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Smokes gets in the eyes of federal prosecutors

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In an average day, the Hatfield's Ferry power plant in Greene County emits nearly 500 tons of smog-causing pollution. It belches out 27,000 tons of carbon dioxide, contributing to greenhouse gases which may someday result in severe global climate change. And each day it adds another pound or so to the 440 pounds of mercury -- a pollutant suspected of causing birth defects -- it releases into the atmosphere each year.

 

On one of those average days, June 23, half-a-dozen activists from Greenpeace climbed up the plant's smokestack. With smoke billowing above their heads, they unfurled a 2,500-square-foot banner reading "The Bush Energy Plan Kills -- Clean Energy Now!" The activists themselves notified law enforcement of the protest; plant employees didn't notice them until reporters began calling for comment. At day's end, the activists rolled up their banner and returned to earth, where they were quietly taken into custody.

 

So which is more dangerous: the protesters who unfurled a banner in the breeze, or the plant that laces the wind with sulfur dioxide, mercury and ash?

 

If you said "the protesters," there may be a place for you in the Bush administration. The U.S. Attorney's office in Pittsburgh has charged the protesters with a federal count of "destruction of an energy facility," a charge which carries a maximum of 20 years in prison. While the activists already faced state charges for trespassing, U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the federal case was justified because the protesters "put the facility workers and themselves in great danger."

 

It's hard to imagine how exactly. But on the other hand, it's nice to see the Bush administration taking such unaccustomed interest in worker safety. If only it took other potential threats at Hatfield's Ferry as seriously.

 

According to statistics compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency, the plant is one of the nation's leading sources of mercury, a pernicious pollutant that has poisoned Pennsylvania waters and wildlife. The environmentalist Clean Air Council estimates that more than 200 premature deaths each year result from Hatfield's Ferry pollution. Such warnings may be exaggerated -- the plant's owners, Maryland-based Allegheny Power, maintain they operate within EPA regulations -- but probably no more than the feds are hyping the threat posed by Greenpeace. 

 

After all, what damage did the activists really do? Paul Brysh, an attorney in Buchanan's office, says the protest interfered with plant deliveries and the removal of fly ash from the smokestack. It would certainly be ironic if environmentalists were preventing pollution control. It would be even more ironic if the government cared.

 

Just last fall, the Bush administration dropped an investigation into whether Hatfield's Ferry -- and scores of other utilities nationwide -- was violating pollution standards. "We were developing evidence that these plants were in violation of EPA regulations," says Eric Schaeffer, who headed the EPA's Office of Regulatory Enforcement until 2002, when he resigned to protest the administration's lax enforcement. The investigation was dropped, he says, because the government was preparing laxer standards that were issued last December. Regulations were changed "to make lawful all the conduct we suspected was illegal," says Schaeffer. Meanwhile, "These Greenpeace guys climb a stack, and suddenly everyone is paying attention."

 

 Some activists see a broader agenda at work behind the Greenpeace prosecution. "What we're seeing is part of a systematic campaign to suppress and criminalize dissent," says David Meieran of the Save Our Civil Liberites Campaign. At demonstrations against trade policies and the Iraq war, he says, the government is filing "much harsher charges than they did a few years ago. Every effort is being made to block and deny [parade] permits, and pre-emptive ordinances are being passed" to outlaw protests before they happen.

 

While acknowledging "We are more sensitive to activity that involves energy facilities" since 9/11, Brysh says the government is "not taking a harder line on protest." The charges may even be reduced before a preliminary hearing scheduled for early August.

 

But maybe the biggest threat to our way of life isn't the charges federal prosecutors file. Maybe it's the charges they don't.

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