn to fool predators and Jens across the world.

It was my perception that was off....a perception developed over time, using my senses and past experiences. The thorns I've met in the past have all been huge a-holes, snaggin my clothes, scratching my skin, and generally just being evil. I saw these cute lil bugs and immediately assumed the worst. I immediately thought I'd done something to cause them. I immediately registered loss. How sad, don't you think, that I couldn't even find it in my heart to investigate before I allowed myself to be consumed with these negative thoughts?

A number of people I love have experienced life-changing events as of late. Some of these events centered around relationships, others around jobs, some around health, and still others around family and friendships. Each struggle is different, but I noticed a common thread: in each situation, the person I love felt devastated and bad about themselves. They blamed themselves in one form or another...wondered what they could've done better, what they could've said differently, how they could've made themselves more desired, more healthy, more loved. They wondered how they would recover as days ticked by, blind anger wore off, and reality set in.

We've all been there.

The first thing I do when something goes wrong is get super pissed and reactive (omg THORNS on my TREE?? not my tree!!). The second thing I do is blame myself.

Now in some circumstances, I really do mess up and self-chastising is warranted. Sometimes I'm a real B and I say and do things that aren't right. But more often than not, after sitting down and  poking cute little bugs analyzing my situation, I realize some issues have nothing to do with me. Yes, I'm involved. Yes, they affect me. But they're not always my fault. They're not always avoidable. They're not always my problem to fix. Sometimes the other person is the problem. Sometimes a whacky little thorn bug perception is the problem. Sometimes a terrible job is the problem. Sometimes life is the problem.

Ain't nuthin' any one of us can do 'bout life. 

Sometimes things don't turn out the way we expect them to. In all my adventures and heartaches, I've found the most painful experiences are actually blessings in disguise. They test my strength. They force me to define my spirit. They humble me. 

And sometimes, while I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop and for life as I know it to just end, I realize there is no grand finale of viciousness. The brutality is all in my head, imagined up by fear and the past and stale resentment. Look at the spoon, Neo. There is no spoon. Look at the thorns, Jen. There are no thorns. Bret Michaels was wrong. 

Mathematical Proof:
Redbud trees = Jen's roses 
Redbud's thorns = not real thorns

EVERY rose ≠ thorns

Life has a funny way of surprising you. Who knew I'd one day never be able to trust an old rocker dude with a bandanna permanently glued to his head?

These surprises contribute to the flavor of life...that delicious combination of diversity and balance, good with bad, blessings with heartache. I love that each of our stories twist and turn like the well-worn pages of an old paperback. I could do without the pain, of course. And the fear. But you know, on this, the eve of my nation's independence, I find myself acknowledging a powerful trait we all-too-often take for granted....freedom. We are to be ourselves. Free to change our thoughts and perspective. Free to choose ourselves, our happiness, our joy. Free from the restraints of whatever sorrows we're experiencing. We're, tomorrow, any day we want. We may not have the power to change life's surprises...but we do have the power to draw life from them. Gulp the liquid of life down, swallow your bitter pills, and take another sip. Be thirsty for more. 

To the readers and loves in my life who are struggling with bitter's too short. Swallow it. Wallow in the taste for a bit if you want. It's ok if you don't like it. Make a weird face. Then take another sip. Your life flows freely. Pursue whatever current you want. Choose whatever flow suits you. Soak it up.

And as always, thank you so much for reading.