Last week, Florida Power & Light filed papers with the state's Public Service Commission opposing the request of an activist with the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition to intervene in the company's petition to convert an oil-burning power plant in Riviera Beach into one powered by natural gas.

The move comes after Panagioti Tsolkas of Lake Worth, Fla. submitted papers to the commission critical of FPL's conversion plans and accused the company of "greenwashing." PBCEC points out that gas-fired power plants are a major source of global warming pollution as well as other toxic emissions that present a threat to humans and ecosystems.

Tsolkas, the PBCEC co-chair, was arrested last month at a press conference where he announced a lawsuit seeking to stop construction at another FPL power plant after someone apparently alerted authorities to an outstanding trespass warrant against him. He was also among 27 protesters arrested in February for blockading the construction entrance to the FPL site.

In an interview published last Independence Day by a Fort Lauderdale blog titled Amuse the Ants, Tsolkas was asked about his most frightening confrontation with authorities:


Panagioti: This recent fight with FP&L I think. I wouldn't say frightening, although I think that element could be there because I think its one of the most massive entities that I've ever been involved in taking on and challenging, and realizing how well-connected they are, even within the environmental community. I think their connections go very deep and being nervous about what sort of impact that's gonna have on peoples live who get involved in protesting it. I don't think it's any cause to stay away from the fight but I do think people should keep FP&L in check. We had the civil disobedience act there at their shareholders meeting and some people were arrested for blocking the road and the police arrested a young woman with a bullhorn ... Security guards were hiding out in the bushes and just this kind of air of intimidation - police officers taking pictures of people up in their faces ... They just grabbed the bullhorn and put it in the police car, and it was sorta like, to me, a little eye-opening that some of these giant companies actually, I think, have a lot of control over the authorities that we're kind of under.

Indeed, Florida is not the only state where law enforcement authorities have used intimidating tactics against grassroots activists protesting Big Energy's polluting plans. In April, two nonviolent protesters were Tasered after locking themselves to bulldozers at the construction site for Duke Energy's massive new coal-fired power plant in western North Carolina, leading clean-air advocates with the Canary Coalition to call for an investigation of the police officers' actions. And in Colorado last year, an activist was arrested and jailed for simply carrying a "No New Coal Plants" sign inside the bar of a hotel that had just hosted a clean energy conference.

In an article published earlier this year by Orion magazine, writer Ted Nace described these grassroots activists working to stop the building of polluting power plants as a "swarm," using as an example the No New Coal Plants e-mail list founded by Mike Ewall of the Energy Justice Network. [Disclosure: I'm a member of that list.] Nace contrasted the "swarmers" -- who also like to call themselves "the Twigs" -- with large national environmental groups sometimes dubbed Big Green, noting that in many cases the grassroots activists have been more effective:

As fighting forces, swarms both preceded and eventually vanquished the orthogonal ranks of legionnaires that forged the Roman Empire. In a swarm, the emphasis is not on discipline, experience, and orderliness but rather on fighting spirit and individual initiative. Swarms are known for their tactical flexibility, sometimes using guerrilla-style harassment, as did the farmers who routed the British at Lexington and Concord; other times prevailing with overwhelming numbers in the manner of the Arapaho, Lakota, and Northern Cheyenne fighters who overran the U.S. Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.

While Tsolkas and his swarm has not yet succeeded in stopping FPL's plans for new polluting power plants, they have clearly gotten under the company's skin. In its filing against Tsolkas' intervention, FPL threw the proverbial book at him, arguing that:

1) he lacks standing because he's not an FPL customer,

2) there's no proof PBCEC members are FPL customers,

3) PBCEC is not registered as a business or nonprofit in Florida, and

4) Tsolkas is neither an attorney nor a "qualified representative."

PBCEC is currently collecting contributions to defray legal costs. To donate, visit the front page of their website.

(Photo of Panagioti Tsolkas being arrested during a protest against FPL's expansion plans is by Damon Higgins of the Palm Beach Post and was taken from the PBCEC Web site)