The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) released a report on the nation’s coal industry today rating coal-fired power plants according to their impact on neighboring communities.
The verdict is grim.
Of the 378 plants across the country that the report assessed for their environmental justice performance – that is their affects on low-income communities and communities of color – 75 plants received an F. The report estimates that four million people live within three miles of these failing plants
The report, Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People, investigates the overall toxicity of emissions or ‘dirtiness’ of a coal plants, and combines emissions ratings with demographic data to rank a coal plant’s effect on neighboring communities. The study is a joint production between NAACP, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), and the Indigenous Environmental Network.
“Because of the intersection of climate change and all these issues that we face every day, whether it’s education issues, criminal justice issues, it impacts everything because the environment impacts everything,” says Jacqueline Patterson, Director of NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Programs. “We really had to kind of reframe it so that in the hearts and minds of communities it actually resonated as something that we were interdependent on in terms of the environment and working to preserve it,”
Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights group. The organization played a pivotal role in many milestones of the civil rights movement, such as overturning Jim Crow laws, desegregation, and securing voting rights for African-Americans. Since 2009 NAACP has also been actively endorsing climate change legislation. The new report will serve as a launching point for the coal section of NAACP’s climate justice campaign.
When most people think about climate change, stranded polar bears and melting glaciers come to mind – issues seemingly far removed from the NAACP’s usual agenda, and most Americans’ day-to-day affairs. The NAACP, however, argues that climate change has direct and often deadly impacts on people throughout the US and the world, particularly in communities of color.
“Coal-fired power plants are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color,” says Patterson. Coal generates over 40 percent of US energy consumption. In addition, the US is home to the largest recoverable reserves of coal in the world, and is a net exporter of coal. In other words, we have a lot of coal plants littering the country and a large potential for more. Coal plants emit a host of pollutants, which not only drive global climate change but also have local impacts. Exposure to coal emissions can cause a variety of respiratory diseases, including asthma and bronchitis, sometimes leading to premature death.
According to the NAACP report, 78 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, as compared to 56 percent of non-Hispanic whites. 71 percent of African Americans live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards, as compared to 58 percent of the white population. Asthma affects African Americans at a 36 percent higher rate of incidence than whites. African Americans are hospitalized for asthma at three times the rate of whites and die of asthma at twice the rate of whites.
The devastating inequalities of US coal-fired power production naturally attracted the NAACP’s attention. The report argues that “Overall, a small number of coal power plants have a disproportionately large and destructive effect on the public’s health, especially on the health of low-income people and people of color,… the worst offending coal plants described and analyzed in this report must be closed – it is the only viable option.”
The NAACP seeks to set the agenda for grassroots groups, legislators, and even President Obama, by identifying these offenders. The report assesses 378 US coal-fired power plants on their environmental justice performance, Each is given a score based on a complex algorithm which combines data on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions (CO2 is omitted because emissions affect global climate change, whereas SO2 and NOx effects are more localized), total population within three miles of the plant, median income, and percentage of people of color among the total population living within three miles of the plant.
In the ranking, 75 plants received an F. The report estimates that four million people live within three miles of these failing plants. Two million people live within three miles of one of the top twelve. Approximately 76 percent of these residents are people of color and the average per capita income is $14,626 (well below the national average of $21,587).
Although these coal-plants contribute negligibly to US energy (the top 12 account for 1.2 percent of total US production), corporate interests make them hard to shut down. “The real obstacle to change is what some people in the industry affectionately call ‘the big dirties.’ Simply put, these older coal plants – most of them built in the 1960s and 1970s, before pollution controls were mandated – produce electricity so cheaply that it is virtually impossible for other power plants to compete with them,” journalist Jeff Goodell writes in the report.
Prior to this report, the NAACP had released a series of smaller Coal Blooded reports that focused on specific regions. Earlier this year the City of Chicago closed the Crawford and Fisk plants, which topped the national list of worst plants, and were targeted in 2011 by the NAACP’s Illinois report. NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous says Crawford and Fisk were “literally choking some of Chicago’s most diverse neighborhoods, and some of its poorest.” Rose Joshua, NAACP’s South Side Chicago unit president, described the closing as “a true victory for grassroots democracy – a group of citizens who refused to be marginalized and spoke up for the health and wellbeing of their families and their environment.”
Hopefully similar victories will follow the release of the latest Coal Blooded report. At the very least, a high-profile civil rights group stepping into what was traditionally the realm of conservation groups signifies a broadening of the US environmentalist movement. The environmental movement in the US “lacked the human dimension,” Patterson says. Describing people in workshops she taught about climate change she says: “They thought ‘What does that have to do with the fact that in my community people are being murdered every day?’”
Coal Blooded appeals to those people who may feel disconnected to, and devalued by, traditional conservation, a crucial step in passing environmental agenda. In addition to coal plants, the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative has a number of other programs including support for clean energy, transportation equity, food justice, equity in urban/rural development, green jobs, and disaster planning.
As Indigenous activist Clayton Thomas-Muller stated, the agenda of the climate justice movement is about “not simply demanding action on climate, but demanding rights-based and justice-based action on climate that… amplifies the voices of those least responsible and most directly impacted. Not only are we the frontline of impacts, we are the frontline of survival.”
To read the full report and/or take action on this issue, visit the NAACP Coal Blooded website