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Anti-pipeline candidates elected with help from Sunrise

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Sunrise lead a successful effort to elect opponents of the Mariner East II pipeline, currently under construction, to township boards in Chester County. Four officials who won last Tuesday’s municipal elections promise they will enforce local ordinances designed to protect community members from the dangers of a high-pressure natural gas pipeline.

The pipeline connects the Marcellus Shale formations of Western Pennsylvania, an area rich in natural gas, to a shipping terminal in Marcus Hook, a town nine miles from Swarthmore. Petroleum manufacturer and distribution company Sunoco intends to export much of the natural gas to Europe.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission approved the pipeline in 2014, but there is currently a lawsuit being reviewed by an intermediate appeals court in Harrisburg arguing that local townships can assert zoning control. The Commission has banned drilling in West Goshen Township until a hearing regarding the site of a valve scheduled for April of next year. Sunoco started construction on the valve earlier this year, but a judge halted construction, arguing the property was not covered by an earlier agreement.

Sunoco’s parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, announced Wednesday that completion of the project would be pushed to the second quarter of 2018 despite the fact that 99 percent of the pipeline will be in the ground by the end of 2017, according to Stateimpact NPR. The delays are due to regulatory disputes with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection over the practice of horizontal drilling. The project has ninety reported drilling fluid spills in forty locations, NPR said. In one case, the company had four spillages in less than a week at its East Goshen drilling operation, and the DEP must decide whether the company has violated soil erosion permits.

If the pipeline can be held up by the courts, costs may be high enough to justify scrapping the project. In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, for example, the government halted construction on federal land when it angered the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The resulting delays cost the owner of the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, $450 million.

“Now that we’ve elected township supervisors that are committed to enforcing the ordinance, it should be able to hold up the pipeline,” said Jeremy Seitz-Brown ’18, a leader of Sunrise. “The more these things can be delayed, eventually people can want out.”

Sunrise, founded this year, is an extension of a previous group at the College called  Mountain Justice. The group focuses on divestment, grassroots organizing, and anti-pipeline activism to pursue the broader goal of stopping climate change. The group drove nine students to knock on doors the Saturday before the election in West Goshen and Uwchlan townships, where there were four anti-pipeline candidates running. Sunrise partnered with Food and Water Action, a political advocacy group supporting clean water and sustainable energy, which spent $40,000 on the election, Philly.com reported. The election saw anti-pipeline majorities on the Board of Supervisors for each township.

“We talked to voters that were very supportive but needed that extra push, needed someone to contact them to get them to the polls,” said Seitz-Brown. “It feels good when you know you’re the difference.”

Construction on the entire pipeline was held up in August by an emergency order blocking horizontal drilling practices used by Sunoco after it contaminated residents’ water wells. In one case this summer, 15 households in Chester County were without water for weeks after Sunoco punctured an aquifer, said Stateimpact NPR.  The company reached a settlement with environmental organizations requiring it to better notify residents, improve its geological evaluation techniques, and offer to test the wells of nearby residents.

Olivia Robbins ’21 emphasized the importance of prioritizing environmental concerns in policy.

“The environment ought to be weighed most heavily because it will have the longest lasting impact,” she said. “The economic concerns that develop out of environmental travesties end up being far greater than the economic incentive.”

The closest the pipeline runs to the college is about three and a half miles. Its impact zone, which is identified as a 1,300-foot radius around the pipeline, includes 105,419 people and a total of 40 public and private schools. Middletown High School in Dauphin County is only seven feet away from the pipeline, making an emergency evacuation almost impossible should there be a leakage. It also crosses through four environmental justice areas dominated by poor and minority communities, reported Fractracker.

“The first thing you need to think about is who the economic benefits are going to be allocated to,” said Robbins. “ I care a lot if Chester, which is a pretty impoverished area in general and one of the most under-resourced school systems, didn’t get a huge economic benefit. From my understanding of the pipeline, it’s not.”

Chester County Charter School for the Arts is located 419 feet from the pipeline, enrolls 98 percent Black and Hispanic students, and will likely receive little tax benefit from the pipeline. Philly.com reported the terminal at Marcus Hook will contribute an additional $4.8 million in property taxes next year, raising property taxes for the site to $7.1 million. While Chichester schools will receive $5 million, only an additional $700,000 will go to Delaware County, a county with a tax revenue of $353 million making little impact on other school districts.

FracTracker Alliance, an anti-oil and gas research organization, reported 4,215 pipeline failures since 2010 resulting in 100 reported fatalities and 470 injuries. The property damage exceeded $3.4 billion.

Although the election itself happened in Chester County, this victory is one for Delaware County residents as well. With the pipeline currently held up in court until April, and opponents of the pipeline pledging to enforce local zoning laws, the completion date looks to be far away.

