Power to the People
Published 10:00 pm Sunday, January 31, 2016
Terry Schager to receive Upstate Forever award
BY MICHAEL O’HEARN
When a small person or singular voice faces a large challenge or foe, we know this as David versus Goliath moment.
Terry Schager, a retired projects manager, may have felt daunted by the challenge before him last summer when Duke Energy announced a massive 230-kV 45-mile transmission line project from Campobello, S.C. to Asheville, N.C. that would forever mar the mountain vistas the Foothills are known for.
But instead, he became a key leader who rallied thousands from our Foothills area against the corporate Goliath. For his efforts, Schager will be recognized with Upstate Forever’s 2015 Volunteer of the Year award. The awards luncheon will take place at the Embassy Suites in Greenville, S.C. on Feb. 23 at 11:30 a.m.
“I grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania,” said Schager, “and we had a lot of oil there that was being pumped in the 60s and 70s, and hydro-fracturing was going on. The company had no idea where the oil was or if the ground had ever been drilled. Then all of a sudden people’s water, which was from a well and was sweet water, would either stop running or the faucet would be turned on and this brown, black gook would come out.”
No one could do anything about that, according to Schager, because the fracking company owned the service rights to the land.
So, when his Gowensville neighbor, Cynthia Barziloski, received a letter from Duke last June saying Duke’s transmission lines could possibly go over the house they were getting ready to build, her horse barn and pastures, the memories from Pennsylvania came flooding back, Schager said.
“It got me really, really ticked off. That was how I got involved.”
“Of course, I started calling the neighbors, asking them if they had gotten a letter. Some of them that should have didn’t, and speculation went on with Terry for about two weeks before they [Duke] actually had a meeting about it,” said Barziloski.
In her words, Barziloski said Duke’s first public information meeting was “pure chaos.”
“They had maps and computers with proposed lines drawn on GPS, cell phone maps,” Barziloski recalled. “There was no person speaking. People were wandering around and little bits of literature were passed out. Finally, I got in line with a computer and a gal working the computer system and they called up my piece of property and, you know, I have 11 acres and the line just went diagonally right through it.”
Putting two and two together
At the time of this discovery by Barziloski, the Foothills Preservation Alliance was formed. Madelon Wallace of Walker, Wallace & Emerson Realty in Landrum is one of the founding members of the alliance.
“Terry really got this area, you know Polk County, Spartanburg County and Greenville County, our Chamber of Commerce area,” Wallace said. “He tied it in with the guys from MountainTrue and the Carolina Coalition and they had some technical experts and they worked on the technical aspects. They said this is a want, not need, for Duke Power and what they wanted to do was not necessarily what they needed to do.”
Wallace said she touched base with Schager in the beginning because she had neighbors who had received letters.
“My secretary drew a line on the map of where we were and, all of a sudden, we started putting two and two together,” Wallace said. “Terry had never gotten a letter and we started talking to people we knew in Polk County who had, and in four days we arranged a meeting for anyone who was concerned. That was when the Foothills Preservation Alliance was born and the Facebook page.”
Through this Facebook page more people were found who had received letters.
Schager recollected his campaign over the summer, starting with the connections he made with various environmental groups around Gowensville and further up into North Carolina.
“I kind of rallied the folks down here from Gowensville and got everybody involved in the Gowensville Equestrian Nature Trails system, and just really started communicating with all of these folks on what we needed to do to get this campaign going and to make a lot of noise about how we weren’t going to be allowing this to happen,” Schager said.
“After that, I reached out to MountainTrue in Hendersonville to build an alliance with Upstate Forever and started organizing a message distribution process for the environmental groups that were fighting this thing,” Schager explained. “That started with telling people we needed a common message in what we were going to be doing to fight this thing.”
Mark Stierwalt is the southern regional director at MountainTrue. According to Stierwalt, MountainTrue is Western North Carolina’s overarching environmental nonprofit covering Transylvania, Henderson, Polk and Rutherford counties.
“Though we do cross state lines rarely, it would have to be a situation just like this,” said Stierwalt. “Terry was really good at crossing the state line, you know making sure that information was flowing through the different groups like Upstate Forever, the Foothills Preservation Alliance and the Carolina Land Coalition, which we formed.”
Joan Walker is the campaign coordinator for the Carolina Land Coalition.
“When we heard the announcement of Duke’s modernization plan, we started engaging with local groups and what happened was the folks along the route got organized and informed their neighbors about what was going on,” Walker said. “What we did as MountainTrue after Duke announced their plan was we called the different leaders of communities through Western Carolina who wanted to discuss these issues as a bigger group.”
