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Island moms plan to summit Mount Rainier to protest coal plant

The women have done several practice climbs in preparation for their Rainier summit.  - Courtesy photo
The women have done several practice climbs in preparation for their Rainier summit.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Protecting the environment has always been a priority for Islander Jennifer Williams and her three close friends. Whether it’s growing their own vegetables, line-drying their clothes or taking shorter showers, these four Vashon women make daily efforts to conserve energy, consume less and avoid the use of harmful chemicals.

Now, one environmental issue has driven the group to turn their small steps into a big climb — literally. This weekend, the women will summit Mount Rainier to send a message to Gov. Chris Gregoire about the harmful effects of the Centralia Power Plant.

“Most people in Washington don’t even know there’s a coal plant in the state,” Williams said. “It’s the eighth-dirtiest coal plant in the whole country. … There’s been a lot of research in the last 10 years, and research is showing us the damage that it’s causing.”

Williams will make the three-day “Climb Against Coal” with Julie Thielges, Genevieve Raymond and Katie Wolny. All four are mothers of two and hope their anti-coal message will help shut down the coal plant sooner then Gregoire’s recent 2025 deadline.

The Centralia Power Plant, owned by the Canadian energy company TransAlta, is the only commercial coal-fired plant in Washington. It is not only the largest source of greenhouse gasses in the state, but the greatest source of mercury pollution and an emitter of a handful of other pollutants. Williams said the plant has been contaminating drinking water, damaging wilderness areas and contributing to health problems, especially in children, since it began operating in the early 1970s.

“Allowing 15 more years of that, knowing what we know… it’s ridiculous to me to let this go on,” Williams said. The group would like to see the plant shut down immediately, or by 2015 at the latest. They believe Washington has the resources to transition to cleaner, renewable energy sources.

“I’m hoping that through this process we educate and inform other people in Washington about what’s going on,” Williams said. “And I hope we do get a chance to meet with the governor and explain why we’re doing this.”

The women will summit Rainier’s peak early Saturday morning, where they will unfurl a large banner with their anti-coal message to Gregoire. Once they descend the mountain Sunday, they will join supporters to assemble 50-foot tall letters spelling, “Coal kills.”

They chose Mount Rainier because it is a symbol of the state, Williams said.

“It’s the tallest mountain in the lower 48. It’s a symbol of the pristine environment that we enjoy, and it’s toxic; it’s getting more and more polluted every day,” she said.

The group has been training for their climb — which is supported by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, the Seattle group Cool Moms and the nonviolent direct action organization The Ruckus Society — since February. To prepare for the grueling ascent, the four of them have been working out almost daily.

Raymond, who loves the outdoors but hasn’t backpacked since she was a teenager, said before she began training she could barely run a mile. Since then, she has worked up to six-mile runs. Besides running on the Island, she works out regularly at Vashon Athletic Club, where the women have been given a discounted membership, and she hikes up and down a hill near her home bearing a 50-pound pack.

“Some people tell us they will hopefully be lighter,” she said. “But that’s what we have to prepare for.”

In addition, the group has practiced hiking up Mount Rainier and learned climbing techniques from the two men who will accompany them on their trip. Two weeks ago they climbed Mount Adams, turning around shortly before the summit because of bad weather.

“We all felt really great physically,” Raymond said.

Thielges, who also has some backpacking experience but wouldn’t have described herself as athletic, said the hardest thing for all the women about their training hasn’t been the physical demands, but the time commitment and the toll it has taken on their home life.

However, even as the work-at-home moms miss bedtimes to work out at the gym, let the house get a little more cluttered than normal and spend Fourth of July weekend training, their families have been behind their efforts all the way.

“They have committed to this happening and been supportive,” Thielges said. “It’s really been a family effort.”

As the climb draws near, Thielges and her fellow climbers are experiencing a mix of excitement and anxiety.

“I feel like I’m about as ready as I can be,” she said. “It’s really kind of an unknown for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen up there or how I’m going to do.”

Williams emphasized that climbing Mount Rainier is no small feat, and she hopes the governor takes notice when the four Vashon moms don heavy gear, spend two nights sleeping in the snow and battle the elements, all in pursuit of reaching the top.

“A lot of people climb Mount Rainier, but it’s a big deal,” Williams said. “You never know what’s going to happen up there. … It’s not something to take lightly; it’s a mountain to be respected.”

The women have already scheduled a meeting with Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) to discuss their concern about the coal plant.

“It’s a good first step,” said Williams, who hopes her message will pick up media attention and eventually earn the group an audience with the governor.

In addition to sending a strong message about coal, the women would like to inspire creative action in others. Williams said it has been therapeutic for her to feel like she’s doing something about a seemingly hopeless situation.

“It’s how change happens,” she said. “People have to push legislators in the direction we want them to go. I hope they hear us hollering from the mountaintops.”

To learn more about the Climb Against Coal, or to get involved, visit climbagainstcoal.org or the Climb Against Coal Facebook page.

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