"For much of the state of Maine, the environment is the economy"
A Conversation with Charlie Atherton
A Citizen Activist from Lake Charles, Louisiana
In Spring 2004, LNG "developer #1," Don Smith of Oklahoma-based Quoddy Bay LLC, hosted a trip to Lake Charles, Louisiana, so that tribal attorney Craig Francis and a few members of the Pleasant Point Reservation could view an LNG terminal as a "model" for what Smith desired to develop at Pleasant Point. The video made of the industry-sponsored visit showed only selected sites and just a portion of the whole picture of industrialization that has grown up and is fed by a trio of LNG facilities at the site. The video failed to show what LNG has spawned, and it now feeds 26 heavy industrial operations chemical, vinyl and plastic, and rubber plants, as well as Citgo and Conoco oil refineries.
Save Passamaquoddy Bay 3-Nation Alliance researched the news media in Lake Charles, to learn who locally could share a broader picture of the industrial reality around Lake Charles. The name recommended was "Charlie Atherton," who retired in 1999 from 40 years as an employee of a chemical plant, and for all of those years had engaged in "off-plant activities, speaking up for people and the environment, and holding political people responsible." According to Atherton, "My whole life, I have meddled in the decision-making process. Decisions should be made based on factual information and not politics. I have never told an elected official how to vote. But, I have demanded to see the bases for the vote."
Save Passamaquoddy Bay flew Atherton to Maine and the Passamaquoddy Bay area on a Friday, ahead of the Monday, August 22, LNG Information Session at St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada. Mr. Atherton participated in a dinner discussion with Passamaquoddy tribal community members, spoke at the Green Coast Gathering II program that was held at the newly-restored Machias Valley Grange in Machias, and met with Save Passamaquoddy Bay supporters on Deer Island, New Brunswick, and in Eastport, Maine.
Here are some of Charlie Atherton's down-to-earth answers to selected questions asked by Save Passamaquoddy Bay (SPB) during his visit:
SPB: Can you describe for us what your area is like?
Charlie Atherton: I can see all the industry from my door. It's better now than it used to be five years ago, when at any time during the night, I could stand in my front yard and read a newspaper, there were so many lights around.
SPB: What is it like at dark?
Charlie Atherton: Dark? What's dark? If I want to work with the telescope with the grandkids, I have to drive pretty far away. It never really gets dark. It gets to a shade of grey, sometimes, but never dark.
SPB: What does it sound like?
Charlie Atherton: There's always noise. I was here two days and was trying to figure out what I was hearing, before I realized it was silence. We always have a constant background noise or roar. Of course, if you've chosen to live in an industrialized area, the noise and light come as part of the reality of your life.
SPB: Are you concerned about your safety, or the safety of your children or grandchildren?
Charlie Atherton: We have the best emergency response operation in the country ... Is that a good thing or a bad thing? "Good," if you need them, but "bad," because it means that something at one of the companies has gone bad, or spilled, or blown up, or something.
The grandkids have the Shelter in Place program, so they're taught what to do when a siren goes off get to a building, shut all doors and windows, close all air conditioners or fans, sometimes put something over your mouth, nose, or eyes. The turtle is the symbol of the Shelter in Place program like you snap back into your shell to protect yourself. Schools have contests to know all the kids are prepared, and they have announcements on the television all the time about what to do.
SPB: Do you have many incidents or accidents?
Charlie Atherton: Well, when I see a story on CNN about a truck that turned over and spilled its hazardous contents, or something got in the water, or a fire, I think, "What's the big story? We have stuff like that happeining all the time."
SPB: Why did you agree to come to the Passamaquoddy Bay area?
Charlie Atherton: I've been following your battle on the website. I have never seen a pristine environment. I understand that this area is as close to pristine as you can get. Everywhere else, people are trying to clean up their messes and return to pristine. Now I see for myself what pristine is. I can't understand why anyone would want to put an LNG operation here.
