Thursday, November 11, 2010

Coal Plants and Civil Rights - The ACLU Asks the WI DNR to Reform a Milwaukee-Area Energy Plant

Milwaukee Environmental Justice: Reportback from the We Energies Valley Coal Plant Hearing
On Thursday, November 4th, over 100 community members and organizations attended a hearing held by the state Department of Natural Resources regarding the We Energies Valley Coal Plant in Milwaukee. The coal plant needs a renewal of their air quality control permit but community members objected to the proposed permit and spoke out in support of clean air, energy alternatives and environmental justice.

Environment and civil rights: the connection
What does a coal plant have to do with civil rights? The answer has to do with several key laws that have been passed in the last fifty years. Milwaukee residents say that upgrades in energy plants that dramatically reduce air pollution have happened in suburban areas but not at the Valley Plant in Milwaukee near the high-density neighborhoods mostly composed of people of color. They attended the hearing to say that everyone has an equal right to breathe clean air, not just those who live in predominantly white neighborhoods.

Environmental justice: the law
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed and said that any program that received federal funding could not directly discriminate or have a discriminatory effect on protected groups. Since the Department of Natural Resources receives federal funds and since the DNR is in charge of approving pollution permits for energy producers like We Energies Valley Coal Plant, the DNR must take into consideration the equal right everyone has to breathe clean air.

The Clean Air Act was first passed in 1970 and has been updated and changed over the years. In the 1990s the law established an improved permit program in an attempt to better regulate energy producers’ air pollution.

In 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order #12898, on Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. That order said that federal agencies need to know how minority and low-income neighborhoods will be affected by governmental actions in terms of environmental concerns. When outdated, relatively uncontrolled coal plants in low-income neighborhoods pollute the air, everyone there suffers. Governmental agencies have the responsibility to keep energy plants accountable.

Coal plants: impact on the people
Cracking down on air pollution isn’t just about global warming. People suffer immediate health effects when air quality is poor. Bad air makes asthma worse and Wisconsin sees a disproportionate number of asthma cases in the southeast part of the state, particularly with African-American children. The American Lung Association consistently gives Milwaukee an “F” for air quality, high ozone days and excessive particulate pollution. The Valley Coal plant is the oldest of WE Energies' coal plants and is located in a high-density area of the city with the largest concentration of African-American and Latino residents. Yet suburban plants in Port Washington and Oak Creek and other units have gotten upgrades, pollution controls or even natural gas conversions. The We Energy Valley Coal Plant is not just hurting the environment, its permit has a discriminatory impact on the public health of the community.

The ACLU and you: what you can do
The ACLU of Wisconsin joined the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, Midwest Environmental Associates and the Milwaukee Latino Health Coalition to oppose the permit renewal of the Valley Coal Plant and we submitted our full comments to the state Department of Natural Resources. These organizations got involved because we see, from a systemic level, how government decision-making can disproportionately impact the health and well-being of some of the most disfranchised groups of people in our state.

Join the ACLU of Wisconsin today and let us know that you support our work on racial and environmental justice. Or please consider making a donation to our legal efforts through Community Shares of Wisconsin or Community Shares of Greater Milwaukee. Your tax-deductible contribution to the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation helps our legal team be a voice for environmental justice in the state.

Find the organizations' documents including a press release, comments with references and more on our Racial Justice issues page.