Coal plants place a disproportionate burden on poor and largely minority communities, exposing residents to high levels of pollutants that affect public health, according to a new report led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The report ranks all 378 coal-fired power plants in the United States according to a plant's impact on the health, economics and environment of nearby communities. People living near coal plants are disproportionately poor and minorities, the report found; the six million people living within three miles of those 378 plants have an average per capita income of $18,400 per year; 39 percent are people of color.
"The message arising from this report is simple: These polluting, life-compromising coal plants must be closed," the NAACP concluded in its report, Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People.
Coal plants are large emitters of mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon dioxide – a potent greenhouse gas. Along with contributing to climate change, pollution from coal plants is linked to asthma attacks, heart problems, and other diseases.
The report also found that not all coal plants are equal. The impacts of some plants on the public health of nearby communities are measurably worse than others, the authors said. And more often than not, the most offending plants are located in poor and largely minority communities.
The NAACP report gave 75 coal plants a "failing" grade on their environmental justice scorecard and found that those plants were responsible for a heavy pollution burden: 14 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions and 13 percent of all nitrogen oxide emissions from all U.S. power plants came from those 75 power plants, according to the report.
The four million people living near those 75 "failing" plants are even poorer and more isolated communities of color. The average per capita income within three miles of the 75 failing plants is $17,500 and nearly 53 percent of the people are minorities, the analysis found.
"It's very easy right now to talk about climate change as something that is theoretical, to talk about the dirtiness caused by coal plants as something that is aesthetic" said NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous. "But when you ... actually meet with people in these communities, the stories that they tell you – about their children's lives being diminished, about older people in the communities lives being shortened by the presence of these plants – are disturbing."
Illinois topped the "failing" list with nine coal plants found to disproportionately harm the poor and communities of color. Illinois is also home to the worst offending coal plant on the list: Crawford Generating Station in Chicago, Ill, a 597-megawatt plant built in 1958 and operated by Edison International. The plant closed in August.
Two other Midwestern states, Indiana and Michigan, each had five plants on the "failing" list.
"To our indigenous people, this is a life-and-death issue," said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who noted that tribal people in the Midwest continue to struggle with mercury contamination in their fish-heavy diets.
The Southeast also has its share of coal-fired problems: Virginia has five plants on the failing list, followed by North Carolina with four, then South Carolina and Florida with three apiece.
Closing the 75 "failing" plants on the NAACP list would decrease U.S. electricity by about 8 percent, but would drop the number of Americans living within three miles of a coal plant by 67 percent, according to the report.
Some of the plants on the list, like Chicago's Crawford plant, have closed or are slated to close in the next few years.
"We have been doing work, we are doing work, and we will continue to do work on our plants," said Susan Olavarria, spokesperson for Midwest Generation, the subsidiary owner of the Crawford plant. Olavarria noted that Midwest Generation already has a fleet of coal plants that meet federal mercury emissions standards that don't go into effect for years.
The Environmental Protection Agency, under the Obama administration, has throttled the coal-powered electricity industry, proposing the first-ever limits on carbon dioxide from power plants and also seeking a 91 percent cut in mercury emissions by 2016. The rules, proposed in March, would apply to all new power plants but are so steep that coal-fired power plants could only meet the standard by capturing and storing some of their carbon dioxide emissions – a practice too costly to be used commercially today. Natural gas plants can meet the proposed standard without additional equipment.
Coal today provides about 45 percent of the nation's electricity, a declining share that the EPA projects will slide below 30 percent by 2035.