Environmental Almanac

PowerShift conference an eye-opener for student environmental leaders from U of I

Group shot of Illinois students attending the PowerShift conference in Pittsburgh

UIUC students attending the PowerShift conference in Pittsburgh Rob Kanter

Most people who sympathize with the individuals and communities harmed by coal mining and natural gas extraction do so on the basis of media accounts or documentary films.

That was previously the case for Leah Wurster, a U of I undergraduate in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, who is also an organizer for the Student Sierra Coalition, and an active member of Students for Environmental Concerns (SECS).

That changed in October, when Wurster and a group of forty other UI students attended a conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania called “PowerShift.” It was, in the terms of organizers, a gathering of more than 10,000 youth leaders from around the country with the ambitious goal of building a movement to “fight fracking, divest from fossil fuels, build a clean energy future, and stop the climate crisis.”

I met with Wurster recently over lunch at the Red Herring to talk about the experience. We were joined by two other students who are active in environmental efforts on campus and who also attended the conference, Peter Whitney and Tyler Rotche.

When I asked the three to describe the aspect of the weekend that had had the greatest impact on them, they quickly agreed: Hearing directly from people in front-line communities. Wurster added, “You never know what’s been clipped when you see people in a documentary; it’s a different experience to actually hear them speak and be able to ask them questions.”

As an example, the students told about a man only a few years older than they are named Junior Walk, who lives in the coal country of southern West Virginia. In fact, Walk explained, he lives in the shadow of a massive earthen impoundment of coal slurry, the mixture of water and toxic byproducts created by washing coal. Should that impoundment fail, Walk and his neighbors will pay the price, in property and lives.

The students were moved by the stories Walk told of how locals suffer where mountains are torn down to extract coal. Their water is fouled and undrinkable, the air they breathe is filled with dust from coal processing, and they are subject to a long list of illnesses caused by constant exposure to the coal pollution.

The students also responded strongly to stories they heard from Kandi Mossett of North Dakota, who was there to represent the Indigenous Environmental Network. Mossett called attention to the devastating impacts of the current fracking boom on indigenous communities of the northern Great Plains, which include everything from racist graffiti and intimidation by workers, to dangerous truck traffic, assault and murder. She also showed photos of many environmental hazards and violations associated with gas operations.

The Illinois students said they were especially unsettled by what they heard from Mossett because their predecessors in SECS pressured the UI to replace coal with natural gas as a source of fuel at the Abbot Power Plant on campus. That switch, they know, makes perfect sense as a measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But at the same time, they now understand in a very direct way, it deepens the university’s ties to an energy source with its own set of intractable problems.

When we spoke, Wurster, Whitney and Rotche could not yet say how their new understanding would translate to policy or action for SECS. But it’s certainly gratifying to see young leaders willing to face such difficult questions head-on.