Thousands of people will gather in Washington, D.C., Saturday for a march to demand action on climate change and rejecting the Trump administration’s promise to overturn or scale back the federal efforts on climate. The People’s Climate March comes one day after President Donald Trump announced yet another executive giveaway to the fossil fuel industry, an order that will begin a legally contentious attempt to cancel President Barack Obama’s bans on offshore drilling in the Arctic and off the Atlantic coast. The order could eventually open for drilling additional new waters in the Gulf of Mexico, or even in the Pacific, where hardly any new drilling has taken place since a massive spill coated beaches in the 1960s and helped launch the environmental movement.
Trump has framed his promises to push forward energy infrastructure projects and to deregulate industry as a jobs program, with residents of industry towns as beneficiaries. But climate march attendees from centers of fossil fuel production, transportation, and processing tell a different story. They come from places where creeks run orange, where the air smells like tar, where a depleted water table causes the land to crack and cave in.
The climate march follows the Women’s March, the Native Nations March, the Tax March, and last weekend’s March for Science. But as with past marches, demonstrators with the most at stake will face their biggest battles not in the nation’s capitol, but in small communities that few have heard of.
On Wednesday, Remy, an artist who goes by one name, was working out of a pop-up art space in a vacant restaurant in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Cleveland Park, building a massive covered wagon that will lead the march. The wagon will be pierced with arrows printed with words like “sovereignty” and will emit simulated fire and smoke. To Remy, the project’s references to colonialism, racism, and greed speak to the root causes of the climate crisis. He said making it a spectacle is important, because “it’s sometimes hard for us to get our messages across inside these NGO- and non-profit-led spaces.” He reflected on the event, “Are we just marching to march? Are we having photo ops to build our brand? Because if that’s what we’re doing I’m busy; my community needs me.”
Remy and his partner on the project, Wiyaka Eagleman, were away from home much of the past year. Eagleman joined the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline early on, back in April 2016 when the first anti-pipeline camp, called Sacred Stone, was constructed. The year before, he’d been involved in a different camp in South Dakota, near the Rosebud Sioux Reservation where he’s from. There, he and other tribal members occupied land on the Keystone XL pipeline’s path.
Remy soon joined Eagleman in North Dakota and both stayed for months, participating in direct actions against the Dakota Access pipeline that were violently repressed by police. Within days of his inauguration, Trump issued an executive action cancelling an expanded environmental impact study on the project and fast-forwarding the project’s completion. The camps were forcibly closed.
An order on the same day revived the Keystone XL. Now oil is flowing through the Dakota Access pipeline, and Eagleman has been on the road, visiting other sites of dissent in Iowa and Oklahoma. He sees the Dakota Access fight as one that has now dispersed to new oil and gas infrastructure construction sites in places including Louisiana and Nebraska.
But for Remy growing up, coal was the dirty neighbor. He’s from the Navajo Nation in Arizona, “canyons within canyons,” as he describes it. Remy grew up in the shadow of Peabody Coal’s Kayenta mine and its sole client, the massive Navajo Generating Station, a quarter of which is owned by the federal government. The plant and the mine together employ 750 people and pay the Navajo Nation about $40 million annually in royalties and lease payments.
When Peabody built the mine in 1967, it uncovered a village that included nearly 200 sets of human remains, which were sent to Southern Illinois University and have never been returned. The huge plant is one of the most polluting in the nation, casting a murky haze over the Grand Canyon.
For years, the coal mine’s owners fought to expand the project, clashing with local people like Remy’s uncle, Marshall Johnson. By last February, persistently low natural gas prices convinced the plant owners it no longer made economic sense to keep burning coal. They announced it would close by 2019 – a huge victory for Remy’s uncle.
But under Trump, even that victory, driven by market forces, is at risk. Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently attended meetings aimed at exploring options for keeping the plant open. And Peabody Coal executives reportedly pledged to “turn over every rock” in search of a way to avoid closure.
For veteran environmental justice organizers that have been fighting polluting fossil fuel projects in their communities for decades, that boomerang feeling has been particularly painful this election cycle. On Thursday, many longtime organizers began arriving in time for an annual environmental justice forum in advance of the march. For the second year in a row, the forum included a direct action training, reflecting a movement-wide turn toward more confrontational strategies.
