Environmental justice takes center stage at the Clean Power Plan hearing

Power plant pollution has an outsized impact on low-income communities of color.

(CREDIT: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)
(CREDIT: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA — Jacqui Patterson, director of the environmental and climate justice program at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), began her testimony at the Environmental Protection Agency’s public hearing on Wednesday with a story about her father.

Years ago, Patterson said, her father developed a cough that slowly but steadily worsened to the point where he needed to be on a constant stream of oxygen. A doctor diagnosed him with pulmonary fibrosis — a chronic and progressive lung condition normally associated with smoking. Patterson’s father had never smoked a day in his life, but he did live within 10 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Patterson’s father eventually died from his illness; a few years later, her mother died from a rare form of cancer possibly also tied to environmental pollution.

How many more people do we have to bury before we as communities of color are granted equal protection under the law?” Patterson asked during her testimony.

When EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the agency’s only public hearing on the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan would be held in Charleston, West Virginia, he promised that the location would allow the agency to “hear from those most impacted by the CPP.” For Pruitt and West Virginia lawmakers who testified during the first day of the hearing, the people most impacted by the regulation are coal miners, whose jobs are arguably threatened by the increasing move away from coal towards cheaper, less carbon-intensive sources of power.

But testimony presented on the second day of the hearing by nearly a dozen representatives from local chapters of the NAACP focused attention on a different community that would also be deeply impacted by the repeal of the Clean Power Plan: low-income communities and communities of color that are disproportionately impacted by pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The biggest indicator of where a coal fired-power plant is placed is [whether it is] in low-income communities and communities of color,” Sultan White, an NAACP representative from Honolulu, Hawaii, told ThinkProgress. “So while they are saying that the miners are affected, you can’t forget low income communities and communities of color are affected with things like asthma and emphysema caused by the burning of this coal.”

The Clean Power Plan, which would have placed the first-ever limits on carbon emissions from power plants, is often thought of as a climate regulation — carbon dioxide emissions, after all, are a greenhouse gas, and an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is what is driving global climate change. But the Clean Power Plan would also have reduced other pollutants, like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and mercury. By reducing those pollutants, the EPA estimated that the plan would have prevented 3,600 premature deaths, 1,700 heart attacks, and 90,000 asthma attacks each year.

Those public health benefits would have favored low-income communities and communities of color, as those are the groups that tend to live in closest proximity to — and therefore suffer the most from the pollution associated with — coal-fired power plants. Sixty-eight percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, compared to 56 percent of white Americans. African Americans are also exposed to more air pollution than white communities — 71 percent of African Americans live in areas that violate federal air standards, as opposed to just 58 percent of the white population.

For many of the NAACP representatives who testified in support of the Clean Power Plan during the hearing, those statistics are more than just numbers — they are reflective of lived experience with industrial pollution.

“I came down here from Delaware to give my testimony to the EPA to bring an awareness to the serious issues and the impact that environmental waste and all of these pollutants are having on our communities,” Linwood Jackson, president of the NAACP Delaware State Conference, told ThinkProgress. “The biggest city in our great but small state of Delaware, which was predominantly African American and poor minorities, is surrounded by a dump, a landfill, a concrete plant, a steel plant, and the waterways that come in bringing in 400 ships a year, dropping oil and fuel into our well water.”

Others who testified expressed frustration with the fact that the agency choose to hold only one public hearing, and did not hold any hearings in communities affected by power plant pollution. The Obama administration, by contrast, held hearings for the original Clean Power Plan in four different cities in 2014.

I think it’s unfair that they are only having one hearing,” White, who traveled for 16 hours to attend the hearing in Charleston, said. “I think it’s unfair that it’s in the heart of coal country. I felt I had an obligation to come and speak.”

Patterson, for her part, said that she felt it was important for the hearing to serve as a platform for concerned energy workers who worried that regulations could threaten their livelihood. But, she said, the emphasis on those concerns over the concerns of those who live in close proximity to polluting power plants felt indicative of the Trump administration’s overall attitude towards vulnerable communities.

Across the board, I think there’s that pattern of not really acknowledging or addressing the impacts on communities, and really favoring a response to the industry’s bottom line,” Patterson said. “I think that we’ve heard a lot more from the administration about those concerns than we’ve heard about concerns about pollution in communities.”