A Win for Earth!

February 12, 2020

By Sister Mary Pendergast

Although Mercy works constantly for justice, we do not always see positive results for our efforts, as heroic as they might be. But here is a testament to the win. It can actually happen!

In August 2015, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo invited a Chicago developer, Invenergy, to build a $1 billion fracked gas/diesel power plant in the woods of Burrillville, practically in the heart of a preserved state forest park. It was a clarion call to me, since I had just returned from my pilgrimage to the Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada. Seeing the gaping destruction in the largest forest biome in the world changed me. I am not the same, nor will I ever be.

Sister Mary Pendergast
Sister Mary Pendergast

Learning that my own state was welcoming a similar type of devastation of Earth and treating the methane emissions that contribute to climate change as merely the spoils of business impelled me to find others willing to fight Goliath. The first that became an ally was FANG (Fighting Against Natural Gas), which trained a small group of us for civil disobedience. Then FANG planned a parade to wake up Burrillville residents to what the developers considered a “slam dunk.” At the parade, seven other activists and I committed misdemeanor trespass by planting tulip bulbs on the property of the proposed power plant. In jail, I met some of the people who would be my almost daily companions during the next four years.

“Birddogging” for Justice

As other organizations stepped up, we joined in whenever possible. The Burrillville Land Trust (BLT) presented a “learn the facts” program in every town and asked the councils of 33 cities and towns to oppose the building of the power plant. When they came to Pawtucket, where I live, I spoke on behalf of the opposition.

One exciting ongoing action was “birddogging” the governor. That is, a small group of us tried to show up at every public meeting the governor held, silently holding our “Save Burrillville” and “No Power Plant” signs. Regardless of whether the governor was at a press conference in the state house, on a college campus or at her own fundraiser, some of us would be there, keeping the issue alive and in front of the news media.

Judy Huegen, Nick Katkevitch. Kathy Martley, Sister Mary Pendergast and Sally Mendzela protest the building of a power plant in Burrillville, Rhode Island.
Judy Huegen, Nick Katkevitch. Kathy Martley, Sister Mary Pendergast and Sally Mendzela protest the building of a power plant in Burrillville, Rhode Island.

The decision to build or not to build was left to a three-member Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB). Each member served at the appointment of the governor. In its 30-year history, the EFSB had never refused to grant a permit to any power plant or energy structure in the state. At the required public meetings, hundreds of people gave three-minute speeches opposing the power plant, presenting the scientific points on climate, emissions levels, noise levels, light pollution levels, the endangered species that would be affected, the health concerns of the residents who had already suffered from a gas spill into the drinking water, and more. With no response from the EFSB, we never really had a good sense of how it was going.

Then came the year and a half of presentations at the EFSB by the lawyers and expert witnesses for both sides. This time, the public was not allowed to speak, but only to sit and listen. Whenever we wanted to groan at a remark, we just held our signs higher!

Sister Mary Pendergast protests as Michael Blazer, lawyer for Invenergy, speaks.
Sister Mary Pendergast protests as Michael Blazer, lawyer for Invenergy, speaks.

A Fateful Decision

On the first day of EFSB deliberation, which was expected to last a week or more, there were three issues to discern:

  1. Was the need for the power plant proven?
  2. Would there be unacceptable environmental harm if it were built?
  3. Was the cost justified to the ratepayer?

The EFSB Board listened as one of their members meticulously made all of the arguments about the need for the power plant. Then, quite unexpectedly, the chairwoman said, “I make a motion that Invenergy has failed to demonstrate need. All in favor say ‘aye.’” The other two members said “aye,” and it was over, just like that. The EFSB then spent several months writing a meticulous decision. The day came and went for Invenergy to appeal, and the people of Burrillville had won a David and Goliath battle!

Protesters at an Energy Facility Siting Board meeting.
Protesters at an Energy Facility Siting Board meeting.

The notion that “it takes a village” couldn’t be more true! It took everyone at every level of involvement for four full years. But it was worth it to win one for the Earth!

