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The EPA Doesn’t Want to Hear From Coal Victims

The agency's only public hearing on repealing the Clean Power Plan was held far from the minority communities affected by air pollution.

Bill Pugliano/Getty

“Thank God the terrorist on coal is gone!” Rupie Phillips, a Republican congressional candidate in West Virginia, yelled into a crowd outside the capitol building in Charleston on Tuesday. He was referring to former President Barack Obama. The group—mostly coal miners, coal executives and Republican politicians—was celebrating the Environmental Protection Agency, which was in town to hold its only scheduled public hearing on repealing the Clean Power Plan (CPP), Obama’s ambitious regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants. But the almost entirely white crowd, including miners dressed in work gear, was also celebrating the end of Obama’s eight-year reign, which attendees generally agreed had terrorized the coal industry with his environmental crusade. With Phillips’s remark, the audience broke out in laughter and applause.

Chris Kingsby was having a less triumphant week. An NAACP official from Arkansas, he told me that his organization paid thousands to fly its representatives from across the country to West Virginia, only to be granted most of its speaking slots on the second day of the hearing, when most of the the cameras and crowds had left the Capitol. His round-trip ticket cost $1172. “Who can afford to pay that?” he said, sitting in the lobby of the Hilton in downtown Charleston on Wednesday. “Nowhere in this country is there an African American who makes less than $50,000 a year, who’s trying to raise a family, or is a single parent, who can afford to leave their job for two days to travel to West Virginia just so they can speak up about the pollution in their community.”

“Let’s just be real,” he continued. “The major problem with the Clean Power Plan is that it was introduced by an African American president who was concerned about the discriminatory impacts of pollution and climate change.”

Scott Pruitt, the agency’s administrator, has made clear why the two-day hearing was held in West Virginia: “The EPA is headed to the heart of coal country to hear from those most impacted by the CPP.” He has shown little interest in those who are impacted positively by environmental regulations. Thousands of communities across the country live near coal-fired power plants and coal waste storage sites, and Obama’s EPA estimated that 3,600 premature deaths, 1,700 heart attacks, and 90,000 asthma attacks would be prevented each year by the CPP, which has not gone into effect yet due to a 2016 Supreme Court ruling. By requiring polluting industries to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030, the rule would make it harder for older, dirtier plants to operate—and it’s often those older plants that see the most complaints from nearby communities about air and water pollution.

These nearby communities also happen to be disproportionately black, Latino, and Native American. According to the NAACP, 68 percent of black Americans—about 30 million people—live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. And yet, the CPP hearing was held in a state that’s more than 90 percent white (and home to fewer than 16,000 miners). The EPA has no plans to hold hearings in states where polluted communities could be easily heard. “We will do our best to respond to requests for additional meetings,” an EPA spokesperson said. By contrast, the Obama administration held four public hearings on the Clean Power Plan: in Pittsburgh, Denver, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C.

There were minority voices at EPA’s public hearing, mostly thanks to national groups that could afford to fly in speakers from marginalized communities. E.D. Mondainé, an Oregon resident who grew up in the projects of south St. Louis, Missouri, was invited by the NAACP. “Most of my life, I’ve suffered from asthma, pulmonary disease, enlarged heart,” he said. “I was 42 when I finally had the eustachian tubes taken out of my ears.” He said these ailments were common among his childhood companions. “I remember the incinerators burned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, looking out my window seeing Peabody Coal,” he said. “I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I know better now.”

The NAACP also flew in Kayla Cox, an advocate in North Carolina, home to 14 coal-fired power plants and 50 coal ash storage sites. Thousands of people in the state have contaminated water, which many attribute to coal ash pollution; the coal companies deny it. According to E&E News, at least 1.5 million people of color live near coal waste sites at 277 power plants across the country. “It’s impactful to see how many states are experiencing the same level of detriment,” Cox said. “The EPA needs another state’s perspective.”

National groups also flew in speakers representing Latino communities, which, according to a National Resources Defense report, are disproportionately affected by air pollution and climate change. “Nationally, 1 in 2 Latinos in the U.S. live in counties with the worst air pollution,” said Karina Castillo of Mom’s Clean Air Force at the hearing, citing the report. “Latinos make up roughly 1 in 4 workers in agriculture and construction, making them more vulnerable to the effects of heat and global warming.” Across the river from the EPA hearing, the Sierra Club held its own event to hear from members of polluted communities. “My neighborhood, my children’s neighborhood, cannot afford the cost of more pollution,” said Reverend Tony Pierce of Peoria, Illinois, a mostly black neighborhood located near a coal-fired plant.

There’s still a chance that EPA could schedule more public hearings on CPP repeal, not that more hearings would change Pruitt’s mind. He built his career on fighting climate regulations, and has shown little interest in protecting vulnerable communities. Shortly after he took the reins at EPA, the head of the agency’s environmental justice program resigned. Since then, Pruitt has proposed restructuring the environmental justice program, a move environmentalists see as “politicizing” the work. So holding additional public hearings would be out of character, Kingsby said. “That would require the EPA to do what’s in the best interest of every minority community being left out, forgotten about, in this discussion,” he said. “I quite frankly don’t think they will.”