SPB: Tell us more about that statement.
Charlie Atherton: The moment the first spade of ground is turned for construction of an LNG facility, a rush of gas-related industry will follow. Guaranteed. LNG is to industry what water is to our life. You've seen shows on the Discovery Channel where they run a pipeline of water out into a desert, and all kind of stuff springs up houses, businesses, communities. It's like that when LNG comes industry springs up immediately. Chemicals, plastic, vinyl, rubber, oil refineries. It's the way for the LNG folks to make money. First they'll talk about just a terminal. Next, it's a co-generation plant. Then, a peak-shaving or merchant plant. Then, more steam or cooling operation. By then, the heavy industry is upon you. And these industrial plants have a lifespan of about five years, because of changing technology, so you always have plants coming or going and metal around everywhere.
SPB: What about infrastructure demands?
Charlie Atherton: The second day after construction starts, watch out! The sewers back up! Your little town sewer systems will never hold it you know what I mean by "it." And LNG operations won't pay for that, your taxpayers will your town budgets. Then the roads all of the trucks bringing supplies and chemicals to the operations. Then all the emergency and security stuff. This is not just about one terminal; you get it all industry everywhere. Now, in our area, this is who we are, we're choosing this way of life. You haven't chosen that kind of life, and I can tell you it's not sustainable, like you have now. If our industries shut down, we're dead. We don't have anything else. Everything else is destroyed land and water. And we don't know how to do anything else. These things belong where industry already is, and where it won't mess up other things.
SPB: Did you have fishing?
Charlie Atherton: Of course, our marshes and bayous were the richest places for water life, maybe in the whole country. Our lakes and bayous and the estuary all full of fish. Not now. And we had somebody maybe from the government a few months ago teaching people how to cook contaminated fish.
SPB: The people whom developer #1 took to see Lake Charles saw people fishing near the terminal. What about that?
Charlie Atherton: Two things: First, when you compare the pollution or bad stuff around LNG, it's actually not as bad by a long way as the other industries. So, it really was cleaner there than elsewhere on the river, where LNG is feeding all the industries those 26 plants. Second, the fish they were getting there had lots less chance of glowing in the dark if you know what I mean.
SPB: What about jobs, especially jobs for local people?
Charlie Atherton: Well, LNG doesn't need many people; it's mostly automated. And they say they're local people filling the jobs. Yeah, they're local today, 'cause they're here, now their license plates are still from where they came from. Don't count on many jobs from LNG they just don't need many people. Check it out 10, 20 at the most.
SPB: What about pollution from the whole industrial area?
Charlie Atherton: The most recent EPA report said about 15 million pounds of pollution a year. You get used to a little rash or scratchy throat or itchy eyes. That's what I'm talking about why I've slept so well while I've been here it's got to be the fresh air and quiet.
SPB: What about the process to locate an LNG terminal here? Some say we should wait for a proposal to go to FERC. What's your experience from following all of this?
Charlie Atherton: When the proposal or so-called pre-proposal gets to FERC, it's all done! Their deals have been done, the rubber stamp comes out. Done.
If you want to stop this thing, you've got to do it now. There won't be another chance. Go with the politicians that are informed and honest others will be making deals for themselves with guys behind closed doors. They want everything to be secret. They don't want you to know the deals they're making. Keep the light man, keep the spotlight on them! Don't look away for a minute!
SPB: Anything else we should be thinking about?
Charlie Atherton: I think your other shippers should get real clear on what will happen if LNG comes in. Other carriers have to wait their turn off shore; they'll wait for tug boats. Our river pilots all want to work for LNG when they retire so the other carriers have to wait while LNG gets preference. If a place is too narrow, the others wait. Fishermen wait. Cruise ships or your whale watchers will wait, because of exclusion or safety zones. And we just went from three to 25 Coast Guard guys and we just got a gunboat, so things are "picking up."
See related story about Jerome Ringo,
Lake Charles resident and environmental activist.