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Tr-Ash Talk: Low-Income and Communities of Color Breathe More Dirty Air

The results of a comprehensive study investigating the impacts of living near 378 coal plants in the United States have found that people of color and low-income communities are disproportionately more burdened by this pollution than any other segment of the population. Coal Blooded was pulled together by the NAACP, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) and the Indigenous Environmental Network.

The 378 coal plants in question were each assigned a score based on five factors: sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions, the total population living within three miles of each plant and the median income and percentage of people of color among the total population living within three miles of the plant. Several of these communities also live near coal ash dumps, sites where toxic coal combustion waste is disposed – more on that later.

While nearly 6 million Americans living within three miles of coal plants coal power plants are people of color and low-income, specifically:

  • These communities have an average per capita income of $18,400, in contrast to the U.S. average of $21,587.
  • These communities are 39 percent people of color in contrast to the 36 percent proportion of the total U.S. population.

Of those 378 plants assigned a score, 75 were given an environmental justice grade of “F,” meaning that they are responsible for considerable air pollution damage on people of color and low-income communities. The study found that four million people live within three miles of these 75 failing plants. The average per capita income of this community is $17,500 and nearly 53 percent are people of color.

The states with the worst-offending coal plants are  Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, which is also the home to many of the nation’s coal ash contaminated sites, where the release of toxic coal ash has contaminated air and water of nearby communities. Most coal plants dispose of their coal ash, which contains arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxins, in pits and ponds next to plants.

These often unlined dumps can pose grave hazards to neighboring communities. A 2010 study by U.S. EPA found that residents who live near some coal ash dumps have as much as a one in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated by arsenic, one of the most common, and most dangerous, pollutants from coal ash.

The states that were assigned an “F” grade in the NAACP report don’t fair much better in this report. According to studies by EPA and public interest groups, Illinois has 14 coal ash sites where contamination of water from coal ash has occurred, Indiana has 15, Ohio has 12, Michigan and Wisconsin each have seven.

A solution to this mess? Close the 75 harmful plants. These facilities are responsible for just eight percent of U.S. power production, which can easily be substituted by increased energy conservation and renewable energy production, according to the study.

Allowing these facilities to continue poisoning communities is a grave injustice. The report details the negative health impacts from breathing in these chemicals:

  • (SO2) causes coughing, wheezing and nasal inflammation with long-term exposure causing and increasing the severity of asthma, which can cause death.
  • (NOX) reacts with sunlight to produce ozone. It also increases the risk and severity of asthma, and causes coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

And there are myriad other pollutants that spew from coal plant smokestacks, including fine particle pollution (among the deadliest of air toxics), mercury, arsenic and lead. A Clean Air Task Force report on this pollution found that these facilities caused 13,200 premature deaths and 9,700 hospitalizations a year, as well as more than $100 billion in monetary damages. And these negative health impacts do not even include the threats to health posed by unsafe dumping of coal ash.

While these stats are stark, what is most egregious in this report is that many of these corporations are responsible for spending millions upon millions of dollars to combat the very regulations that would protect these communities. Shifting away from this coal-produced energy will reduce by thousands the number of deaths, hospitalizations and illness affecting these communities.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.