Coal Is In Decline, But Its Effects Still Ravage Black and Latinx Communities
Across the U.S., people of color point to a root cause: environmental racism
Wind blows oily black dust onto cars, windowsills, and lawns as a 100-car train loaded with coal rolls past Parchester Village, a historically Black neighborhood in Richmond, California. This happens a couple of times a week. The train’s cargo, mined from the mountains of Utah by the coal giant Wolverine Fuels, will join the towering piles of coal at the Levin-Richmond Terminal, a privately owned coal shipping port seven miles away. The terminal is responsible for a quarter of the coal the United States ships from the West Coast to Asia.
The coal dust gets so thick that some say you can write your name in it. This has long been a fact of life for the residents of Parchester Village and of Santa Fe and Nystrom Village, two nearby communities of color.
“You’ve got that little black residue that people are breathing in,” says Dale Weatherspoon, pastor at Easter Hill United Methodist Church, which is near the terminal. Richmond has the highest number of emergency department visits for asthma-related symptoms in its county, Contra Costa.
North Richmond resident Paulette Foster says her two great-grandsons grew up “always playing near the train tracks” and constantly had a runny nose and cough. The childcare center they used to attend was shut down in 2018 because of pollution from the trains. Now, one of the children goes to a school just a four-minute drive from the shuttered facility.
Richmond is a pollution hot spot in the Bay Area. It’s home to several factories and major highways in addition to the coal. The area is 20% Black and 41.1% Latinx and has been home to these communities for decades. During World War II, Black people migrated there from the American South to work in shipyards and housing discrimination forced them into the city’s polluted industrial neighborhoods, where they still live today. Latinx people have been in Richmond since at least the early 1800s.
All of these people want a community with cleaner air.
Richmond’s residents have fought long and hard to stop coal from moving through their communities to some success. In January 2020, a coalition called No Coal in Richmond successfully lobbied the Richmond City Council to phase out the handling and storage of coal in the city over the next three years. Notable for being the first to elevate Black voices in the fight against coal in Richmond, the group drew praise from former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. But by March 2020, their opponents began filing lawsuits to overturn the coal ban.
Across the United States, Black and Latinx people fighting to stop coal pollution in their communities are facing similar frustrations. Covid-19, which disproportionately affects communities of color in part because they often live near such polluting facilities, has only heightened the urgency of their efforts. Future Human spoke to activists around the country whose stories followed a similar pattern: successfully pushing back against coal on the local level, only to be thwarted by higher courts that consistently favor coal companies. They feel that they are being left out of conversations about the industry’s future and the transition to cleaner energy sources, even though they disproportionately bear the health impacts of coal power.
In short, they’re wondering whether their communities would get the same treatment if they were predominantly white.
“If Richmond were hit with real aggressive gentrification and our neighborhoods changed from being Black and Brown to being white, would those coal cars still be running through the neighborhood?” Weatherspoon asks. “Would the Levin terminal and others respond differently because of the white voices that would be new to the neighborhood, rather than the Black and the Brown?”
Ember McCoy, a researcher at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability who studies the unequal distribution of coal facilities in Black communities, puts it frankly. As she tells Future Human: “I think part of it is racism.”
McCoy’s graduate research sought to answer one deceptively complex question: Which came first, the coal plant or the community of color?
McCoy grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, witnessing Latinx residents fight to shut down coal-fired power plants in the city’s predominantly Latinx Little Village neighborhood. Her work showed that coal-fired plants are disproportionately located in Black and Latinx communities across the United States, but to find out which came first, she mapped out the locations of all of the coal-fired plants in the United States and the dates they were built using government data. Cross-referencing the map with demographic data from the U.S. Census and American Community Survey, she found that the construction of new power plants in the United States peaked between 1955 and 1984 — a period that coincided with the rise of the environmental movement and a heightened awareness of the dangers of air and water pollution. A total of 229 coal-fired plants were built during that time, which was the peak of construction of new coal plants in the United States. A disproportionate number of them were built in Black and Latinx communities.
“Essentially when we became aware that coal plants are bad for you, that’s when they started being sited in communities that had higher levels of people of color,” McCoy says.
Once affluent white Americans became aware of the environmental consequences of facilities like coal-fired power plants, they began lobbying against them being placed in their neighborhoods. The “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) movement and discriminatory housing practices like redlining were major factors in the disproportionate siting of coal-fired plants in Black neighborhoods. As time went on, the percentage of people of color tended to increase in neighborhoods that had a coal plant because of discriminatory housing practices, the racial wealth gap, and, to a much lesser extent, self-segregation.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People detailed these inequalities in a damning 2012 report, titled Coal Blooded. Of 378 coal plants studied, the 12 identified as the worst polluters were located in or near cities with large Black populations, including Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. In these cities, 76% of the population living near the plants were people of color. These plants emitted copious amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Inhaling these compounds is linked to asthma, bronchitis, nausea and vomiting, respiratory infections, decreased fertility, and harm to fetuses.
Since the publication of Coal Blooded, all but two of the 12 worst-polluting coal plants in the United States either have shut down, plan to shut down, or have been converted to natural gas. Though these seem like meaningful steps forward, the future of the communities affected by these plants is not in the clear. Natural gas still causes pollution. Abandoned facilities leak pollutants. Some power plants still store coal ash on the facility grounds long after they are shut down. There, it continues to seep through the ground into the waterways on which people rely.
Communities of color in coal regions across the country have watched this story play out over and over again. Maryland’s Mataponi Creek runs through Brandywine Ash Management Facility, a largely unlined 217-acre coal ash landfill that’s considered one of the worst polluters of its kind in the country. The facility is run by GenOn, a Houston-based company that also owns nearby coal-fired power plants. Contaminants flow from the creek into the Patuxent River, which supplies water to hundreds of thousands of people. In nearby Brandywine, a majority-Black town, parks, schools, and churches are located within five miles of the landfill.
