America has seen a lot of predatory moves by the titans of industry that have negatively affected the lives of people in disadvantaged communities. Now it can add another: where power companies plot to stick their fossil fuel power plants. This is part of a deep pattern of the energy industry committing what’s called environmental injustice, or more pointedly in some cases, environmental racism. In our latest study — one of the first to look at the cumulative injustice of living near multiple power plants — Food & Water Watch uncovered the truth about this particular type of exploitation using Pennsylvania’s rampant fracking boom and subsequent plan for even more power plants as a case study. Here are a few of our key findings.
Power Plants Are Located Near Vulnerable People
The communities that have the least likelihood of successfully fighting off a large energy corporation are exactly the neighbors these companies seek.
People of color, people living in poverty, and recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) disproportionately lived within three miles of existing and proposed power plants: Even though people of color make up about one-fifth of Pennsylvania’s total population, they make up closer to half of the population living within three miles of existing and proposed power plants. The poverty rate and the SNAP rate was nearly 60 percent higher within three miles of power plants than in the rest of Pennsylvania.
Making More Money Doesn’t Necessarily Protect You
Think doing better financially is a way for communities of color to escape environmental injustice? Wrong.
Communities of color were more common near existing power plants at every income level, and upper-income communities of color were twice as likely to be near an existing power plant than the whitest, lower-income areas. A quarter of communities of color in upper-income levels were within three miles of a plant. In comparison, communities that were overwhelmingly white but with lower incomes were about half as likely to live within three miles of a plant.
Proposed New Gas Plants Don’t Change The Injustice
Proposing new plants in more white communities doesn’t make a dent in the big picture of inequality. It’s ridiculous to pretend justice will be achieved by building bad energy infrastructure that is ultimately a net negative in any community.
Proposed gas plants reinforce overall disparities for communities of color, for lower-income and economically stressed areas, and for areas with lower education levels. Proposed gas-fired power plants are largely planned for white, rural areas but their addition still locks in a historical pattern of racial and economic disparity. Throughout Pennsylvania, the extent to which power plant footprints skew heavily toward communities of color or communities with less education, lower incomes, and more economic stressors isn’t diluted very much by the proposed new plants. Near Reading, a proposed plant would cover multiple areas where people of color make up more than 30 percent of the population. It also closely overlaps an existing, smaller oil-fired plant, meaning these communities would be in close proximity to two plants. One proposed plant would overlap multiple areas with poverty rates over 20 percent.
How is this pattern of environmental injustice harmful to communities of color and those of lower incomes and less education?
The significance of being within three miles of a power plant (a common distance used to consider the pollution burden to nearby communities) is that there are big risks to being so close. Natural gas-fired power plants are major offenders in emitting the air pollutant NOx, a contributor to ground-level ozone and smog that not only threatens the environment, but also human health. Plants firing fracked gas can also release radon, a radioactive material that is the top cause of lung cancer among non-smokers in the U.S. These health risks will likely compound an established trend of adverse health effects experienced by those living in marginalized communities, especially for children. The National Center for Children in Poverty asserts, “Factors such as poverty, poor nutrition, lack of preventive health care, substance abuse, maternal depression, and family violence put young children at risk. Children who experience several of these risk factors are often far behind their more advantaged peers from the start.”
Adding increased exposure to methane leaks, radon, and NOx can in no way be perceived as inconsequential to these children who are already placed at a disadvantage to their more socioeconomically-advantaged peers.
Fracked gas-fired power plants are big risks for the health of people and the environment.
Energy companies have been trying to bamboozle the public. They say that power plants firing fracked gas are healthier for us than coal, but digging deeper shows how unlikely that is. Because of rampant under-reporting of methane leaks by the energy industry (not to mention the leaks that go undetected and therefore completely unaccounted for), it’s clear that the answer for stopping climate change isn’t going to be based on fracked gas.
The real way to cancel this racial and economic disparity is by dismantling the existing energy facilities and replacing them with renewable energy infrastructure.
The answer to environmental injustice isn’t to build more of what harms communities. We know better now about what is sustainable and healthy for the human race, and now the time has come to DO better. We can replace all coal- and gas-fired power plants with renewable sources like wind and solar energy. We can and we have to — for our children and for humanity’s survival.
These findings more than justify our call for ending the use of fossil fuels. Take a stand against this injustice by adding your name to the petition for the OFF Act, to move America completely to clean, renewable sources of energy by 2035. It can be done, and for the sake of America’s children we can’t put it off any longer.