A new report from the Clean Air Task Force reveals some dirty truths about the burden of coal industry pollution on American communities.
According to the study, fine particle pollution linked to the coal industry is "expected to cause over 13,000 premature deaths in 2010, as well as almost 10,000 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks per year." The estimated death toll clusters in certain industrial cities, namely New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., affirming other research showing the racial and economic implications of these urban health impacts.
But the silver lining is that the situation is evidently improving; compared to an earlier assessment, the grim figures represent "almost half the impact that our 2004 study found and is reflective of the impact that state and federal actions have had in reducing power plant emissions by roughly half." In other words, the government plays an essential, role in addressing environmental health problem.
Other studies have suggested that racial divides are a key determinant in the health risks fueled by coal power. A 2002 report by a coalition of environmental and community groups described how power plants saddled Black communities with dirty air and toxics:
• The air in our communities violates air quality standards. In 2002, 71% of African Americans live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards, compared to 58% of the white population.
• Most African Americans live near a power plant. Sixty-eight percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant — the distance within which the maximum effects of the smokestack plume are expected to occur. By comparison, about 56% of the white population live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant.
• We are likely to live near a power plant waste site. African Americans account for 17% of the people living within five miles of a power plant waste site.
• Asthma attacks send African Americans to the emergency room at three times the rate (174.3 visits per 10,000 population) of whites (59.4 visits per 10,000 population).
According to a research brief by Dr. Robert Bullard of Clark Atlanta University, "Blacks in 19 states and Latinos in 12 states are more than twice as likely as Whites to live in neighborhoods where air pollution poses the greatest health danger."
Soot and smog are only part of the story. Health impacts are aggravated by various environmental and social factors like transit-related pollution, toxic contaminants lurking in urban housing, as well as overall poor health due to concentrated poverty. Moreover, coal power’s most dangerous byproduct, climate change, is tied to an escalation in heat-related deaths in inner cities, compounding the more localized pollution impacts. Coal-plant pollution is linked to corrosive effects on children’s cognitive development, which may shift even more of the burden in poor urban areas to impoverished mothers of color and eroding social service systems.
From a climate justice standpoint, recent research led by the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity points out that communities of color face disproportionate economic pain from volatile energy prices, while remaining alienated from the material "benefits" of the country’s ravenous energy consumption.
But the latest report stresses that this injustice can be at least partially remedied through human action–or worsened by inaction. As revealed by the strangulation of the climate-change discussion in Congress, the lack of a solution to dirty coal is more a matter of political will than ecological inevitability.