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New England climate activists sentenced for anticoal civil disobedience action

A plume of steam billows from the coal-fired Merrimack Station in Bow, N.H.Jim Cole

Four climate activists have received suspended jail sentences for attempting to stop a train from delivering coal to a power plant in Bow, N.H., in 2019.

A Merrimack County Superior Court judge last week ordered the activists to refrain from organizing or participating in any further unlawful climate protests, a requirement Marla Marcum, founder of the Climate Disobedience Center, which helped organize the protest, called “an overly broad prohibition on speech and assembly.”

The four activists, part of the No Coal No Gas campaign, were convicted of railroad trespass at a jury trial in March for blocking railroad freight tracks in Hooksett, N.H., in an effort to stop a coal train en route to the Merrimack Station power plant. Though the demonstrators delayed its arrival by several hours, the train eventually made it to the plant.

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Dana Dwinell-Yardley of Vermont, and Johnny Sanchez, Jonathan O’Hara and Daniel Flynn of Maine each received jail sentences of four to six months, which will be suspended as long as they remain on “good behavior” by staying 100 feet away from the Merrimack Station and refraining from illegal behavior, including planning or engaging in further unlawful civil disobedience. In addition, the four were fined a combined $5,580 and ordered to pay restitution to the railroad operator totaling $6,215.

Though they were sentenced on Friday, the defendants did not receive their orders in writing until Tuesday morning.

Merrimack Station is the last power plant in New England fired by coal, the most carbon-emitting fossil fuel. The facility, which investment group Granite Shore Power bought from Eversource in 2017, supplies roughly 1 percent of the region’s electricity.

No Coal No Gas is calling on the state to shutter Merrimack Station. In recent years, dozens of activists have been arrested during multiple protests at the plant.

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Granite Shore Power declined through a spokesman to comment for this story.

At their sentencing, the defendants argued their actions were justified because burning coal contributes to global warming and damages public health.

“That is why, back in December of 2019, I believed, as I do right now, that every second that we stopped those trains from delivering thousands of tons of harmful and unnecessary coal was my moral obligation,” Sanchez said to Judge Andrew Schulman.

Schulman disagreed. “While it’s fine to say that you don’t like coal, that people aren’t paying enough attention to climate, what’s not fine is to stop the coal train,” he said.

Schulman ordered the defendants to stay away from railroad property, adding that he is “not trying to stop” the defendants from legally demonstrating at the Merrimack Station from a distance of more than 100 feet.

Paul Halvorsen, Merrimack County attorney, said the sentence should have no effect on legal protest.

“Judge Schulman’s oral comments at sentencing do not limit future speech or assembly by those convicted, but does prohibit future illegal behavior,” he told The Boston Globe in a statement. “Judge Schulman’s sentencing comments protect the Constitutional rights to legally and peaceably assemble and speak while at the same time holding accountable those same persons involved in and convicted by a jury of illegal actions.”

But Marcum of the Climate Disobedience Center said the sentence should be challenged because it could leave the defendants culpable for actions of any associates who behave unlawfully at political demonstrations.

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The use of coal-fired power has declined sharply in the United States since its peak in 2007, though it’s set to increase by 3 percent this year amid the spike in gas prices, according to a recent assessment from the Energy Information Administration.

Marcum said activists will continue to push officials to close Merrimack Station and halt coal usage in New England.


Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.