“I used to try really hard not to feel hard at my neighbors and feel hard at people who voted for certain people,” said Teri Blanton, who grew up and raised children in Kentucky coal country’s Harlan County and has been a key figure in the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining. But, she said, “I’m carrying the same signs I carried when Clinton went into office, when Bush went into office, and when Obama went into office.”
Blanton lost a brother to a coal mining accident and her father to black lung disease. She recalled a creek that ran behind her old house that was destroyed by strip mining. The “little woman that was the creek-watcher,” too nervous to report problems herself, would notify Blanton when the creek had changed to black or was running orange. Blanton fought for more than a decade to get a stream protection rule passed that would prevent coal companies from dumping strip mining waste near creeks. Obama finally signed such a rule last December, but in February Congress used the Congressional Review Act, in effect only after a new president takes office, to cancel it.
Explaining what she sees as the importance of the march, Blanton said, “I think it gives me some energy and some will, to know that I’m not alone in this belief that we have to stand up and do something.”
The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice is in line to close as well, according to a Trump administration budget proposal. Goldman Prize winner Hilton Kelley worked closely with the office for years to push industry in the mostly African-American refinery town of Port Arthur, Texas, to prevent accidents that cause clouds of chemicals to periodically waft through his neighborhood.
“The moment you relax regulations, what these guys have a tendency to do is to operate those units until they break down and spend money only when they have to,” Kelley said.
The community is home to many of the chemical manufacturers and petroleum refineries that absorb the nation’s oil and gas boom. Oil carried by the Dakota Access pipeline will end up there, and tar sands oil that may eventually be carried by the Keystone XL is already arriving in Port Arthur by rail. Community members suffer from widespread respiratory problems and cancers. Since a study of the cumulative impact of inhaling various chemicals has never been undertaken, “We shoulder the burden of proof,” said Kelley. “It’s another game that the system plays to keep corporate America one step ahead of us.”
Refinery communities like Kelley’s dot Texas’s Gulf Coast, but at the Southern tip of the state’s coastline, Brownsville has largely avoided fossil fuel industry development. That may soon change.
Back at the pop-up art space, Bekah Hinojosa, who’s from a town near Brownsville called Weslaco, constructed giant puppets on sticks depicting EPA head Scott Pruitt, Secretary of State and former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, and President Trump. Her community is under threat of being hit by both Trump’s obsession with border security and his push to expand the fossil fuel industry.
Brownsville, a mostly Latino community that is one of the most impoverished in Texas, is already bisected in places by a border wall that leaves land owned by U.S. citizens on the southern side of the structure — a zone referred to as “No Man’s Land.” Trump would fill the remaining gaps in the area’s wall.
Meanwhile, three Liquid Natural Gas export facilities have been proposed in the city’s port, meant to expand the market for gas extracted via hydraulic fracturing. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to decide next year whether the facilities will go forward. For now, her community awaits the results of a space rocket collision analysis, exploring the likelihood that a rocket from the nearby SpaceX facility will collide with one of the new plants.
Hinojosa has little faith that her community’s objections will resonate with the commission, which has long been considered a rubber stamp for natural gas projects. Trump is expected to appoint industry-friendly regulators to vacant commission positions, further reducing the chances FERC will say no. Hinojosa is also painfully aware of the fact that her community abuts the coast. Any new offshore development that comes out of Trump’s latest order makes her home that much more vulnerable to spills in the Gulf.
Now that the Dakota Access fight has died down and the Keystone XL fight is only beginning to ramp up, Remy and Eagleman are planning to spend time at home. After the march, Remy said he plans to head back to help with his family’s ranch in the Navajo Nation. Eagleman will go back to the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.
“I think I need to start fighting in my own homeland against things like drugs, alcohol. Just being away this whole month, I could be home at this hearing for uranium mining or I could be helping my family,” said Eagleman. He’s preparing for a renewed Keystone XL fight, but the events of the last year have weighed on him. “I’m trying to find my own space, trying to heal.”