Record Swattie Turnout Helps Democrats Win Local Elections

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On Nov. 7, Democrats came out victorious as Brian Zidek and Kevin Madden won two seats on the Delaware County Council. This was the first time in over 30 years that Democrats have secured seats on the Council, which has historically been Republican dominated. Many community members were involved in helping campaign for the Democrat candidates as signs that read “Zidek Madden Vote Nov 7th: Bring Sanity Back” were dispersed throughout the County. The Swarthmore College Democrats parallelled these efforts by campaigning on campus to students; their efforts were rewarded when Swarthmore College student voter turnout was the highest ever for a local election.

Taylor Morgan ’19, president of Swat Dems, was approached by the County Democrats and candidates after their win and thanked for the student turnout.

“I heard from the people at the polling place, and also at a victory party at the Inn later that night, from the County Democrats and the candidates, that this year was the most significant turnout of Swarthmore students for local elections. All the candidates came up to me at the victory party that night and were thrilled at the engagement and involvement of Swarthmore students canvassing, voting, and in other ways supporting their candidacy,” said Morgan.

Swat Dems’ efforts started way before election day and extended past the college campus. According to Morgan, the organization’s strategy was to provide information about the election, both about the campaigns of the different candidates, and on the logistics of the voting process, in order to actually help students to go out and vote on Nov. 7.

Before the election, Swat Dems worked to enable students not only to vote, but also be involved in the campaigning process.

“I brought in two canvassing trainers to campus and hosted about 19 students who got trained to do paid canvassing. Secondly, we had a ‘Get Out the Vote’ operation which consisted of phone banking; canvassing around campus; dorm storming, which consisted of putting voter day information under the doors; tabling in Sharples to sign people up to drive shuttles; and to volunteer for campaigns,” said Morgan.

On the day of the election, Swat Dems were joined by the Sunrise Group and the Swarthmore Conservative Society to coordinate efforts to get people out to vote. President of Swat Conservatives Gilbert Guerra ’19 said that his group abstained from endorsing specific candidates but still believed it was important to get out and vote.

We joined in the Get Out the Vote effort by advertising it on our social media accounts and by tabling on the day of the election,” said Guerra.

Swat Dems also tried to incentivize students to go vote through food trucks.

“I researched two Black-owned businesses in the area, and I found two food trucks with the help of Andy Rosen, who is the chair of Swarthmore’s Farmer’s Market called Plum Pit Bistro and Catering, and The Sweetest Rose Cupcake Company. So we incentivized students to go vote through food catering. We encouraged students to get on the volunteer shuttles behind the food trucks before or after they were getting their food. And I think this really channeled a lot of students to get in the car and go down the street to vote,” said Morgan.

Morgan was also able to get community members to volunteer as drivers through connections from previous local campaign work.

“I was able to secure 17 local drivers who functioned as volunteer shuttles throughout the day, who used their personal time and vehicles to just drive Swarthmore students back and forth from the polling places,” said Morgan.

Morgan was hesitant to call the Democrats gaining seats a victory but is still optimistic about the future.

“I’m hesitant to call it a win because that implies that the challenge leading up to Tuesday is over, but on the contrary it has just begun. Delaware County, the college, and the community members have been facing complete obstruction and this is due to the Republican Machine. But now, we actually have people who recognize a lot of community needs and crises that are happening locally, that are at the table, and they can at least impart change that has for so long been obstructed. So to me, the ‘win’ means that there is a more likely chance that people will be able to access these changes, not necessarily that these changes will come,” said Morgan.

Morgan described the ‘Republican machine’ as a product of gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of district boundaries to provide advantage to one political party.

“Our district is the most gerrymandered district in the country. This is largely due to the regime of Republican machine in Delaware county. In college courses, Delaware County is held up as an example of what gerrymandering is and the dangers of it. And so the people that were elected, named Brian Zidek and Kevin Madden, have come out publicly against gerrymandering and have actually supported legislation that works at dismantling it. Also, Delaware County has the only for-profit prison in the state of Pennsylvania, and this is due to [Republican backing over the years],” said Morgan.

Peter Foggo ’21, a Democrat, decided to partake in local politics because of this Republican machine that Morgan described.

“I decided to participate in the local elections mainly because Delaware County has historically been controlled by Republican officials, but after the outrage following the most recent presidential election, I think that a lot of people in Delaware County realized that change was not only needed, but a realistic goal,” said Foggo.

Yasmeen Namazie ’19 echoed the importance of local politics bringing change to greater political platforms.

“I went out and voted because I understand the significance of local elections and their power in informing federal policy outcomes. After the Trump election, the Republican stronghold in the Senate and House has created a shortage in Democratic influence. As a Democrat, I want Democrats in local leadership to regain the House in 2018 and reverse the draconian policies implemented by the Trump administration: reinstate DACA, fund Planned Parenthood, repeal the travel ban, etc,” said Namazie.

