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Bridging the Trust Gap in Energy Justice Battles

A Prince George’s County, Md., community is more than two-thirds African American, but the coalition of residents rallying against the construction of new power plants in the area is more than two-thirds white.

Mike Ewall, founder and director of the Energy Justice Network, a national support group for grassroots community groups fighting polluting energy plants, cites a phenomenon he calls “involvement disparity” for the dominance of whites in certain civic matters. In communities across the United States, white residents, perhaps due to racism, often are the first people notified about potentially controversial projects, leading to them becoming involved in the battles earlier than people of color.

Black residents also are resisting the Prince George’s County plants, “so it’s not an all-white group by any means,” Ewall stressed. “But it is more white people than you would expect given the demographics of the area,” he said. Prince George’s County has a population that is 65% African American, and the town of Brandywine, near where five power plants are either operating or will be built, is about 72% African American.

Brandywine, located about a dozen miles from the border with the District of Columbia, has become the go-to location for the building of fossil fuel-burning power plants in Maryland. When more than one plant gets built, developers find it easier to get permission from local officials and state regulators to build additional plants within that zone. But many residents are worried operation of the power plants will subject them to dangerous levels of toxic air pollution and lead to greater industrial encroachment into rural parts of their county.

County officials, however, do not share the residents’ concern about the clustering of power plants in and around Brandywine, in the southern part of the county. Prince George’s County’s mostly African American leadership is overlooking the health and environmental concerns and is instead stressing the new jobs and increased tax revenue from the plants.

Two groups, the Brandywine TB Coalition and the Patuxent Riverkeeper, teamed up with Earthjustice to file a civil rights complaint in May targeting the Maryland agencies that approved the application for the Mattawoman generating facility, the latest power plant proposed in the region. The 990-megawatt (MW) Mattawoman combined-cycle, natural gas-fired power plant, proposed by Texas-based Panda Power Funds LP, would be located about two miles from the existing 230-MW Brandywine cogeneration facility, a natural gas-fired plant that opened in 1996.

Earthjustice attorney Neil Gormley, who filed the civil rights complaint on behalf of the two local groups, said both the EPA and the U.S. Department of Transportation have acknowledged receipt of the complaint. The next step is for the agencies to determine whether they will conduct an investigation.

The deadline for that determination, under EPA’s regulation, was June 1, but Earthjustice still has not heard from the agency. The EPA is notorious for missing deadlines in civil rights complaint cases. “There is a track record of being behind schedule on processing and investigating these kinds of complaints,” he said.

In its complaint, Earthjustice relied on the Maryland agencies’ own determinations. The Maryland Public Service Commission, in its 2015 decision approving the Mattawoman plant, acknowledged there would be adverse impacts on the local community. The administrative law judge who oversaw the case admitted that unfortunately for the community the benefits would be enjoyed elsewhere while local residents would bear the burden of the plants, Gormley said.

Earthjustice argued in the complaint that authorizing construction of the Mattawoman plant in the predominantly black community “already overburdened by local pollution sources will have an unjustified disproportionate adverse impact on the basis of race in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

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. Earthjustice filed the complaint with the EPA and DOT because the Maryland PSC, the Maryland Department of Environment and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources each receive financial assistance from either federal agency and therefore are subject to Title VI’s prohibition against discrimination.

The other power plants in the region include NRG Energy’s 2,563-MW coal, oil and natural gas-fired Chalk generating station and PSEG Power LLC’s planned 755-MW Keys Energy Center. Two more fossil fuel-fired power plants are under construction near Brandywine: the 755-MW gas-fired PSEG Keys Energy Center less than one mile east, and the 725-MW gas-fired CPV St. Charles Energy Center about five miles south.

EPA’s Dismal Civil Rights Track Record

Ewall is not optimistic the civil rights complaint will help the cause of the Brandywine residents. “I wouldn’t expect a lot to come from the civil rights complaint because nothing ever does. It’s well known that anytime anyone files a civil rights complaint with EPA they sit on it sometimes for over a decade and then rule the wrong way or dismiss it before that. Generally, nothing good happens,” Ewall said.