Getting the word out
Through this process, Schager began to realize the public at large had a lack of knowledge about Duke’s proposal.
“I started to realize that the problem was 30 percent of the people up there didn’t have computers. There were a number of folks from Gowensville, neighbors close to me, that had absolutely no idea what Duke’s plans were,” Schager recalled. “So, at that point, I put together a PowerPoint presentation and started talking to folks and communities like Saluda, Avery Creek and down here in Gowensville and started doing information sessions that were designed for folks who didn’t have access to the Internet to tell them what was happening.”
Schager explained, “MountainTrue had put together a number of folks that were retirees or in the utility industry that knew how to build power plants, who knew what they were talking about … how we could counter it and question it.”
Stierwalt said Terry put a lot of time and energy into his process to keep the continuity of information going across the North and South Carolina line.
“It’s hard to fight something when you don’t know what their points are,” Stierwalt quipped. “And Duke was holding a lot of those points close to their chest, so I feel like Terry was one of the few people willing to go around and make a presentation. Not being tied to a particular organization allowed him to have some freedom to express himself and his opinion whereas a larger group could have been legally liable.”
A nonprofit’s dream volunteer
Wyche commented on Terry’s work over the summer, saying Schager did a tremendous job getting people informed about the modernization project.
“Terry did extraordinary work fighting the Duke transmission and substation project,” Wyche remarked. “Terry is the kind of volunteer nonprofit organizations dream about. He’s passionate about the work, knowledgeable about the issues and totally reliable.”
Wyche expanded on Schager’s passion by detailing an example of Schager’s enthusiasm with the project.
“Someone told me we needed to take photographs of the proposed routes and I said, ‘Well, the guy to do that would be Terry Schager,’ and said we would schedule something,” Wyche explained. “I called Terry after that conversation and I said, ‘Terry, when would you be willing to meet to show me around? Maybe tomorrow or the next day?’ and he said, ‘How about right now?’ I can do that in about 20 minutes.’”
Keeping an eye on Goliath
Schager’s response to Duke’s November announcement they would scrap plans for the transmission lines was to be optimistic, but cautious.
“I think we need to stay vigilant,” Schager said. “In fact, the MountainTrue technical committee and I are keeping our ears to the ground waiting for the public comment period on their new proposal to start and of course they haven’t released the new proposal yet. As soon as they do, we’ll be studying it very closely to see if there’s anything that’s going to create, well, basically what we were fighting.”
A new, smaller substation is being built by Duke Energy on Oak Grove Road near the Greenville and Spartanburg county line, according to Schager, and how it factors into the new plan he has no idea.
“As long as they don’t change the new station, as long as the towers stand 80 feet as they are and they’re not wanting to build another right of way, I’m not going to oppose them,” Schager said. “They can do what they want but we’re going to remain vigilant and make sure that is the case.”
“I think I can speak for the entire group when I say we were relieved, but guarded, waiting for the other shoe to drop,” MountainTrue’s Stierwalt said. “We’re waiting for the proverbial, ‘Yes, we’re not going to put in the transmission line nor are we going to put in this oversized, unnecessary power plant, but…’ You know, we are waiting on the but.”
We can do better
Schager’s focus has now turned to how people can reduce their energy footprint.
“We can do that through solar panels on our roofs or better insulation in the house, replacing the windows with better glass, power saving appliances, performing energy audits and, strangely enough, working with Duke to reduce our footprint,” Schager said. “Overall, our electricity usage has declined about 10 percent in the last five years. So it went from combatting Duke’s energy project to now getting people on the bandwagon for some serious demand reduction strategies.”
“We can do better with what we do as far as how we build houses, how we remodel them,” Schager said. “We can do a heck of a lot better to reduce the amount of power we consume with a goal toward not building that third power plant Duke wants to do if they have to in 2023. The project should be now doing the things we need to do to negate the need for that power plant.”
Schager spent four months fighting with the environmental groups and residents of the Carolinas to preserve his home and where he lives, sometimes putting in 12-hour days during the process.
“I wasn’t the only one who succeeded in making it go away. Nine thousand-plus people did,” said Shager of the Foothills residents, who, through their collective power, were able to hold back a Goliath.
“You know, this is a great place and we want to preserve it,” Schager said. “I wish people would understand it’s better as it is. It doesn’t need to be changed.”