Kathleen Whitley, a Long Island native, is program manager of the Sustainable Energy Alliance of Long Island.

Sunday, 26 Aug 2001

LONG ISLAND, N.Y.

It’s an interesting story how I came to be writing these diaries for Grist Magazine.

Two months ago, I happened to be in Loudoun County, Va., with my oldest daughter’s softball team. They had made it to a national tournament, and we were spending the week in Sterling, a township of Loudoun. Anyway, for those of you who read Daily Grist, you may remember an item from some weeks ago about the escalating urban sprawl in — you guessed it — Loudoun County. I immediately wrote in to share my observations firsthand, and the next thing I knew, I received an email asking if I would like to write the diary for a week. Being the huge fan I am of Grist, how could I say no?

A little background information: I am the self-appointed program manager for the Sustainable Energy Alliance of Long Island (SEA). I say “self-appointed” because none of us is paid for what we do here … we all contribute our time to this cause outside of other jobs, families, and other commitments. SEA is a nonprofit coalition of environmental, civic, and health organizations that have come together to create a sustainable and healthy energy future for Long Island. The end goal of our mission? To produce a comprehensive “Citizens Energy Plan for Long Island” (something that has never existed but is badly needed), with an emphasis on reducing energy waste and increasing efficiency.

The main thrust of our agenda is centered around energy production and the faux energy crisis excuse the Bush administration is using to justify building 20 new power plants a week for the next 10 years (you do the math). For Long Island, this is a dangerous proposition — our narrow, overdeveloped, overpopulated, global warming-threatened island is part of the third-worst smog region in the country (along with New York City, of course). We are at a major crossroads of energy change here on Long Island and cannot afford to address our energy needs with outdated, 20th-century solutions anymore.

There is, of course, the list of usual suspects when it comes to obstacles we are facing in our uphill battle for change. Political agendas, legal and regulatory hurdles, NIMBY-ism (lots of that here), and economic considerations all cloud the realities of how traditional power plant production negatively effects public health and our fragile environment. For Long Islanders, this issue becomes more acute, because we draw our drinking water from a federally designated sole source aquifer. Whenever a power plant is built, we not only have more toxic emissions seeping into our soil and groundwater, but also the storage of hazardous backup fuels is a potential threat in terms of contamination, should a leak occur. We also must be concerned about our declining air quality, already under siege from too many cars (you cannot believe the traffic congestion) and too much industry in a concentrated area. Plus, we are the unlucky recipients of emissions from those Midwestern coal-fired plants you here so much about in the news.

But perhaps our greatest challenge lies with public perception. It absolutely baffles me every day how little people really understand about power generation or its adverse effects. We have become so numbed by all our conveniences and modern technology that we don’t even make the connection anymore between flicking a switch on the wall and where the power comes from. I call this phenomena “The Human Disconnect.” It scares me that people listen so much to, and actually believe, what they hear on the news and what the big, profit-driven power industries (all fossil fuel based, of course) tell them. If we don’t wake up and start thinking for ourselves — including taking responsibility for our share of the problem — we won’t have much of a sustainable future for us or our kids.

This is why we created the Sustainable Energy Alliance. Our job is to educate people and help them understand how energy production affects their daily lives. The urban sprawl in Loudoun County, Va., is an excellent example of a disturbing trend in our country that has everything to do with our inability to achieve sustainability and wise energy consumption. We have to understand and embrace the reality that, for every action, there is a consequence. Never has that concept been more true than in the dawn of this new century, when having more, and refusing to do with less, is the mantra of the day.