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Coal Poses Environmental Justice Issues

Posted by Barbara Gottlieb on April 7, 2009

By Barb Gottlieb and Julia Pflaum, intern

PSR recently joined environmental and Native American groups in raising a legal challenge to a proposed coal-fired power plant slated for construction on a Navajo reservation in northwest New Mexico. The Desert Rock plant, a huge facility with a planned capacity of 1,500 Megawatts, would pose serious threats to the health of the area’s largely Navajo population.

In response, PRS filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief objecting to the plant’s likely health impacts from coal pollution. We also filed separate comments addressing the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions, their contribution to global warming, and the resulting threats to health. More on that in a future post.

The Desert Rock plant raises important issues of environmental justice. The noxious health effects of pollutants like those from coal often inflict disproportionate impacts on low-income communities of color. Sensitive subgroups — like children, the elderly, and people with certain preexisting health problems — are at even greater risk of harm.

For example, people with diabetes have been found to be particularly susceptible to cardiovascular disease. Since 22.9 percent of American Indian adults 20 years or older have diabetes,i,ii this is a particular concern for the Navajo Nation. A study conducted specifically about the proposed Desert Rock plant reported that

The rate of cardiovascular complications for individuals with diabetes ranges from 35-38%, and these types of complications are more likely to occur with exposure to many of the pollutants from coal-burning facilities. …Given the high rate of diabetes in the Navajo population, the risk pool of persons likely to be at high risk for cardiovascular and pulmonary complications from coal-fired electricity plants will be 2.5-3 times higher than the general population.iii

Construction of the plant also raises concern in regard to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a condition in which the lung’s airway passages are permanently narrowed. Exposure to air pollutants plays an important role in the development of COPD, and the Desert Rock plant would expose Navajo people living in the area to increased pollutants and particulate matter. COPD is already the sixth leading cause of death from chronic disease for Native American men and the seventh leading cause of death for Native American women,iv so the increased exposure would be cause for alarm.

The electricity that powers our lives should be clean, not poisonous. New Mexico — and the rest of the nation — can protect the health of its people by investing in energy sources like solar and wind that are home-grown, inexhaustible and clean.

i Mokdad, AH, Bowman, AB, Engelgau, MM, Vinicor, F, Diabetes Trends Among American Indians and Alaska Native: 1990-1998. Diabetes Care 2001; 24: 1508-9.
ii Will, J, Strauss, K, Mendlein, Ballew, C, White, LL, Peter, DG, Diabetes Mellitus Among Navajo Indians: Findings from the Navajo Health and Nutrition Survey. J Nutr 127 (Suppl. 10): 2106S-2113S, 1997.
iii Calwell, C, Neugebauer R and Sheldon, P, Energy and Economic Alternatives to the Desert Rock Energy Project. Ecos Consulting, Durango, Colorado. January, 2008
iv National Vital Statistics report: Report on Deaths: Leading Causes, 2003, Volume 55, No. 10.


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