“I’m Katherine Andraski, Kingston Township” so began my three-minute speeches before the county board arguing for limits to electrical generating plants on prime farmland.
I stood at the podium because Brad Belanger invited me to join the Concerned Citizens. He was asking, “Hey wait a minute, do we want to welcome wind turbines to our county when they can be a health hazard? Do we want to cover prime farmland with solar panels, which become toxic waste once their useful life is finished?” He was a big, powerful man who touched my life with gentle integrity. He served as a beloved first responder in the Sycamore Fire Department for twenty-three years, helping people at their worst moments.
Brad taught me how to become an activist by strategizing how best to approach the county board and by doggedly showing up for meetings. He worked across the aisle to convince people as to why limits on renewables are important. The work paid off, with the county board writing sane ordinances, that protected the citizens and farmland.
Even after the state took away counties’ rights to set limits on renewables, even while he was undergoing strenuous treatments for esophageal cancer, Brad worked on revising county ordinances to fit the state’s requirements. He also insisted the county devise a battery ordinance that would protect fire fighters, the ground, and citizens from the dangers of this new technology. DeKalb County lost a good friend when Brad passed from this life to the next and so did I.
I’m Katherine Andraski and that’s my perspective.
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Activism runs in my blood, though when we watched the 60’s protests on TV, my mother warned me to be careful of crowds because you can do things in crowds you might not do otherwise. I’ve heeded that advice, watching how protests can easily turn violent. There’s a mob psychology that takes hold. A person can feel more brave than they might otherwise feel. I feel claustrophobic with big crowds.
As a young girl I watched my parents take on Mayor Erastus Corning, mayor of Albany, head of a Democratic machine because he wanted to turn the Normanskill valley into a green space for people to enjoy. My parents were appalled that this park would come within a few feet of their back door. Perhaps he was right to want to preserve that green space, but my parents took offence that this park would allow strangers within a few feet of their door. The owners before them claimed they chased Indians off the property and we found a log cabin down in the woods, built by a squatter.
A few years later Consolidated Gas wanted to lay a pipeline that would have sliced through our property and taken out a couple majestic white pines, that marked our road, that were like kings and queens. They surveyed our land, cutting a survey line through the south valley, which made for good riding, but also violated an 18th century patent that forbade the cutting of trees. My parents argued that this patent was honored by the US Constitution. They did not want a high pressure gas line cutting through their land. The week they were in court, a tall hillside slipped into the Normanskill, right where the pipeline was scheduled to be laid. It would have buckled. The gas company had to re-engineer the pipeline’s route, laying it across our neighbor’s land.
My mother also defied the local school district when they wanted to put my brother into a vocational track in school when she knew he was gifted. He took radios apart and put them back together again. She saw that school was losing him, so she started an alternative school whose motto was “an adventure in learning.” The local educators thought it would be impossible for her to bring children back to school in the summer. But my mother and the other founding women believe in their mission because they saw how school was losing smart students.
They figured if they could match children with experts that children might find out how learning can be fun. I remember becoming interested in archeology from reading a book about the dig that discovered a great Viking ship in England. It wasn’t long before my mother found an archeologist studying at the University of Pennsylvania and invited him to teach a class in archeology. Thus began a friendship between Paul Huey and my family that lasted for years, with my family even putting him up in our unheated upstairs. (I was just telling Bruce, how Paul was my last living connection to those years with my family.) I remember doing sophisticated field archeology as a ten-year-old. Even as a child I was treated with respect by being taught how things were done. My mother quietly saw that scholarships were given to children from the inner city so they could find out the same things about learning. She also found native Americans to teach classes on Iroquois culture. The Helderberg Workshop went from 60 students to 600 in ten years and is still running today.
My “rebellion” against my mother’s ways was not to volunteer. When I first heard about wind farms in our county, I did not want to get involved but a friend talked me into going to a meeting of the Concerned Citizens so Bruce and I decided to go. When we learned how wind farms could harm our community. Brad Belanger gathered the community group that researched the harms. We knew the wind farm in the southern part of the county had been a disaster for the people who live there, and how the county had been sued because of how the county permitted the farm. He welcomed anyone who was willing to help and educated us about how wind farms aren’t healthy for people living nearby.
