|Peter Bahouth, Executive Director
May 31, 2011
Photo by David Graham-Caso, Sierra Club
This week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a series of three hearings on Mercury and Air Toxics standards that aim to cut mercury, lead, arsenic and particle pollution from hundreds of coal-fired power plants across the country. According to the EPA, the rule would save approximately 17,000 lives, prevent 120,000 asthma attacks and result in air quality improvements valued from $59 billion to $140 billion each year. The rule also would limit emissions of hazardous pollutants like arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases, toxics that can cause serious very health effects including cancer.
The community turned out in full force at the hearings in Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta, with hundreds of supporters calling for a strong rule regulating mercury and air toxics and expressing frustration with utility companies who continue to promote coal power. The lopsided impact upon poor communities and people of color was an ongoing theme at all three hearings.
Dr. Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and famed justice and civil rights leader, spoke forcefully about the impacts on the communities he serves. “It’s well known that communities of color and low income communities bear the disproportionate share of the deaths and illnesses associated with pollution from coal-fired power plants,” Dr. Bullard said. “The EPA’s proposal to reduce toxic air emissions from power plants would help to improve this tragic inequality by cutting toxic emissions that have been proven to cause cancer, asthma and respiratory disease, cardiovascular ailments, and thousands of premature deaths annually.”
The national percentage of those living in poverty is around 11.9%. However, near coal plants nationwide, that rate jumps to 12.9%. Within EPA Region IV, which covers the Southeast, the poverty rate of those living near coal plants is even higher, at 14.9%. For example, in Alabama, the population of communities of color near coal plants is 46% higher than the statewide average would predict; in Mississippi it is 34% higher; and in Tennessee there is nearly twice as high a likelihood for non-white individuals to be living near coal plants as would be expected given the state average. (Source: Earthjustice) It is no secret that coal plants surround poor communities nationwide and the message was prominent throughout the hearing comments and testimony.
Doctors, clergy, justice leaders, expectant mothers and students emphasized the impacts to communities and individual health that comes from living near coal fired power plants. In Atlanta, pediatrician Dr. Yolanda Whyte, testified about her work with children, who “are the most vulnerable and most sensitive to dangerous pollutants in our air and water.” US Climate Action Network’s own Executive Director Peter Bahouth testified as well stating,“ Our mission is to support and help coordinate these organizations’ efforts toward effective, equitable, and sustainable strategies to reduce carbon pollution and promote a clean energy future at all levels of the debate: local, state, federal and international. And we all agree: Clean Air Act standards to protect our nation’s communities from the threats of toxic air pollution from power plants are long overdue. “ Peter also entered into the record several examples of support from coalitions of environmental, faith, health, business and environmental justice groups” On the other hand, utility officials complained of costs, “not enough time” to implement, “rushed” rulemaking and dire consequences in the form of blackouts and hire electricity rates. Notably, the EPA estimates that for every dollar spent to reduce this pollution, Americans would see $5 to $13 in health benefits.
On Thursday, Governor Chris Christie announced that New Jersey would pull out of Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the nation’s only operating cap-and-trade system. While the Republican governor said he believed that humans were causing climate change, he cited market forces, the rise in natural gas usage and the decreased use of coal as avenues to lower greenhouse gasses, not RGGI. Christie pointed to a new report from NJ’s Department of Environmental Protection that the state’s emissions already stand below goals for 2020, making the regional trading program essentially moot.
It’s surmised that politics played no small part in the decision, as Christie is likely to rise in favor among national Republicans. For their part, environmentalists and renewable energy businesses were quick to fight back against the decision, since about half of the over $100 million benefitting the state went to renewable energy and energy efficiency programs. The other half went toward general deficit reduction; ironically, a key talking point of Governor Christie’s administration.
Also this week
Mississippi joined two other poorer Southern states, South Carolina and Kentucky, in having the highest vulnerability to gasoline prices, according to NRDC’s fifth annual “Oil Vulnerability Report.” Residents there pay the largest percentage of their incomes on gas, suffering the most when prices skyrocket. “The best way to end this pain for consumers is to get off this crazy, perilous ride” and reduce dependence on oil as a transportation fuel, said Deron Lovaas, NRDC’s federal transportation policy director. Calling for tougher pollution and fuel economy standards – 62 miles per gallon by 2025 – the authors also recommend an overhaul of the federal transportation program, including greater investment in transit.
In related news, House on both sides of the aisle doubled down on their energy platforms this week, with GOP messaging that domestic drilling is the key to job creation and Democrats reinforcing the “Medicare-and-oil” talking point formula stemming from the special election upset in western New York this week. But, while both parties made what amounted to closing arguments ahead of the summer driving season that kicks off Memorial Day weekend, neither party presented new plans for gas-cost relief, economic growth and deficit reduction, perhaps a sign that Republicans and Democrats see their constituents as weary of high pump prices.
Kellyn Eberhardt, Southeast Regional Coordinator