Community claims civil rights violation after power plant approval

mattawoman_plant_renderingBRANDYWINE – The approval of fifth power plant near Brandywine has community activists fuming.

On May 18, Earthjustice, the largest environmental law nonprofit in the country, filed a complaint with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) alleging that the approval of a 859-megawatt power plant in Brandywine by the Public Service Commission (PSC) is a violation of the community’s civil rights.

“Title VI prohibits entities receiving federal financial assistance from engaging in activities that subject individuals to discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin,” the complaint reads. “As entities receiving financial assistance from DOT or EPA, the PSC, MDE and MDNR are subject to Title VI’s prohibition against discrimination. The issuance of the CPCN violates that prohibition by disproportionately subjecting black residents of Brandywine to air pollution and other negative impacts based on their race.”

It claims the plant will disproportionately impact African-Americans due to increased noise, traffic congestion and air pollution and decreased property values. Patuxent Riverkeeper and Brandywine TB Coalition, the groups on whose behalf the suit was filed, want the state of Maryland to be compelled to “conduct a full and fair analysis of disparate impacts from the proposed facility” and “conduct a full and fair consideration of alternatives that would avoid such disparate impacts.”

Neil Gormley, the Earthjustice attorney who filed the complaint, said this situation is an example of a larger problem in the state.

“The situation in Brandywine is an egregious example of discrimination. But the whole process for deciding how Marylanders get their energy is systematically biased against low-income communities and communities of color. To comply with the Civil Rights Act, Maryland needs a process to ensure that future energy development doesn’t mean even more pollution for these communities,” he said.

The complaint alleges that the power plants would not have been approved if they impacted Caucasian families. Brandywine is 72 percent African-American, while Maryland as a whole is only 6 percent African-American.

“The notion that these proposed or existing plants are all coincidentally located in the same minority community is preposterous. How often does lightning have to strike in the same place before one sees there is a sacrifice zone being created,” Frederick Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, said.

The complaint notes that PSC heard the community’s claims of discrimination but found that Mattawoman Energy was not being “intentionally racist” in choosing sites. However, the complaint argues that the effect of the decision was discriminatory, regardless of the intent.

PSC did note the public notice of the new plant- as required by law- was not sufficient. According to the complaint, members of the public were not informed of the public hearing until a week before it was to be held, and many were not aware the Mattawoman project was in addition to the other two plants under construction.

Additionally, Kamita Gray of Brandywine TB Coalition said residents on one side of the proposed site were given information, but those on the other side were not.

“There’s a disparity there. How do you tell one side of the street but not the other side?” she asked.

Tutman also feels the approval process for the new plant is flawed. Brandywine is currently home to two operating fossil fuel plants- Panda Brandywine and Chalk Point Generating Station- with two more under construction, PSEG Key Energy Center and St. Charles Energy Center. The new Mattawoman plant would bring the total to five within 13 miles of the community. But Tutman said each project’s impact was considered individually, not cumulatively.

“The PSC made clear that it does not need to look at the cumulative impacts, but instead each of the applications in a separate context. The notion that one could have a cluster of some four or five energy generation plants within 13 miles of one another and nobody looked at the cumulative impacts is shocking and egregious,” he said.

Gray agrees.

“For far too long, low income communities and communities of color have been on the front lines of environmental and economic injustice, shouldering the burdens of living in areas with higher rates of fossil fuel pollution and lower rates of income and employment. Lacking political power and the mechanisms for organized resistance, these communities are frequently chosen as sites for polluting facilities or feel compelled to accept them as a source of jobs despite the health hazards they pose,” she said.

She said the community is already suffering negative impacts from the air pollutants, such as ozone and ammonia, emitted by the plants already in operation.

“We talked to a few of the residents and they were concerned because they have children with asthma. Brandywine Elementary School is right there and we talked to them and some kids would go out to play and would come back inside with asthma attacks with just the air quality from the two plants already there,” she said.

The EPA did not respond to questions about this complaint or about how it handles civil rights complaints in general. The agency did, however, include environmental justice goals as part of its Action Plan 2020 (which has yet to be officially adopted).

Proponents of the plant say the plan went through all the proper state approvals. They also say it will contribute $1.2 billion to the economy over about twelve years, fund up to 800 construction jobs and 57 operations and support jobs, and provide power to 859,000 homes.

But the community said they will continue to push back against the new addition.

“I do not see the litigation necessarily as an attempt to stop the plant but rather an attempt to empower the affected community’s voice so that various issues and impacts related to the proposed construction of these plants can be taken into account before they are finally permitted,” Tutman said.

Gray agreed.

“To state that you followed the rules when the unfairness in the approval processes in itself is unjust without meaningful community engagement, contribution and participation,” she said.

Gray said her organization attended hearings in Annapolis on Friday with the Environmental Justice Commission, which yielded some positive results.

“It was positive in the sense that they said we all had to be at the table. We had both been talking about it but not together,” Gray said. “We want to sit down with Maryland state officials on how best to help the community.”

via Prince George’s sentinel 

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