Bruce and I went to meetings. We talked to our county board member and showed up at his open houses, telling him how concerned we were. We talked to our state rep as well. And went to planning meetings as well as board meetings.
After months of meetings, we sat on the edge of our seats when the county board voted on the wind farm ordinance that offered setbacks and limits that protected the county. Many citizens showed up at the final vote to show their support of the ordinance. I found it extremely rewarding that our work paid off when they voted in favor of the ordinance.
But our work was not done when several multi thousand-acre solar projects were planned. Bruce and I began showing up for county board meetings, talking about why these huge solar farms impinged on the rights of the non-participating landowners, as well as the multiple downsides. Thirty-five hundred acres of black glass and steel can have profound effects on the climate surrounding the solar farm. What happens if the panels break during construction? What happens when the lead in the solder is dropped on the ground? What happens if the panels break during a tornado or hail storm? How efficient are they as far as generating electricity when Illinois offers so few sunny days? What happens if wind and solar can’t pull the baseload during a winter freeze? How many will die? What happens if we use up prime farmland. What happens to the value of the properties surrounding these solar farms. How are non-participating landowners protected?
One evening Brad called asking for a favor. What is it? Would you work with the inner circle protesting these farms? I didn’t pause. I said yes. (Being asked to be in an inner circle is a rare thing for me.)
Bruce and I went to more meetings at John Lyon’s barn where we talked through how best to approach the county board. And we showed up at county board committee meetings as well as full county board meetings. I stood at the podium and spoke. That’s where I found my voice where I know my subject well enough to make a reasoned argument. It was rewarding to see reasonable limits on the development of solar farms passed. And discouraging that the state took away counties’ rights to devise limits. Except Cook County which exempted itself from the rules.
Securing some sane ordinances with regards to wind and solar in our county was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. Brad gathered us and guided us toward how to be most effective working with the county board. There’s a lot of power in quietly showing up and stating your peace, repeating it, and listening. I think we can do more than just talking amongst ourselves about government policies that trouble us. I still think there’s power in writing our state and national representatives with our concerns. I saw our then state representative work on our behalf when the state took away Illinois counties’ rights to setting ordinances.
Brad Belanger’s funeral was full of ritual, full of places set up to let our grief come to the surface because he was a first responder, who died from a cancer possibly caused by his work with assorted carcinogens.
When we drove up to the funeral, two ladder trucks extended their buckets over the road with a giant flag hanging down. There were so many people paying respects we had to park in an outer lot and take a bus to the Park District building where it was being held.
It was his helmet with number 23 sitting on the memorial table commemorating him, along with a polished steel or silver ax and pike that brought tears. His widow said she was doing well that day, that everyone’s support helped. Two firemen stood between Brad’s table. Behind him was an antique fire truck with flowers on either side and Christmas trees on either side of that. I did not feel it was right to take pictures.
The honor guard was replaced twice with slow, formal gestures. The salutes were in slow motion, respectful. Then first responders-fire fighters, paramedics and police officers walked past Brad’s table. At least a hundred of them. Saluting him slowly as they walked past.
Then they lined up behind us, a wall of formal blue uniforms. The Park District gym was filled with them standing behind the mourners. Then gifts were presented to Brad’s widow. Bagpipes played Amazing Grace. The video of Brad’s last ride home from DuPage hospital, showed first responders parked at all the cross streets saluting him, honoring someone who’d given his life to save other people’s lives. We watched him talk about how his hands had been burned in a conflagration at a church. And at the end we heard the radio call for 23 and hear no response. They called several times. No response. They signed off with Rest in Peace and other words about being in the Presence that I don’t remember.
Later when I thought about this day, I imagined Brad sitting behind Bruce and I, and off to the left, rightly basking in the honor that was paid to him, saying that was pretty darn good. And I thought how important ritual is, how we need more formality, not less for births, weddings, funerals, worship.
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