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Talking Clean, Acting Dirty: How Energy Apartheid Hurts African Americans

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Much attention in recent years has been devoted to green energy and reducing the human carbon footprint to counter the global warming and climate change threat.   According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the electric power sector is the largest source of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by end-use sectors, accounting for 40.6 percent of all energy-related CO2 emissions, followed by the transportation (33.1%), and the residential and commercial sector (26.3%).

The movement to renewable energy is the preferred strategy to a clean energy future for the country. However, all Americans do not have equal access to clean and green energy, which maps closely with race and social class. Who gets clean and green energy and who gets left behind with dirty technology is an environmental justice issue.   It is also a social equity, economic, and health issue.   Anyone who knows anything about Black History and the Environmental Justice Movement in the United States knows African Americans have never been the first to get the "best of the best." Clean energy and green jobs are no exception. The de facto energy apartheid policy of "talking green" and "acting dirty" hits African Americans and other people of color especially hard--and ultimately add to the widening health disparities.

The clean energy market is growing. More than $243 billion in new investments were made in clean energy in 2010. Yet, in 2009, renewable energy's market share reached just 8 percent of the total U.S. energy consumption. It is worth noting that biomass energy generation made up 50 percent of the renewable energy in 2009.    Biomass incineration is now being promoted as green and clean energy and a strategy to combat climate change. However, burning biomass to generate electricity is toxic, and is neither "green" nor "clean."

Generally, biomass facilities emit more carbon dioxide per megawatt hour than burning fossil fuels, as well as NOx, particulates and other hazardous air and water pollutants that threaten human health and the environment. Biomass facilities include a range of operations from the burning of municipal solid waste (trash), tires, construction/demolition wood waste, crop and animal wastes, energy crops, trees, gas from digestion of sewage sludge or animal wastes, and landfill gas. Biomass can include any non-fossil fuel that is arguably "organic."

Unfortunately, the so-called "green" biomass (like energy crops) is often used as a foot in the door to bring in more toxic waste streams. The American Lung Association of New England (ALANE) outlined major environmental concerns in a Biomass Position Statement: "Biomass emissions contain fine particulate matter, sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and various irritant gases such as nitrogen oxides that can scar the lungs. Like cigarettes, biomass emissions also contain chemicals that are known or suspected to be carcinogens, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxin." The ALANE believes that as a nation "we cannot afford to trade our health to meet our energy needs."

Many "clean wood chips" burning biomass plants can easily turn to burning more contaminated fuels (which may be cheaper or even free), or get paid to take really dirty wastes like trash or tires. Public opposition to biomass facilities has driven siting that follows the "path of least resistance," which often translates to states where environmental regulations are lax and companies are given huge tax incentives to build these kinds of incinerators, and investors count on the local residents being uninformed and apathetic. Environmental justice siting concerns often get buried in the excitement and notion of "green energy."

It should not be a surprise to anyone who has studied environmental justice and noxious facility siting in the U.S. to learn that the first biomass energy facility in Texas, Aspen Power Plant , is not slated for Houston's affluent River Oaks community but is being built in a mostly black and poor community in Lufkin. The plant is being built on Lufkin's north side which has a long history as a "dumping ground" for polluting facilities. More than 77.4 percent of the residents who live within a one-mile radius of the biomass plant are African Americans; and 58.3 percent of the residents found within a two-mile radius of the plant are African Americans. These findings are consistent with a 2005 Associated Press study showing that African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods that are suspected of posing the greatest health danger.

Lufkin's African American residents bear the greatest burden for the city hosting the biomass plant since blacks make up just 26.6 percent of the city's population. African Americans comprise 14.8 percent of Angelina County population and 12 percent of Texas population. In 2007, the city's Planning and Zoning Commission proposed to allow the facility to be located next door to the black community. City officials failed to notify its North Lufkin residents about this plan. However, the Lufkin City Council passed a zoning change in August 2007 to allow the plant to be built in the north side community.

Lukfin's Aspen Plant was financed with both public and private funds. It received $750,000 from the state of Texas for roads, parking, engineering and administrative services. Akeida Capital Management (ACM), an environmental asset management firm focused on investing in renewable energy infrastructure, provided a $14.1 million junior loan to Aspen Power to complete construction of the plant which began in late 2008. Angelina Fuels, Aspen Power's sister company, will provide the plant with approximately 1,500 tons of biomass per day from timber harvesting, sawmill and municipal cleanup activities in and around Lufkin.

The Aspen Power facility is expected to create approximately 50 new jobs. Public opposition and legal battles to the plant forced Aspen Power to spend an additional $10 million on air pollution controls.

Georgia is another state where biomass incineration has been welcomed. According to the Energy Justice Network, Georgia has 12 operating biomass facilities, 4 under construction, and 5 proposed facilities. The Census places the 2009 Georgia African American population at 30.2 percent.  

Biomass plants tend to be located in Georgia counties where African Americans are overrepresented in the population. For example, 7 of the 12 (58.3%) operating biomass plants are located in counties whose black population exceeds the percent black in the state--ranging from 40.0 percent to 58.5 percent; 3 of the 4 (75.0%) wood biomass incinerators that are under construction are in majority black counties ranging from 53.7 percent black to 65.3 percent black; 3 of the 5 proposed plants (60%) are located in counties where the percent black exceeds the state average; a majority of the proposed and under construction biomass plants--5 of the 9 or 55.6 percent--are located in counties where the black population is 50 percent or higher; and 13 of 21 (61.9%) biomass plants that are either operating, under construction, or proposed in Georgia are located in counties whose percent black population exceeds the state average, ranging   from 33.5 percent to 65.3 percent.

Residents in Valdosta, Georgia are fighting to block a 40 megawatt biomass incinerator slated for construction on a 22-acre site in their community. The community is already overburdened with polluting industries and heavy truck traffic. The Valdosta Wiregrass biomass plant is slated to be built next to a sewer treatment plant and within 2 miles of an incinerator, two predominantly black elementary and one predominantly white elementary schools, and a Head Start program serves over 165 children ages 3-5.  Eight out of every ten residents (82.0%) who live within a mile of the proposed biomass plant are black; more than three-fourths (79.0 %) of the residents who live within a two-mile radius of the proposed plant are African American.

The Valdosta-Lowndes NAACP branch and their supporters claim the plant siting is environmental racism. They raised their claim with the newly appointed EPA Region 4 administrator, Gwen Keyes Fleming--the first African American to hold the post--at a summit held in Atlanta in November 2010. The NAACP along with more than 40 other groups representing "poisoned communities" in EPA Region 4 delivered a Call to Action to EPA demanding an end to environmental injustice perpetrated on people of color and low-income communities.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) held public hearings in May 2010 where residents asked it to consider "cumulative health impacts" in the permitting facilities rather than its traditional "smokestack by smokestack" evaluation. The biomass incinerator is being marketed as a "clean energy" project. However, many Valdosta and Lowndes County residents disagree, views held by a growing number of anti-biomass and incineration and forest protection campaigns.

The facility is far from clean.   It will burn more than 640,000 tons of wood every year and emit 87-89 tons per year of tiny particulate matter smaller than 10 microns in size (PM10), dangerous particulate pollution because it lodges permanently in people's lungs.  More than 50 diesel trucks per day will travel to and from the incinerator 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.

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Robert Bullard Social Media Pages: Facebook Page       Twitter Page       Linked In Page       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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