The Trump administration is proposing to reshape the way the EPA regulates coal plants, repealing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have phased out most coal-fired power plants by 2030, and replaced it with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which would shift regulation of power plants to the states and keep coal-fired plants around longer.
The EPA said the shift will result in 1,400 additional premature deaths each year due to pollution. But here’s what it didn’t say: the EPA’s own research shows that those deaths will fall disproportionately on poor and minority communities in places like southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Missouri.
In February, an EPA study showed African-American communities are exposed to 50 percent higher rates of particulate pollution than the general population. The Affordable Clean Energy Rule, the EPA acknowledges, will result in the release of more particulate matter into the atmosphere each year and the lead researcher on the EPA study says that pollution will disproportionately fall on poor and minority communities.
“They project the most dramatic health impacts to occur in Appalachia, centered around West Virginia — where the poverty rate is one of the highest in the nation and the coal industry has a major presence,” said Ihab Mikati, who led the EPA study as a fellow at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education in North Carolina, in an email. “The communities living nearest to stationary sources of harmful particulate matter tend to be more poor and — though largely white in West Virginia — are more likely to be comprised of people of color nationwide."
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Still, the Trump administration is touting the plan as supporting “energy dominance” as well as improving public health. “The bottom line is that the United States is achieving energy dominance while reducing energy-related carbon emissions and improving air quality and public health,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement, posted on Tuesday to the White House’s website. “No other nation in the world can claim likewise.”
President Trump took that message deep into coal country in West Virginia Tuesday night, telling supporters, “I want clean air. I want crystal clean water. And we’ve got it.”
But in places like Newport News, Virginia, across the James River from Norfolk, the EPA knows there’s a discrepancy between the the amount of pollution breathed in by whites and non-whites. They’ve put into place community education programs there, to try to curb the risks associated with air pollution by holding workshops on asthma and identifying the sources of air pollution. In that town, where forty percent of residents are black and the population has elevated risks of asthma and heart disease, it’s clear to residents that poor people and people of color live closer to sources of pollution.
“We have [industrial] facilities throughout the city of Newport News, but when we look at facilities that have the highest air toxic emissions, they are located in the poorest, least diverse area of the city," Erica Holloman, an environmental advocate, told InsideClimate News.
Along with the proposed rule, the EPA made public more than 200 pages of impact analysis of its effects, which detail how the new rule will affect public health and the climate. Compared to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, “implementing the proposed rule is expected to increase emissions of carbon dioxide and increase the level of emissions of certain pollutants in the atmosphere that adversely affect human health,” the analysis states.
The plan focuses on making existing power plants more efficient rather than replacing them with renewable energy sources, and early research on the plan suggests that could lead to coal plants running more. And when plants run more, they emit more.
“Coal plants that become more efficient under this scenario will run more and create more emissions,” Amelia Keyes, a researcher with Resources for the Future, environmental economics think tank, told VICE News. “The plan could erode some of the reductions that could occur due to plants becoming more efficient.”
This could lead to more of certain types of air pollutants not just compared to the Obama-era plan, but compared to not having any plan in place at all, according to the EPA’s own analysis of the plan.
While compliance costs for the power industry would be reduced by as much as $700 million annually, the EPA estimates that the cost to taxpayers will go up significantly. Under the new rule, when the health costs of increased pollution are factored in, the new plan will cost the country somewhere in the range of $1.4 to $4 billion every year, according to the EPA’.
Joseph Goffman, the executive director of Harvard Law School’s Environmental Law Program who helped to write the Obama-era rule, told VICE News that the Trump administration’s new rule provides no guidance to states on how to address the concerns of poor communities of color.
“Not only, by the EPA’s own analysis, is the agency projecting higher levels of pollution and premature death under the new plan, it’s also taking away guidance that the EPA had given to the states, through the Obama administration’s plan, on how to address environmental justice issues,” Goffman said. “Add to the list of priorities and publics that the new rule is abandoning the environmental justice communities.”
The EPA will open a 60-day comment period on the rule when it is posted to the Federal Register, and said it will hold a public hearing. The agency did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
Cover: This Sept. 30, 2014 photo shows the Colstrip Steam Electric Station in Colstrip, Mont. The 2,100-megawatt plant is one of the largest in the northwest. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)