Melissa Waage is completing a one-year training program through Green Corps, the field school for environmental organizing.

Sunday, 24 Feb 2002

WASHINGTON, D.C.

My Sunday began in Asheville, N. C. I woke up a little late, but within an hour I had packed everything I own into three giant Tupperware bins, several backpacks, and a large saucepan, and loaded it all into my car. Eight hours later, I was in Washington, D.C., my new home — well, home for a couple of months, anyway. Washington will be my third stop since August, when I began a year-long training program in grassroots environmental organizing through Green Corps.

I and 35 other recent college graduates began our Green Corps experience with a month of introductory classroom training in Boston, where the program is based. In classroom training, we learned some of the basics, from planning a campaign, to recruiting and managing volunteers, to fundraising. Our instructors included experienced organizers and other prominent faces in the environmental movement: Bob Bingaman, national field director for the Sierra Club; Lois Gibbs, founder of the Love Canal Homeowners Association; and Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat is On, to name only a few.

In early September, we headed for destinations all over the country to work with groups like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and INFACT on critical environmental campaigns. Most of us will work in two to five locations throughout the year on a variety of different campaigns. For instance, I ended up spending last fall in Portland, Ore., organizing Oregonians opposed to drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In January I moved to Asheville, where I worked with citizens throughout North Carolina to get Staples, the office superstore, to stock more recycled paper. Monday begins my first week in Washington, where I’ll be working with a coalition of environmental groups in Virginia on Clear the Air, a nationwide campaign to clean up dirty power plants.

The Clear the Air campaign addresses a problem that has become more and more evident to me since I began working with Green Corps: Values that are held by the vast majority of Americans are often completely disregarded by a government that is beholden to entrenched special interests. In this case, one of those cherished values — our public health — is being sacrificed so that ancient power plants can continue to evade modern clean air standards.

A loophole in the Clean Air Act allows around 600 power plants throughout the country to continue to operate, although they don’t meet current limits on the emission of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury. Emissions from these plants contribute to acid rain, asthma attacks, mercury poisoning, and 30,000 premature deaths per year, not to mention global warming.

The Clean Power Act, a Senate bill introduced by Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), would, if passed, close the loophole. My job for the next few weeks is to educate Virginians about the problem of dirty power plants, and help organize support for the Jeffords bill. At the same time, I’ll be developing the organizing skills I already have, and most likely learning some new ones.

As I psych myself up to start work tomorrow, I think about what a college friend of mine said when I told him what I’d be doing in Washington: “Why would anyone oppose a law like that? It sounds like a good idea.” Exactly. Let’s get it passed.