Morgan hopes that this recent success will motivate students to get more involved in future democratic processes.

“To the group as a whole, I think that precisely because there was such a clear link between student engagement and victory, maybe students will be more likely to be involved in the future. And maybe, exactly this will kind of change the way students see the significance and effect of local politics,” said Morgan.

in Letter to the Editor/Opinions by

Dear President Smith,

Since the founding of Swarthmore in 1864, the college has educated students in terms of global impact and social change. From Helen Magill to Micah White, students have been encouraged to engage in community and speak out against injustice; to become righteous voices in troubling times and recognize the responsibility that such an education endows upon them.

It is only fair that we call on our own leaders to do the same.

Here in Pennsylvania, methane from fracking is polluting our air, oil pipelines are spilling into our water, and rising temperatures endanger the economy and our lives. On the west side of our country, we’re burning, and on the east, we’re drowning. All the while, Swarthmore continues to have an endowment invested in the fossil fuel industries that catalyze this destruction.

In addition, our federal government is recklessly rolling back environmental protections that affect targeted regions and groups of people within the country. Right now, world leaders are gathered in Bonn, Germany, negotiating how to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement after the world’s biggest economy has withdrawn. Across the nation, local leaders, from mayors and governors to college and university presidents like you, are committing to show leadership when our President refuses to.

But we are at a turning point in history, and must make our commitments real by standing up every time that our voice is needed. We write to you, as your students, asking that you choose to stand on the right side by endorsing divestment from fossil fuels.

On November 18th, the Sunrise movement will be hosting ceremonies in Philadelphia and over two dozen other cities across the country, commemorating what we love and have to lose to climate change. We will be building our legacy, and burying a time capsule that will be unearthed in 50 years. It will be a time for mourning, for reckoning, for uniting, and for building our future.

If you meet our request, you are invited to join us on the 18th at the Philadelphia City Hall and contribute your commitment and a letter or item to the time capsule. We have asked our politicians to refuse money from fossil fuel billionaires, commit to 100% renewable energy by 2050, and halt the construction of dangerous new fossil fuel infrastructure. Swarthmore has committed to be carbon neutral and is growing its sustainability initiatives, but we continue to profit from the fossil fuel industry that we are otherwise trying to stop. Just as we want our political leaders to represent us and reject fossil fuel money, we want our educational leaders to represent us too.  If Swarthmore wants to be remembered as a leader on climate, we must divest from the dangerous fossil fuel industry.  

Overwhelming majorities of students, faculty, staff and alumni have made clear time and time again how we want to be remembered. We know the Swarthmore we are proud of, and we are committed to forging ahead and building a just and equitable future, where all people have access to clean water and safe homes. We would love nothing more than for you to lead with us, and be remembered as somebody who chose to stand up in the face of corrupt politics and fossil fuel money.

But if you choose to remain silent, we will document that as well. In 2067, when the time capsule is unearthed, Swarthmore has two potential legacies. Students might remember Swarthmore as a leader in the fight against climate change: the birthplace of the fossil fuel divestment movement, supporting necessary measures to move our society away from the coal and gas of yesterday and towards the clean energy economy of tomorrow.  

Or, Swarthmore could look back upon 2017 as the year of a lost promise. When local leaders across the world were pledging to take action on climate change, the institution of Swarthmore chose to remain silent in the face of climate devastation.

President Smith, there are two paths in front of you: one where you stand with the fossil fuel billionaires who endanger our health and wellbeing, and another where you stand with the students of Swarthmore who are asking you to be the kind of leader they are taught to be.

This is your chance to choose your climate legacy. You have until November 18.

Sincerely,

Gabriel Brossy de Dios, September Porras Payea, and Aru Shiney-Ajay
Members of Sunrise Swarthmore

(Formerly Swarthmore Mountain Justice)

September in September

in Campus Journal by

In a voice as carefree as the breeze blowing by us in Kohlberg Courtyard, September Sky Porras ’20 mentions, “I come from a very leftist family.” Now this isn’t a shock, especially considering the sort of students that Swarthmore tends to attract, but it’s nonetheless necessary to place Porras politically, and to understand the circumstances that created the activist sitting in front of me. She admits she has a lot on her mind lately.

This past August, Porras was the subject of a semi-viral video, in which she posed a piercing question to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida during a fundraiser he was hosting in Orlando. Filmed by her accompanying mother, Porras stood up and asked the senator, point-blank, to explain his rationale for taking specific contributions to power his campaigns. (Rubio is only second to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas — both recent Republican presidential hopefuls — as the largest recipient of millions of dollars from various  fossil-fuel industry donors.) The online response afterwards was rapturous; for Porras, it was an anxious, heart-palpitating affair, akin to “walking into a lion’s den.”