Deloitte Consulting released a report in 2011 highly critical of EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, describing the office as incompetent and dysfunctional. “The Office has not adequately adjudicated Title VI complaints — those addressing allegations of discrimination against communities of citizens affected to environmental rules promulgated by the EPA,” Deloitte concluded.

The Title VI civil rights complaint may draw more attention to the clustering of power plants in southern Prince George’s County, “but there should be no expectation that the EPA is going to withhold federal funds from the state of Maryland for violating the Civil Rights Act, even though it is reasonable to look at the complaint and say they have,” Ewall said.

Kamita Gray, a lifelong resident of Brandywine and president of the Brandywine TB Coalition, told a local television news show that neither the company nor state regulators has conducted a comprehensive health study or environmental review to determine the effects of the Mattawoman plant on the community.

Gray, who is African American and a prominent critic of how the plant siting was handled, said she is concerned about the plant’s impacts on the black community, especially as it relates to asthma. A large percentage of Brandywine’s population is elderly African Americans who are no longer active enough to participate in civic matters but would be among the residents most impacted by the plant’s emissions and other hazards, she said.

Joanne Flynn, a resident of the Brandywine area since 1988, remembers that the natural gas-fired Keys Energy Center and the Mattawoman plant “came in one after the other” and that the developers, the county and the state did a poor job of keeping local residents informed about the projects. “You can’t be this close in to major metropolitan areas without one threat after another,” Flynn said. “Ever since I’ve moved here, it’s been one thing after another that people want to use this land for.”

Flynn, who is white and serves as vice president of the Greater Baden Aquasco Citizens Association, a group founded in 2000 to protect the rural tier in the southeast corner of Prince George’s County, said, “The civil rights complaint is legitimate, even though our [county] leaders, who are African American, are going along with [the plants]. They’re influenced by the tax revenues they get from it.”

The Demographics of Sacrifice Zones

According to data gathered by Ewall’s Energy Justice Network, minorities, including Asian Americans, African Americans and Hispanics, are more affected than whites by existing natural gas-fired power plants across the United States. Among the 137 proposed natural gas-fired power plants in the Energy Justice Network’s database, African Americans and Hispanics are the groups most impacted within five miles of a proposed gas plant.

Ewall is an experienced organizer against power plants and waste incinerators, including in Pennsylvania where developers have proposed several new gas-fired power plants. “There’s been a constant problem in numerous communities, including a lot of the communities I’ve organized in Pennsylvania, where white folks are the first ones to get involved. Because of that and because of the existing trust gap in communities across race lines, it’s been really hard for people to build those bridges and have the movement look like the community,” he said.

Groups should avoid waging a battle with an initial core of only white residents, according to Ewall. “You need to start from the beginning as best you can and get people of color engaged so that they feel like it’s their fight, too,” he said.

White organizers also often make the mistake of expecting people of color to join their battles when the white organizers are not joining the battles in other communities. People of color have their own battles to fight over a variety of issues like police brutality and education. “If they don’t see that reciprocated, it’s harder for folks to say, ‘These white people, we trust them. They’ve been here for us so we’ll be there for them.’ That hasn’t happened so it makes it a lot more difficult.”

When Ewall’s Energy Justice Network was fighting the siting of a waste incinerator in Allentown, Pa., the group made sure all materials were translated into Spanish because the project would have disproportionately affected Hispanic families. But Ewall’s group also ran into problems with low-income residents who did not want to get involved with the campaign because they feared their activism could lead to the loss of their public housing.

In the Prince George’s County battle and others across the nation, Gormley is hopeful the Obama administration’s pledge to improve the civil rights complaint process at the EPA will lead to more positive outcomes. Gormley also stressed that federal regulations encourage efforts to resolves civil rights complaints informally, he said.

“We’re definitely open to that. We’re reaching out to the Maryland agencies. We think it would be terrific if we could come to some kind of negotiated resolution without having to go through the formal investigative process. That has definitely happened in the past under different matters,” Gormley said. “When faced with the prospect of losing funding, that is a powerful incentive to bring private or state level decision-makers to the table.”

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Mark Hand has reported on the energy industry for more than 25 years. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.

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