Pollution from the smokestacks of Connecticut’s last coal-fired power plant is racist.
That’s the message NAACP activists are trying to send about the Bridgeport Harbor Station plant and the impact it’s having on the lives and health of the mostly poor people of color that live nearby.
“I don’t think you’d see that plant [still operating] in a suburban town,” says Carolyn Vermont, president of the Bridgeport chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The Bridgeport generating facility owned by Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) was listed in a 2012 NAACP study as the tenth worst power plant in the nation.
The report ranked 378 U.S. coal-fired plants as “environmental justice offenders” based on the amount of crap they’re putting in the air or water, and what sort of folks (race, income, population density) live in the immediate area.
The average income of people living within one mile of the Bridgeport Harbor Station is $11,400 and nearly nine out of 10 of them are people of color. According to the NAACP study, the plant pumped out an average of 2,044 tons of sulfur dioxide and another 1,404 tons of nitrogen oxide per year between 2007 and 2010.
Air pollution from coal-fired plants has been linked to atrociously high rates of asthma in urban areas. A 2009 state health report indicated that Bridgeport adults were being admitted to the hospital for asthma at three times the statewide average. Experts say the long-term impact of pollution is even more dangerous for kids.
Connecticut’s NAACP is launching its campaign to convince PSEG to shut down the plant on the grounds that its pollution is disproportionately hurting the African American and Latino people who are its closest neighbors. “This is long overdue,” insists Scot X. Esdaile, head of the Connecticut branch of the civil rights group.
An NAACP news conference just down the street from the Harbor Station plant was scheduled for Tuesday to kick off the shut-down campaign.
The only trouble with this new effort is that it comes just months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the Bridgeport plant a five-year permit extension to keep operating.
Harbor Station has been running on oil and coal since it opened in 1961. At full b ore, the plant could send electricity to more than half-a-million homes, but it’s now only running one day a week.
That EPA decision came in the face of strong opposition from a coalition of environmental and health groups, including the Sierra Club. Critics of the plant pointed out that only 2 percent of Connecticut’s power was being produced from coal (the rest from natural gas and nuclear plants), and that industry experts have said the Bridgeport facility is antiquated and slated for retirement in a few years.
PSEG officials argued that the Bridgeport Harbor Station was actually one of the least-polluting coal-fired plants in the entire nation. They testified at hearings that more than $100 million had been invested in the past decade to make the plant run cleaner. And they insisted the plant is needed as a backup that could provide electricity to millions of people in southwestern Connecticut.
A political problem for local activists hoping to close the plant is that PSEG is one of Bridgeport’s top taxpayers. The company’s property tax assessment in 2010 was more than $152,000. Loss of that tax revenue would put an additional hurt on a city budget that’s been under pressure for years.
Onte Johnson, the Sierra Club’s organizer on the Connecticut environmental front, insists last year’s defeat for the anti-Bridgeport Harbor Station crowd can be reversed. He says President Obama’s new emphasis on fighting global warming and the economics of the power industry itself are big-time arguments for closing the 52-year-old monster.
“It’s not going to be able to compete in the marketplace,” Johnson says, noting that natural gas is now a cheaper fuel than coal to run generating plants. “Its retirement is inevitable … We’re just trying to expedite the process.”
He says the NAACP’s decision to get into the campaign to close down the plant “brings added momentum” to the effort. Johnson believes the civil rights organization’s participation “shows there’s a real concern, that this is a real serious issue.”
Asked if he believes Bridgeport Harbor Station’s pollution is essentially racist, Johnson gets a little cautious. He says it seems doubtful the plant could have survived this long if it had been located in one of the city’s mostly white suburbs. “No one else in the state of Connecticut has a coal plant,” he notes.
Vermont says Connecticut NAACP officials have been talking for years among themselves about environmental issues like Bridgeport Harbor Station and their discriminatory impact on people of color.
She says the trigger for action on the Bridgeport plant was the new NAACP environmental report. “After that report, we decided we really have to educate the public and let them know what’s going on,” she says.
The listing of the Bridgeport facility as one of the 10 most harmful in the nation for the African-American community “made it even more critical for us to join in the efforts... to shut the plant down,” says Vermont.