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  1. Patty Cook, RSM

    Oh, my dear unbending Mary>>>>>

    You bring me such joy and I am filled with so much admiration for your unceasing efforts to wake up the whole world. Pope Francis has begged for credible witnesses to the Gospel, and you are certainly one of them, in flaming colors!

    From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for the ecological leadership you champion, for me and for countless others!

  2. Carolyn McDonnell

    Sister Mary,

    What a very interesting report of modern day protestors!
    I love the tulip bulbs trespassing! And explaining “birddogging” sounds like a good strategy for a committed group to follow.
    We need to pass these techniques onto high schoolers also, who are showing strong signs of care for the Earth after Greta Thunberg.

    Thank you for how you care for the earth.

    In Mercy,

    Carolyn McDonnell, Mercy Associate

  3. mary Rirodan,

    I am so proud of our Sisters of Mercy and their companions. It gives me hope for maybe some more issues which surround us everywhere.

  4. Dr Carolyn Reinhart

    Thank you Mary and the whole “village” for persisting for 4 yrs. What you have accomplished is an example for all others as well with hard and dedicated work, faith, patience and love.

  5. Pat Griffith RSM

    Great encouragement to each of us to keep on keeping on! Thanks to you and all for this witness and result!!

  6. Anna Saltzman

    Awesome Mary! Thank you for your fidelity and courage. It does take a village thank you for being Mercy for our common home.

  7. Mary Daly rsm

    Congratulations, Mary! Blessings for your voice and your perseverance!

  8. Cecilia Baranowski

    Great work Mary. I know how hard it is having worked on the fracking issue in my town.

  9. Martha Larsen

    Such a remarkable story of perseverance. Very clever organizing — fun and effective!! We can win on the side of the Earth.
    Thank you for all that you did. I am proud of Mercies and all who worked with you.

  10. Shirley Agnew RSM

    Blessed are you amongst us. How’s Goliath?

  11. S.Rosemary Hudak

    Good for you Mary…good for Burriville!! Thank you for all your work!! Blessings.

  12. Therese Quigley

    Thank you for raising your voice, Mary!

  13. Sheila Harrington,RSM

    If at first…certainly applies to you and your companions. Thank you.

  14. Fran Repka

    What an amazing story of doing justice and care of creation, not to mention a gospel response to our Mercy Critical Concern re: Earth! It is also a story of relationship and connection and endurance. You are an inspiration in uniting groups for the sake of justice and not afraid to speak truth and love to power for the sake of the whole. Thank you for doing Mercy.

  15. Jeanne Christensen, RSM

    Thank you, Mary, for all your efforts on behalf of our earth. Congrats on this win!

  16. Ann McKenna

    You continue to inspire me. Thank you.

  17. Madonna Moran

    Congratulations, Mary. Thanks for all your courageous work for justice.

  18. Eileen Brady

    Thanks, Mary, not only for working on this but sharing the work progress along the way. It felt like you were including all of us in this effort.

  19. Mona Rumboldt,RSM

    Deep grtitude to you Mary and all the people with whom you work. Having been involved in a group who resisted fracking in an area where I lived, I know the dedication required. Congratulations!

  20. Sr Pat Oliver

    Mary, thank you and all concerned for fighting to thee finish.

  21. Carol Jussaume, RSM

    Can we clone you and your friends, Mary? We need cohorts of people like you! You are such tremendous role models for all of us and give us hope when we feel hopeless!

  22. Kathy Jellison

    Mercy shines through your voice, your passion, your commitment and your heart (and your humor!). Thank you, dear Mary.

  23. Suzanne Collins (Mesolella)

    Sr. Mary,
    You are an inspiration and an amazing force. I told our story to a couple of colleagues just yesterday and then found your amazing victory here when I went to see what had been going on with you. I hope that you know that I think of you often and love that you continue to be an absolutely unstoppable force. I hope that you are safe and sending love to you in this tenuous time.