Camilo Viviero grew up in Somerset, Mass., in the shadow of two coal-fired power plants. “For years growing up, you would hear around midnight this air horn. That’s when they would send out the plumes of toxins. In the middle of the night, while we were sleeping,” he says.
One of those plants was decommissioned in 2007. The second plant, Brayton Point Power Station, still provides electricity to over a million homes in Mass. Last month, protesters from area environmental organizations rallied in front of Brayton Point as part of a series of protests across the nation by the environmental advocacy group 350.org. [Editor’s note: See “Turning Up the Heat on Coal Power in Massachusetts,” on page 8 of his issue, for more about this protest.]
At a fundraiser in Cambridge held a week before the protest, seasoned activist and 350.org founder Bill McKibben made the global case for reducing fossil fuel emissions.
“The science is troubling in the extreme. Last year was the hottest year on record in the United States, and we just came through the second hottest June in the history of the planet. . . . Things continue to fall apart,” McKibben told a crowd of around 150 activists gathered at the First Parish Cambridge Unitarian-Universalist Church.
For Viviero and other residents living in communities at the foot of coal-fired power plants, the issue is personal.
When Viviero watches his nieces pause during a soccer game to use their rescue inhalers, he wonders if pollution from the power plants could have caused or exacerbated their asthma. As a child, he knew several children with leukemia and heard adults speculate that the town could be part of a cancer cluster. Every time he hears of a neighbor suffering from a stroke or a heart attack, he wonders if the plants could be to blame.
Many residents in communities around Holyoke and the 50-year-old Mount Tom Power Station are asking the same questions, says Claire Miller, a community organizer for Toxic Action Center, a grassroots environmental justice advocacy organization.
Asthma rates in Holyoke are nearly twice the state average, according to the Asthma Regional Council’s 2009 assessment of the state’s asthma burden commissioned by the Governor Deval Patrick’s administration.
“We have to close down these power plants, not just because of climate change, which is roaring down on us, but because people are sick today,” Miller said.
While there is no conclusive evidence that power plant pollution directly causes asthma, there is robust evidence that it exacerbates the disease, says Jonathan Levy, an environmental health professor at Boston University with expertise in air pollution from power generation.
“If you have asthma, you are more likely to suffer from an acute attack or to be hospitalized if exposed to pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants,” he said.
There is also a definitive link between cardiovascular disease and risk of heart attacks, he said.
The combustion of coal produces a variety of air pollutants that can be harmful to human health. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) react with molecules in the air to create atmospheric ozone, which can burn lung tissue and cause respiratory problems. Sulfur oxides (SOx) contribute to the formation of fine acidic particulates that can penetrate the lining of the lungs and absorb into the bloodstream. Particles of soot or “fly ash” can lead to chronic bronchitis. Heavy metal particles can cause brain damage and heart problems.
State and federal legislators have imposed regulations on the power industry to upgrade facilities in ways that will reduce these emissions.
The media office for Dominion Energy, which currently owns the Brayto Point Power Station, issued a public statement in response to last month’s protest. “The Brayton Point Power Station—capable of powering up to 1.6 million homes—is one of the cleanest electricity generators of its kind and is in compliance with all environmental regulations. More that $1 billion has been invested in recent years to reduce its impact on the air and water significantly.”
However, incremental improvements are little consolation to Viviero and his neighbors.
“There have been scrubbers added and pollutants have decreased, but the more insidious forms of pollution, the small particulate matter still exists. There is still soot . . . . There are still toxins seeping out that are getting into our children’s lungs and into our senior citizens’ lungs,” he said.
Levy agrees that upgrades to existing plants can only bring a degree of improvement. While he acknowledges that emissions have gone down at Brayton Point, he points out that the facility is still the highest-emitting power plant in New England.
Just a few years ago, there were four coal-fired power plants in the commonwealth: Brayton Point Power Station and Somerset Power Generating Station in Somerset, Mount Tom Power Station in Holyoke, and Salem Harbor Power Station. Somerset closed in 2010 to avoid costly upgrades required by state and federal regulations. Salem Harbor is scheduled to close in 2014.
While residents and environmentalists in the communities surrounding Salem harbor are celebrating the closing of the plant, the town of Salem is left scrambling to make up the loss of its largest taxpayer, reports Salem Patch.
Power plants are often situated in low-income and minority communities where jobs are scarce and the tax base is small.
When both Somerset plants were operational, they provided the town with 40 percent of its tax base. However, the closing of the Somerset Power station three and a half years ago and a recent devaluation of Brayton Point have led to a $14 million reduction of in-tax revenue, according to The Spectator, a local newspaper serving Somerset and Swansea. This year, the town increased residential and business property taxes by 20 percent to make up some of the revenue loss.
“The owners of these facilities have a spin and they tell people to blame environmentalists,” Viviero said, but he believes that the issue is far more complicated than that.
Many residents of Somerset, including Viviero’s family, are immigrants from the Azores. His mother worked in the garment industry and his father worked in construction. While the textile industry once thrived in the area, the mills shut down decades ago.
Many people in Somerset and the surrounding communities depend on Brayton Point for employment.
“These are some of the only jobs in the area. They are union and good-paying jobs,” Viviero said. “But the jobs that are here are polluting our families and bringing toxins into our homes.”
Viviero sees this as an issue of environmental injustice; the pollution is disproportionately distributed to low-income and minority communities.
Last fall, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued Brayton Point a failing report card for environmental justice, ranking the plant fourteenth out of the 75 most egregious offenders.
Low-income and minority communities also tend to be more susceptible to resulting health risks, says Levy.
“Low income communities and communities of color tend to have higher rates of diabetes, asthma and things that make you more susceptible. People in these communities will feel greater health effects [from pollution],” Levy said.