When reminiscing about his past, Drew Grande recalls the incident that influenced him to eventually take up work in the field of environmental advocacy.

During the mid-1990s, the news of a court-mandated clean-up of the PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) contamination in the Hudson River from decades of waste dumping by General Electric (GE) made a distinct impression on Grande, who grew up in upstate New York.

“I always kind of keyed into [environmental issues] that way,” says Grande.

After graduating high school, Grande went to college at the University of Rhode Island, where he got his B.S. in environmental science and management. Initially set on getting a position in the environmental non-profit sector right after graduation, Grande instead started working for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), first as Finance Director and then as a senior District Executive. His duties in these positions included membership recruitment, leadership development, program development, and fundraising.

“I was successful in these positions, explains Grande. Growing up, Grande had been a Boy Scout and the positions did at least offer some connection to environmental work, if only abstractly.”

However, after eight years with the BSA, Grande felt he was ready to follow his original ambition. It was at this point he started applying for jobs at the Sierra Club.

“I wanted to go after the energy sector, to influence them to make transformational change,” says Grande of his decision.

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In particular, Grande was motivated to work against some of the policies originally implemented by the Bush administration that sought to intensify our dependence on dirty fossil fuels, namely coal.

It was then a stroke of immense good fortune that Grande attained a position as a campaign organizer for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign doing just that on the state level. Specifically, this campaign targeted the plans put in motion by Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force to build 150 new coal-fired power plants in the United States.

Grande has now been working on the campaign for the Sierra Club since summer 2010. Specifically, he has been tasked with state level outreach to different groups on the topic of retiring outdated coal plants in Massachusetts.

The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign work included joining forces with fellow non-profits SAFE and HealthLink to shut down the Salem Harbor Power Station in the city of Salem, one of the largest coal plant operations in the state. Currently, two of the plant’s coal-fired units are scheduled to shut down in 2014. Proposed upgrades to the local transmission grid are also expected to prompt the permanent closing of the plant in its entirety at that time as well. 

More recently, the Beyond Coal campaign has focused on trying to retire the Mount Tom plant, a dirty and outdated coal plant based in Holyoke. Not coincidentally, the asthma rate among the citizens of the town is much higher than (approximately triple) the average of the state. Holyoke is an impoverished community, and about half of its population is Latino. It is often the case that coal-fired power plants are usually sited in poor, often minority, communities, making the issue as much about social justice as environmental conservation.

“I sat down with a women who moved [to Holyoke] with her family in 1983,” says Grande. “Her two kids got asthma. She now has 14 grandchildren and great grandchildren, six of whom have asthma. One of them even had to be hospitalized when he was three months old because of asthma, and put into a medically induced coma for three months.”

The Sierra Club modeled emissions from the Mount Tom plant and found it to be in violation of federal environmental standards. Grande’s hope is that in pressuring the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to re-issue a new permit for the plant, the DEP will take into consideration the  plant’s violations and deny a permit, thereby leading to the plant’s eventual shut-down.

Increasing political pressure through grassroots outreach to the public has been a key factor of the campaign.

“We've been working heavily [on outreach] in Holyoke, Amherst, and Northampton,” says Grande. “Getting people to make phone calls, sign petitions, write letters to the Governor and their Congressional representatives and to the local newspapers.”

Even though the plant is still open, it rarely operates. According to Grande, the Patrick Administration has also become increasingly receptive to the idea of closing it in light of increased public pressure.

“The governor’s office wants to know that this is an issue that the people of Holyoke and Massachusetts care about,” explains Grande. “We want this plant to follow its natural course by retiring.”

Grande has also been doing work on the national level as part of the Sierra Club’s involvement in the Clean Air Act Coalition to tighten EPA enforcement standards for mercury and carbon emissions from power plants.

In addition to his work on shutting down old coal plants and tightening coal plant regulations, Grande’s work with the Sierra Club also includes the “Coal Free T” campaign, which focuses on trying to convince Boston’s MBTA to source more of its energy from renewable sources.

“The MBTA is the top consumer of electricity in Massachusetts.  This crosses over residential, commercial and industrial lines. No other entity uses more electricity,” says Grande. “If we can get them to start relying on more renewables for their power, it would open up the market for more clean sources of energy.”

The ultimate goal of the Coal Free T campaign is to eventually have the MBTA derive 100 percent of their energy from clean sources, which in turn would help stabilize energy prices and allow the agency to do better long term budget planning.

“When we're talking about the oldest for subway system in U.S., the more they can invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy, the better they will be in short and long term,” remarks Grande.


earthfolk – drew grande

written by Laura Kiesel

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