Sierra Club Compass
On Wednesday night I was proud to join hundreds of residents from River Rouge and other Michigan communities in speaking out for cleaner air in Detroit. For decades, the residents of River Rouge and surrounding communities have been living with severe air pollution from nearby coal plants, and together, they came out in force to pack a public hearing and call on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to put a plan in place that will finally clean up this pollution, and correct a longstanding environmental injustice.
Detroit is home to some of the most polluting coal plants in the country, which are major contributors to significant health problems in Wayne County. In fact, the River Rouge coal plant was listed as one of the nation's top environmental justice offenders by the NAACP in their "Coal Blooded" report. Exposure to sulfur dioxide pollution -- which comes from coal plants -- is a known trigger of both short term health emergencies, like asthma attacks, and long term chronic health problems.
"It's not right to let big corporate polluters dirty our air for so long and threaten the health of our families," said Ebony Elmore, a childcare provider and activist in River Rouge. "We deserve safe air to breathe. This is a basic human right and MDEQ isn't protecting us."
Asthma rates in Wayne County are through the roof - the statistics will shock you: According to recent studies, the county has the highest number of pediatric asthma cases in Michigan. Asthma hospitalization rates are three to six times higher than the state as a whole. The prevalence of asthma among Detroit adults is 50 percent higher than the rest of Michigan.
At Wednesday's rally and hearing I heard person after person tell stories about asthma and respiratory problems from the bad air quality in the area. These families have lost loved ones to respiratory illnesses. One man described comforting the mother of an 11-year-old who died from asthma. Another young woman who grew up in the shadow of a coal plant described childhood soccer games where asthma attacks were so frequent that her teammates were regularly taken away by ambulance. It was heart-wrenching.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined Wayne County has chronic, dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide pollution. And Detroit-based DTE Energy's coal plants are responsible for a whopping 85 percent of all sulfur dioxide emissions in Wayne County. That means cleaning up this pollution would go a long way towards improving public health in these communities.
The state of Michigan is now required to put a plan in place to reduce this dangerous air pollution by 2015. As part of its plan to clean up sulfur dioxide emissions in Wayne County, the state must hold DTE responsible for its major contribution to health impacts. The state must require DTE to prevent its emissions from exceeding health standards, by either installing best-performing pollution controls or by ceasing burning coal, which is the source of these dangerous pollutants.
This is all very possible. I have seen city after city make the decision to phase out an outdated, polluting coal plant, as a result of tenacious grassroots campaigns launched by local residents. From Chicago to Indianapolis, from North Omaha to Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac from Washington, DC, local residents have won campaigns to phase out the coal plants that were contributing to sky-high asthma rates and other local health problems. Electricity rates have stayed low and the lights have stayed on, thanks to cheap, clean alternatives like wind, solar, and energy efficiency.
If MDEQ doesn't put a plan in place to clean up this pollution, the Sierra Club will continue to join our partners and friends in River Rouge and across the region to fight for clean air by calling on EPA to put a federal plan in place that will do the job. We aren't going to stop until the air is safe, and the kids and families of Wayne County no longer have to fight for the right to breathe.
Californians have built many new wind and solar projects across our state in recent years, and clean, renewable energy now accounts for more than 20 percent of California's electricity. More is on the way - we're set to have one-third of our energy come from renewable sources before 2020, and Gov. Jerry Brown recently announced a new goal of 50 percent by 2030. This is great news for California and the fight against climate change.
But as the first wave of new wind and solar projects comes to completion, many projects have caused unintended consequences for California’s lands and wildlife. Some poorly sited projects have removed scarce habitat for wildlife and further imperiled California's natural legacy, harming sensitive species like the Mojave desert tortoise, golden eagle, and San Joaquin kit fox among others.
For activists and state regulators alike, it's now time to assess the impacts of that first wave of projects and see how we can learn from them and do a better job next time around.
