Urban planning decisions can be a complicated mix of government, business and community members trying to find a balance of their unique interests. But what happens when government makes planning decisions systemically have a negative impact on low-income and minority communities? When some neighborhoods need a voice on environmental concerns, the ACLU of Wisconsin steps up to fight for their needs.
On Monday, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation's legal department joined the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin (BHCW) and the Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) to request that the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) address the disproportionate adverse impacts of electric generating facilities on minority and low-income communities in Milwaukee (PDF). The organizations seek to ensure that the PSC address these environmental justice issues in deciding whether to retire, "mothball," or upgrade existing electric generating units.
“Environmental justice issues are raised most clearly by WE Energies’ Valley generating plant on Canal Street, in the City of Milwaukee," said Dennis Grzezinski, MEA Senior Counsel. "This plant is the utility’s oldest power plant and lacks modern air emission controls. It is located in the heart of the State’s largest majority-minority city, between the state’s largest concentration of African-American residents to the north and its largest concentration of Hispanic and Asian residents to the south. While many other old coal-fired power plants in the state are shutting down or being upgraded, the Valley plant has avoided installation of pollution controls.”
In contrast to the negative effects created by the Valley plant, WE Energies’ coal-fired generating plant in Port Washington, a community with very few non-white residents, was razed and replaced with a cleaner, natural gas fueled plant. In Oak Creek, another overwhelmingly white community, four old coal generating units were retired, construction of the second of two new units with pollution controls is nearing completion, and four other old coal generating units are continuing in operation with installation of improved air emission controls.
“The different treatment given the Valley plant raises questions of compliance with the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and of federal environmental justice requirements," said Karyn Rotker, ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation Senior Staff Attorney. "We urge the PSC to address them.”
Dr. Patricia McManus, President and CEO of BHCW, pointed out the big picture of both environmental and public health concerns: “The adverse health impacts of air pollution, of which power plants are a major source, are well-recognized. Meanwhile, asthma, caused and exacerbated by air pollution, affects nearly 100,000 Wisconsin children under age 18; is far more common in southeastern Wisconsin; and is far more prevalent among blacks than whites. The problems are exacerbated by the fact that Milwaukee has been designated by the EPA as out of compliance with air quality standards.”
The complete comments can be found on the ACLU of Wisconsin website. Comments include an analysis of federal civil rights law, details on the energy facilities in Milwaukee, how environmental justice principles apply and media reports on the issue. The coal plant story has also gotten some media coverage from the Milwaukee Shepherd Express.