Communities of Color, Poverty Bear Burden of Air Pollution
Earthjustice and the Environmental Justice Research Center at Clark Atlanta University have collaborated to compile data for coal-fired power plant pollution and the impacts on low income communities and communities of color for EPA Region IV, which includes Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. The environmental justice trend for coal plant pollution and the disproportionate burden on these communities presents itself nationally and is magnified in EPA Region IV.
A recent proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would cut mercury, lead, arsenic and particle pollution from hundreds of coal-fired power plants across the country. The plan would save 17,000 lives, prevent 120,000 asthma attacks, and result in air quality improvements valued at $59 billion to $140 billion each year. The EPA estimates that for every dollar spent to reduce this pollution, Americans would see $5 to $13 in health benefits.
But Dr. Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, sees these numbers as only part of the story. “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.”
For example, Mississippi and Alabama are the two states in the nation with the most disproportionate siting of coal-filed power plants for populations living below the poverty line, and Tennessee is among the top five with the worst disproportionate impact to people of color.
The greatest disparity in Region IV as compared to the nation as a whole is in regards to communities of color. As of 2000, the most recent Census data available for this study (2010 Census data is not yet available for ZIP codes), people of color comprised 24.9% of our nation’s population. Nationally, the percentage of people of color living next to coal-fired power plants is 21.7%. In EPA Region IV, the percentage people of color living near these facilities— 30.0%—is significantly higher than the national average. This figure means that the people of color living in the same ZIP code as a coal-fired power plant in Region IV is 20% greater than would be expected based on the national average.
In Alabama, the people 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.
The burdens of coal combustion and, ultimately, the threat of diseases and deaths brought about by air pollution, are also borne unequally nationwide by those living in poverty, with a more dramatic disproportionate impact in the Southeast. The national percentage of those living in poverty is 11.9%. Near coal plants nationwide, the poverty rate is 12.9%. In Region IV, the poverty rate of those living near coal plants is 14.9%. As with people of color, the numbers of low-income communities are particularly concentrated near coal plants in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
In Alabama (24.5%) and Mississippi (26.5%), the poverty rate near coal plants is more than twice the national average. In Tennessee the number of people living below the poverty line near coal plants is 41% higher than would be expected from the national average.
“These regional numbers tell a story that is all too common in communities across the country—low income communities and communities of color are disproportionately located near and impacted by the pollution coming from coal-fired power plants. Cleaning up this pollution will save as much as $140 billion annually while helping improve the lives of millions of Americans living near these facilities and breathing dirty air,” said Emily Enderle, legislative representative at Earthjustice. “The public hearings the EPA held this week in Philadelphia and Chicago were mainly attended by concerned citizens who support cleaning up these big polluters. We expect the hearing in Atlanta today to be no different. Americans want and deserve clean air.”