The state of Maryland is facing a federal civil rights complaint, filed by Earthjustice, on behalf of residents in the majority black community of Brandywine, Md., after the state approved a permit for a gas-fired power plant that would have disproportionate pollution impacts on the basis of race.
The state of Maryland is required under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act to consider whether there would be an unjustified unequal impact on the basis of race in approving a project that would cause pollution and involves the use of federal funds. The state’s Public Service Commission Department of the Environment, and Department of Natural Resources, which together approved the plant, failed to assess whether the project would cause disparate impact and whether there are ways to avoid such impacts.
The complaint was filed with the offices of civil rights at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Transportation because those federal agencies fund the relevant Maryland agencies and they are required by law to investigate and address the civil rights violation.
Brandywine is in an unincorporated portion of Prince George's County that is 72 percent African-American. The 990-megawatt power plant, proposed by Mattawoman Energy, LLC, would be the fifth fossil-fueled power plant to operate within 13 miles of the community.
Brandywine already faces excessive levels of pollution because two of the state’s power plants are either in the community or nearby. Three additional plants that have been permitted, including the one proposed by Mattawoman, have yet to be built.
The complainants, the Brandywine TB Coalition and Patuxent Riverkeeper, are concerned about increasing air pollution, noise pollution, traffic congestion, and depressed property values.
Kamita Gray, president of the Brandywine TB Coalition, said for the gas-fired plant to be permitted in Brandywine smacks of distributional patterns of environmental racism and socio-economic injustice.
"The environmental disparate impacts are here because we are a community that is 72 percent African American and our regulatory governmental agency's decisions have failed us," Gray said.
She added that “principles of environmental justice are due process, and equal protection to a healthy environment. We have a fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food.”
State and local policymakers actions must be taken at multiple levels of government to ensure environmental justice "healthy zoning", and equitable development initiatives, she said.
Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, whose coverage area includes Brandywine, also said he thinks race and political clout are factors involved in deciding where power plants are built.
"Brandywine seems to be getting more than its share of heavy industry and power generating uses," Tutman said, adding, "National experience teaches us that projects like high-polluting power plants typically go to areas with the least political power and the most people of color—and also in neighborhoods where the clean air, water and open space are most at risk."
He’s hoping the complaint can bring about needed changes.
"It is time for honest conversation about the future of Brandywine and its residential population with respect to fairness, equity and self-determination."
Prince George’s County is already in violation of national air quality standards for ozone, which is linked to asthma. By the company’s own admission, the new gas plant will combine with existing pollution sources to cause excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide, which is linked to heart disease, asthma and stroke.
Black communities throughout the nation, regardless of income levels, are exposed to excessive levels of nitrogen oxide.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota found in a 2014 study that communities of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide than white Americans, irrespective of income. The NO2 study, according to the Washington Post, showed that the differences in exposure based on race are equivalent to about 7,000 deaths each year, throughout the nation, from heart disease.
Mattawoman’s plant would also emit pollutants that form ground-level ozone, which is created when the exhaust of cars, trucks, power plants and factories mixes and heats up in the sun.
Ozone is also linked to asthma. One in 6 black children nationwide—the highest of any racial group in the United States—have asthma. African Americans in Maryland are nearly 2.5 times as likely as white Maryland residents to die from asthma, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
“The situation in Brandywine is an egregious example of discrimination,” said Earthjustice attorney Neil Gormley, who filed the complaint.
In fact, the communities in closest proximity to all Maryland’s 13 power plants are disproportionately black. Maryland is 30 percent black, but the percentage of the population within 10 miles of a large fossil-fuel-fired power plant averages 36 percent African American. Prince George’s County is 65 percent black and has four power plants that are operating or permitted.
“But the whole process for deciding how Marylanders get their energy is systematically biased against low-income communities and communities of color. To comply with the Civil Rights Act, Maryland needs a process to ensure that future energy development doesn’t mean even more pollution for these communities.”