Activists in the area have been engaged in a battle against GenOn for over a decade. In 2013, they successfully sued the company, forcing it to pay $2.2 million in penalties and to clean up the landfill. But according to the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit advocating for stricter environmental law enforcement, the company still hasn’t stopped polluting. And though the zoning exception that allowed GenOn to operate in the county expired in 2015, the company continued to dump ash there. In 2019, GenOn sued the county to overturn the 2013 decision and won.
Local activist Frederick Tutman, a former lawyer and journalist whose family roots in this area go back seven generations, has long fought alongside other Black activists to shut down the facility. “Nobody is considering this local Black community who’s been putting up with this nonsense for 44 years,” he says. “They don’t give a shit about the local community.”
In August 2020, GenOn announced that it would shut down two coal-fired units at a nearby power plant, but even this was met with skepticism: Activists worry the units will be converted to a means of power production that continues to pollute, like natural gas. “The mere fact that these guys have walked away from one fossil fuel and picked up a potentially cleaner one doesn’t change the fact that they are inherently polluting technologies,” Tutman says.
In early 2021, Maryland’s state legislature had been working on a bipartisan bill to phase out the state’s coal-fired power plants while curbing the economic impacts and job losses of closures, reported Maryland Matters. But by March, it was withdrawn: Labor unions, who worry that closing old power plants will lead to job losses, wanted to continue collaborating with environmental activists, who are pushing for the closure of the plants, to develop a plan for a just transition away from fossil fuels.
Back in California, an effort to build a massive coal shipping terminal in West Oakland, another historically Black community, has enraged activists since the plans were announced in 2015. The Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal, if built, would give coal companies in landlocked states the much-desired ability to ship overseas, worsening air quality in the already-polluted area. West Oakland, bordered by three freeways, already has some of the worst air quality in California.
Local environmental justice activist Colin Miller characterizes the OBOT plan as environmental racism. “West Oakland is already overburdened as a historically Black community,” he says. “They don’t deserve any more pollution.” He’s a part of No Coal in Oakland, a group that’s been fighting against coal in the area since OBOT announced its plan.
The group successfully fought to ban coal handling in the city in 2016, only to see OBOT convince a judge to overturn the ban on the grounds that the terminal didn’t pose any health and safety risks. Appeals have been made, but the circuit court now refuses to hear the case. In the meantime, OBOT’s former owner, a company called Insight Terminal Solutions (ITS), went bankrupt in 2019. A company called Autumn Wind Lending, a major creditor for ITS, took over the sublease for OBOT in November 2020. Development on the project is stalled, but local activists and residents remain on guard.
“This [proposed] coal terminal is not the only thing threatening our health,” says Isha Tobis Clarke, a co-founder of the environmental activist group Youth vs. Apocalypse, who lives in West Oakland. “It’s not the only environmentally racist thing happening.”
The court rulings against the City of Oakland don’t bode well for Richmond, just 15 minutes away. The city’s ban on coal handling, passed in January 2020, is already at risk of being overturned. Both the operators of the Levin-Richmond Terminal and Wolverine Fuels have filed separate lawsuits against the city to overturn the ban. The State of Utah joined Wolverine in its lawsuit in mid-January of this year. Levin argues that the ban will put it out of business, causing 60 community jobs to be lost. Locals fear that the courts will be partial to the coal companies.
What is perhaps most frustrating for people in communities of color is that they continue to be plagued by coal pollution, even though coal consumption in the U.S. has reached its lowest point in four decades. The U.S. coal industry has been in decline since it peaked in 2008 and the energy grid began its transition toward other power sources like natural gas, solar, and wind. Even Trump’s promises to save the coal industry didn’t revive it. But as the past year has shown, people of color are at greater risk of death from Covid-19 and other diseases in part because of their exposure to pollution.
Weatherspoon, the Richmond pastor, is one of many activists advocating for a “just transition.” This refers to a strategy created by the environmental group Movement Generation to shift the global economy away from extractive, exploitative production methods toward regenerative ones that give power to local economies, workers, and residents. A just transition would involve moving away from extractive energy sources like coal, petroleum, and natural gas to sources like solar and wind.
“The way that we’re handling the decline of coal has impacts as well,” Jacqui Patterson, senior director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program and a co-author of Coal Blooded, tells Future Human. Patterson was recently involved in a successful campaign to shut down a coal-fired power plant in Chicago, but the decommissioning process went awry due to the city’s poor management. The demolition of a coal smokestack in 2020 flooded a pollution-burdened Latinx community with dust, and the city approved plans to build a massive warehouse and distribution center in its place.
During his run for office, President Joe Biden promised to invest in coal communities hit hardest by the transition away from the energy source, but he made no explicit promises to communities of color who deal with coal pollution. In January, as part of a sweeping executive order addressing the climate crisis, he created an interagency working group on coal and power plants, but he did not specifically name communities of color as beneficiaries of any proposed actions.
“There are all of these ways that we’re not transitioning from coal to greater energy efficiency and renewable energy, but transitioning to another fossil fuel that’s just as harmful,” says Patterson. “These are steps in the wrong direction.”
The coal trains are still running through Richmond, spreading dust through the air. Pastor Weatherspoon wants all coal operations shut down until the health impact of the dust can be further assessed, but for now, the decision lies with the courts, which frustrates him, especially because coal use has been declining for so long.
“Change is inevitable,” says Weatherspoon. “We no longer build houses with asbestos and lead, right? Technology changes.”