Unfortunately, some California officials are repeating the mistakes of the past. As soon as today, the California Public Utilities Commission could approve the power purchase agreement for the Panoche Valley Solar Project, located in the Panoche Valley south of the Bay Area. The valley has been identified by federal agencies as one of three remaining core recovery areas for the endangered San Joaquin kit fox, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and giant kangaroo rat, and is a key habitat for many other imperiled species, including golden eagles, burrowing owls, tiger salamanders, and many more. It is also an Audubon Globally Important Bird Area.
It is outrageous that such a rare and unusual site, hosting a wide range of threatened and endangered species, was ever seriously considered for a major development project in the first place. If the Panoche Valley Solar Project goes forward, it will preclude any hope of recovery for the wildlife that call it home. It could literally threaten survival of the San Joaquin kit fox and other upland species.
That a project would be built in such a delicate place is painful. That it may be built when we know there are better options is disgraceful. Southern California Edison had over two hundred renewable energy projects vying for power purchase agreements when it chose the Panoche Valley project. These include numerous projects in the Central Valley and other parts of California which wouldn’t cause such damage for wildlife and lands.
The Nature Conservancy has identified hundreds of thousands of acres of low-conservation value land in the Western San Joaquin Valley that could host solar projects with minimal impact to wildlife. We can develop solar power in California and protect the environment, and we have to take advantage of the wealth of sites that do not cause such serious harm to wildlife.
California’s ongoing transition to clean energy is an incredible achievement, rightly recognized and respected around the world. But clean energy can and must be balanced with preserving our other great environmental legacy, our state’s beautiful landscapes and diverse ecosystems.
Californians should insist that clean energy be developed sustainably and in balance with healthy ecosystems and wildlife. And the California Public Utilities Commission should not approve a project that is on-track to put a wide range of endangered species in peril.
Bill Corcoran is the Western Campaign Director for the Sierra Club'' Beyond Coal Campaign
As the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) met in Paris last Wednesday, Oil Change International released a new report with a shocking revelation. Not only has export credit agency (ECA) financing for coal by OECD countries increased, these ECAs financed nearly one-quarter of all new coal development outside of China between 2005 and 2012.
What is an ECA? ECAs are government agencies that support domestic business overseas. For example, an ECA like the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) uses taxpayer dollars to support overseas projects that then purchase goods and services from U.S. companies.
And Ex-Im has used a lot of our tax dollars to support overseas coal. In fact, the report reveals that the United States -- together with South Korea, Japan, France and Germany -- account for 92 percent of OECD ECA financing for coal power plants in the last five years. Sadly, the inclusion of the United States in this list is not a surprise to those who have been following Ex-Im’s actions. The Bank embarked on a coal binge under current Chairman Fred Hochberg, with support for fossil fuel projects increasing exponentially.
But all that changed in June 2013 when President Obama announced an end to financing for overseas coal power plants in his Climate Action Plan. While some entrenched forces at Ex-Im continue to look for loopholes in the ban that would allow them to siphon money to coal interests, the historic action taken by President Obama has already changed the way Ex-Im operates, starting with the Bank’s decision to reject a coal project in Vietnam.
The decision to end financing for overseas coal came after years of dedicated work to expose the devastating human rightsviolations at Ex-Im-backed fossil fuel projects, as well as damning evidence on the financial viability of coal. It also was the first domino in an ongoing series of countries and financial institutions committing to ending support for overseas coal, including the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and most recently, France.
With both the United States and France committed to ending ECA support for coal, two of the five top OECD ECA coal financiers are out of the game. Now it’s time for the laggards, South Korea, Germany, and Japan to step up – and they know it. Japan’s ECA, the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JIBC), has been bogged down by its support for the Batang coal plant in Central Java, Indonesia, which has been delayed for years due to locals refusing to sell their land to make way for the project.
Coal is deadly. Coal is outdated. And coal is a bad investment. A very small number of ECAs support the vast majority of projects worldwide and even that number is dwindling. It’s time for the remaining nations -- South Korea, Germany and Japan -- to get with the times and get out of coal.Nicole Ghio From Compass
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