President Obama kicked off the summer with a high-profile environmental speech at Georgetown University. He put forth a plan to limit carbon emissions for coal-fired power plants, and called for America to double renewable energy sources.
As the details of this plan emerge, it is important to remember who is most affected by coal pollution: low-income communities and communities of color.
Pollution from coal-fired power plants is estimated to cause 13,200 premature deaths and 9,700 hospitalizations in the United States every year. It has been linked to asthma attacks, lung inflammation, chronic bronchitis, irregular heart conditions, and birth defects.
None of the so-called “emissions controls” introduced in the past few years have gone far enough to diminish those numbers.
If we look deeper, we can see exactly which communities and neighborhoods bear the brunt of the impact. According to Census data, the six million Americans who live within three miles of a coal plant have an average income of $18,400, compared with $21,857 nationwide.
Thirty nine percent are people of color. As a result, emissions from coal combustion often harm those who are least able to afford the effects of exposure.
This is no accident. The simple fact is that very few people want a coal plant in their backyard. Therefore, power companies have a strong incentive to maintain plants in the area of least political resistance.
To add insult to injury, the sight of spewing smokestacks often brings property values down even further. The coal-fired power plant has come to serve as cause and symbol of urban and suburban blight.
In November 2012, the NAACP and our partners released a report to raise awareness about the disparate impact of coal pollution, titled, “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People.” The report created the first ranking system that judged coal plants based on their demographic impact as well as their emissions levels.
“Coal Blooded” was written as a guide for local NAACP units and other community groups to take action. Each of the nation’s 378 plants operating at the time of the report received an easily-referenced “Environmental Justice Performance” score based partly on the race, income, and density of the surrounding neighborhood.
Already, NAACP units have started to host education and advocacy activities in communities that are host to the most harmful power plants.
The message of these activities is straightforward: we need to transition away from coal power and replace coal plants with profitable, clean energy alternatives. And we need to focus our energy on coal plants that have the most harmful impact on their surrounding communities.
Coal power is not without its supporters, even in the communities most affected by pollution. However, the negatives almost always outweigh the positives. No coal plant is worth the cost – in emotional loss and loss of productivity – when children are getting sick, grandparents are dying early, and mothers and fathers are missing work.
Moreover, it is possible to maintain jobs and livelihoods without relying on dirty coal. As President Obama rightly noted in his speech, the future of American energy independence lies in clean energy – an emerging sector that is poised to create millions of jobs and ensure an affordable power supply far into the future.
America is moving beyond coal. As we do so, it is important to remember the human impact of coal pollution. Climate change is more than an environmental issue – it is a civil rights and human rights issue as well.
Ben Jealous is president/CEO of the NAACP.