A Floridan herself, Porras is well aware of the environmental issues brought about by the rapid onset of climate change (to which Hurricanes Harvey and Irma can testify), and holds unambiguous opinions on her Congressional representatives—she calls Rubio in particular “a terrible person with terrible policies.”

Surprisingly, Porras was not animated by climate activism in the beginning, partly due to her own misconception of it. Once she realized that climate activism focuses on actual communities grappling with the effects of climate change, as opposed to environmentalism, which deals in more direct ecological consequences, she knew what she had to do. And while she knows they are connected, Porras believes her energies are better suited to advancing one as opposed to the other. “We — or a very wealthy few — are destroying the Earth that we live on. At the end of the day, there’s big enemies,” she tells me, referring, of course, to money-making fossil fuels.

Last semester (Spring 2017), Porras joined Mountain Justice (MJ) and became a core member while still a first-year. Attracted to its record — or promise — of effectual activism, Porras discovered an outlet to put her beliefs into practice, gaining first-hand experience during the sit-in and the ensuing controversy that arose between the administration and MJ. It was then that Porras stepped up in the club, but also transitioned into working for Sunrise: a nationwide organization founded by similarly-minded Swat alumni in Philadelphia, which emphasizes mass protest and political accountability to draw attention to climate issues.

At the start of the summer, she underwent leadership training with fellow Sunrise members; a few weeks later she was back home to put that training into practice. She lept at the opportunity to bring others into the organization, which, by its nature, is decentralized, directed by discrete hubs scattered across the nation. Porras volunteered to start up the Orlando office, and later, to try to enter the Rubio fundraiser, one of a few who did or could manage on short notice. After securing tickets for herself and her mother (at $150 each), she was admitted. Even then there was no guarantee she would see Rubio; in fact she didn’t even confirm she was attending until that Tuesday afternoon. (When questioned, she acknowledged the irony of giving money to Rubio in order to publicly challenge him, but she saw no other chance to make a statement; in the wake of President Trump’s election, Republican representatives have been scrutinized for failing to meet with everyday constituents, with some avoiding town halls altogether.)

Earlier that day, Porras wondered how she could possibly approach the senator with her question. A Sunrise trainer suggested on the phone that, as he delivered his keynote speech, Porras could interrupt him at a decisive moment when he paused for rhetorical effect. At first she was horrified. “I’m brave, but I can’t do that, that would make me want to die.” She laughs, but that’s exactly what happened. And after a “totally evasive” answer by Rubio involving vague energy policies instead of campaign finance, she and her mother were requested to leave by security.

Like most loving families, Porras’ is indispensable in shaping and supporting her. She is close to her mother, a New Jerseyan, and her maternal grandparents were even fundraisers for the American Communist Party. Her father is from Costa Rica, a country she often visits to see paternal relatives. Though not a fluent Spanish speaker (attributed to her father’s insistence on “fitting in” in the United States), she enjoys the company of her abuelita and her tías, who all live on the same street. She looks forward to returning and conversing with her politically minded cousins, in contrast to others in her family who are more nonchalant about the current state of affairs.

“I think there’s an interesting juxtaposition — on one side, everything is chill, relax, don’t worry about it. But on the other side of that coin, there’s this [attitude of] not caring very much about politics and change.” But they’re not apolitical, she notes. It’s just very relaxed, maybe “too relaxed,” according to Porras.

Her elder sister works in Standing Rock with Teach for America, overseeing a class of first-graders. Last Christmas, Porras and her mom journeyed to North Dakota to see her only sibling (in the fields of “southern Canada,” as we joked), who lives and works in a tiny poor town on the reservation, roughly a thirty-minute drive from the protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline.

That winter break, Porras helped her sister grade some papers, and was astonished by the doodles the students drew and then haphazardly erased so as not to be possibly penalized. “Water is Life” and “No DAPL” made recurring appearances, likely the results of the children overhearing parental talk. “It was just so innocent and terrifying,” says Porras.  She was upset she didn’t meet any of the students, but her sister shares videos of her with them all the time, so they know.

A sophomore, her dual passions for Latin America and revolutionary politics may yet prove decisive in guiding her academic trajectory. Porras has struck up a rapport with Professor Diego Armus, who urged her to apply for the Reuben Scholarship, which, after a lengthy application process, she was duly awarded; she hopes to use it in the upcoming summer to fund an internship. She is excited to potentially pursue a major in History, perhaps on Pinochet’s Chile; as of now, however, it’s all up in the air.

“I have changed … and I think I’ve changed in the sense that I don’t know anything.” She laughs. “Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, but that’s life, it’ll work out.”

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