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In the Shadow of a Smokestack

Marti Blake

A portrait of Marti Blake is paired with the reflection in her living room window.

Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

"It's like hell. Living in hell," says Marti Blake, when asked about being neighbors with a coal-fired power plant. "It's filthy, it's dirty, it's noisy."

For 21 years, Blake has lived right across from the Cheswick Generating Station in Springdale, PA, a 40-year-old coal-fired power plant now owned by GenOn Energy. According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency— captured by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity —Cheswick is in the highest category for risk to human health.

Blake recounts an especially harrowing tale that happened some years back.

"All of a sudden, the whole atmosphere got black—dark—just like nighttime. You couldn't see it was so dark. And this was in the afternoon—it was sunny before that. It lasted maybe ten minutes," she recalls. Blake had spent most of the day cleaning the exterior of her house and as the sky cleared she looked in frustration at a previously clean building now covered in crusty, black soot.

"There was a guy across the street by the sidewalk doing something, and he walked up to me and he says 'Oh ma'am, I'm really sorry. You were working so hard in getting your building washed down, and this had to happen.' He said, 'I work for Duquesne Light [the previous owner]. Now don't you say that I mentioned anything to you, because I don't want to get fired, but that came from the plant.'"

Since moving to the area, Blake has developed serious allergies. She now takes a shot every week to help with her symptoms. The medicine still isn't enough though. "I feel like I have a cold all the time. I cough. I have a runny nose. I get sinus infections. It's awful," she says.

No one can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that Blake's health problems are caused by the dirty air, but for Blake, it's a no-brainer: "If I go away and I'm not near a coal plant, guess what? I don't have any allergies. I feel great, with the clean air."

In the Specter of a Plume

Martin Garrigan lives nearby and has similar feelings about their coal-fired neighbor. "Living next to a coal-fired power plant is sort of like the neighbor from hell moving in. They've just bought a huge house and put up a 750-foot tall stack that's spewing poisons out over your head and creating so much noise that you often can't sleep at night from it."

The response from plant officials to Garrigan, Blake and other people frustrated with the pollution from their industrial neighbor can be summarized this way: "Move."

A portrait of Martin Garrigan is paired with the view from his front porch.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

But that's easier said than done. "You tend to think, well, 'I should not be living here,'" says Garrigan. "But then when my wife's parents live here, my parents live here, the children have all their friends at school—they're involved in a myriad of activities—it's tough to just pick up and leave everything behind."

Garrigan has advised his daughters—one of whom has asthma—not to move back into the area when they graduate from high school. He and his wife plan to move at that point as well.

Bad Neighbors

"Neighborliness doesn't trump profits," says Earthjustice's Jim Pew , an attorney who has worked for more than a decade to clean up coal plants. "Until the government actually sets standards that require these big neighbors to control their pollution, it's not going to happen."

It needs to happen because coal plant pollution has a serious impact on health: every year, it causes exacerbated asthma, heart problems, hospital visits, days when people miss work and school, and worst of all, premature death—especially among vulnerable populations like children, the elderly and people with asthma. These problems cost society large amounts of money, but they can be dramatically reduced with pollution control technology.

"Children die of asthma," says Pew. "I'm a parent. I just can't imagine losing your child to asthma. I can't imagine losing your child at all, but losing a child unnecessarily because we can't be bothered to clean up pollution? That's just incredible to me."

A Knock at the Polluter Door

Thankfully, because of many years of Earthjustice's determined litigation on behalf of community, environmental and public health groups, things are looking up. On December 21, 2011, the Obama administration released protections that will clean up toxic air emissions from power plants across the nation. When the protections go into effect in a few years, they will prevent every year up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, 6,300 cases of acute bronchitis and 130,000 cases of asthma attacks.

Jim Pew has a powerful way of looking at it: "Instead of looking at this as a cost-benefit thing, you can look at it as a cost-cost thing. There's a cost to cleaning up the air, that's true—that's say one dollar. And there's a cost to not cleaning up the air—let's say that's 30 dollars. Which one of those costs do you want to pay? You're going to pay one of them."

Now, the danger is that a polluter-friendly Congress will take the protections away.

"There's a serious effort afoot in Congress to kill off this rule," says Pew, "even though the benefits are overwhelmingly greater than the cost to industry. There are a bunch of our representatives who are happy to kill this rule off because they answer largely to the industry groups that simply don't want to pay to clean up their pollution."

This is of serious concern to Marti Blake, Martin Garrigan and many others across the country who are impacted by air pollution from coal plants—far and away the nation's worst toxic polluters. The protections issued by the Obama administration will dramatically reduce the pollution burden placed on the neighbors of these facilities, but to be so close to real change and have elected representatives actively working to take it away to appease powerful industries is infuriating.

The Right to Breathe

Clean air should be a fundamental right. When Marti Blake thinks about this idea, it is almost overwhelming.

"That is the most wonderful idea I've ever heard," she says. "The right to breathe clean air. Yes."

"I mean, nobody is put on this earth to live in filth and to breathe the filth," she continues. "With our technologies today? We're not living back in the 18th century."

After years of work by Earthjustice and other groups, the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama's leadership has finally taken the steps to usher in a new century where coal plant pollution no longer sickens and kills. It's our job to remain vigilant against the interests that would rather we stay right where we are, in the shadow of a smokestack and the specter of a plume.

"Children die of asthma. I'm a parent. I just can't imagine losing your child to asthma. I can't imagine losing your child at all, but losing a child unnecessarily because we can't be bothered to clean up pollution? That's just incredible to me."

James Pew
Attorney, Earthjustice