Let us not forget that the long march to equality for people of color predates the first Earth Day. Two years before the first Earth Day, in April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis, Tennessee to lead an environmental and economic justice protest march on behalf of striking sanitation workers. He was assassinated in Memphis that same year.
Today, we hear a lot of talk about CO2, greenhouse gas emissions, and the need for reducing our carbon footprint by investing in a clean energy economy. Dirty coal-fired power plants are a major source of CO2 but also a major contributor of other pollution, including NOx, SO2, CO2, PM10, VOCs, acid gases, lead, and mercury. Dirty coal-fired power plants shorten nearly 24,000 lives each year.
While renewable energy is being encouraged as the preferred clean strategy, dirty and "risky" energy plants and disposal facilities are being sent to African American communities. A form of "energy apartheid" has blocked millions of poor people and people of color from the green economy. EPA Region 4, eight states in the Deep South (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee), best illustrates these Dumping in Dixie practices that have continued unabated over the past four decades.
It is no accident that the modern civil rights movement and environmental justice movement were born in the South. Four decades of EPA Region 4 harmful and discriminatory decisions have turned far too many black communities into the dumping grounds for risky polluting facilities, risky technologies, and dirty energy plants--lowering nearby residents' property values, stealing their wealth, and exposing them to unnecessary environmental health risks.
The nuclear power industry is reinventing itself. Three decades after the last nuclear power plant was commissioned in the U.S., 21 companies have indicated they want to build 34 new reactors. Not surprising, this nuclear power resurgence is heavily concentrated in the southern United States, raising environmental injustice concerns and charge of environmental racism around plant siting. The NRC has already awarded $20 million to 60 universities for scholarships and faculty recruitment and retention to ramp up new nuclear development. Yet, no viable alternative has been found to permanently dispose of or store the 70,000 tons of radioactive waste now stored on site at more than 100 nuclear plants across the country, with 2,000 tons added each year.
Georgia's mostly African American and poor communities are being targeted for risky nuclear power and dirty coal fired power plants. Such facilities are often hyped as providing jobs for local residents. However, most studies show that poor communities get few jobs at these plants are stuck with pollution and poverty. Poor black residents get more promises than jobs--and they get sick. The first nuclear power plant to be built in decades is being proposed with an $8.3 billion loan guarantee in Burke County, GA. The loan guarantee will help the Atlanta-based Southern Company build two more nuclear reactors in the mostly African American Shell Bluff community, a residential area built during the "Jim Crow" era. The two new reactors would each produce 1,000 megawatts, and would work with two existing reactors at a site near Waynesboro, GA (62.5 percent black). Burke County, GA is 51.1 percent black. The next three nuclear power plants in the queue are projects in southern Maryland, San Antonio, and Fairfield County, S.C.
African Americans on average emit nearly twenty percent less greenhouse gases than non-Hispanic whites per capita. African Americans also spend thirty percent more of their income on energy than non-Hispanic whites. More than 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a dirty coal-fired power plant compared with just 56 percent of whites.
In December 2008, a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from the Tennessee Valley Authority(TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant broke spilling more than 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash over a dozen homes and up to 400 acres of the surrounding landscape, endangering aquatic life and the water supply for more than 25,000 residents.
The TVA has touted its effort to go green by harnessing the natural power of the wind, the sun and the earth to create energy sources. Yet, six months after Kingston tragedy in July 2009, a major environmental injustice was perpetrated by EPA Region 4 approval of TVA's decision to ship 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash by railcar from the mostly white east Tennessee Roane County to a landfill located in the heart of the Alabama "Black Belt," Perry County (69 percentAfrican-American with more than 32 percentof its residents living in poverty) and to rural Taylor County, Georgia (41 percentof the population is African-American and more than 24 percentof residents live in poverty).
While movement to clean and renewable energy sources is touted as the wave of our nation's green energy future, three coal-fired power plants are on the drawing board in Georgia. All three of these coal-fired power plants are proposed in environmental justice communities. The plants include: Greenleaf Coal Power Plant in Early County (50.2 percent black); Fitzgerald Power Plant in Ben Hill County (32.6 percent black) near Fitzgerald, GA (49.5% black in 2000); and Washington County Plant (53.2 percent black).
As we celebrate the 40th Earth Day, let us remember that not much has changed in these four decades for millions of Americans who live on the fenceline with "dirty power" and polluting industries. Environmental justice communities in Georgia, Region 4, and the rest of the country want to see the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu initiate a strategic plan and timetable for implementing the 1994 Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898 to ensure that "low-income populations and minority populations" get their fair share of renewable energy, green jobs, and clean industries--and move away from dirty polluting energy that ultimately ends up in communities of color. The DOE needs to expand its environmental justice initiatives to better serve those communities that have been systematically left behind.
It is time for bold leadership and real change at the EPA, DOE, TVA, and other government agencies charged with moving us to a clean energy future. It is time to close the clean energy gap that contributes to the climate gap. Our faith based and civil rights groups also need to be more proactive in promoting environmental justice and climate justice and demanding an equitable clean energy future for the black community. Such a move makes good economic, environment, health, climate and sustainability sense. And it's the right and just thing to do.