The Social Justice Case for Shutting Down Drake

by Stephanie Thomas

Among all industrial sources of air pollution, none pose greater risks to human health than coal-fired power plants.  Chief among the pollutants coming out of their smokestacks are sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOX), and fine particulate matter.  While emissions of these pollutants have declined significantly in the last two decades with the installation of scrubbers in smokestacks, coal-fired plants still emit thousands of tons of them each year, plenty to cause health problems in surrounding neighborhoods.

drakeInhalation of these pollutants causes coughing, wheezing, nasal inflammation, increased risk and severity of asthma, chronic bronchitis, cardiac effects, including increased risk of heart attack, and increased mortality.   Adverse impacts are especially severe for the elderly, children and those with respiratory diseases.  Nationwide, the poor and communities of color tend to be disproportionately exposed to the health risks and costs of this pollution, as coal-fired power plants tend to be sited in and near low-income communities and communities of color.  Colorado Springs Utilities’ Martin Drake coal-fired power plant is no exception.

Martin Drake is located on Conejos Street downtown.  Visitors to Colorado Springs often remark on “that eyesore with the clouds of white smoke rising from it” in the heart of downtown and question why it is still in operation.  The answer is that Martin Drake allows Colorado Springs Utilities to provide very cheap electric power to 90+% of El Paso County (population 800,647 as of the 2010 census).  However, the health impacts of the cheap power being generated for these ~720,582 people are being disproportionately visited upon the 78,101 people living within three miles of Martin Drake (the distance usually studied for increased pollution impacts).  These people are among the city’s most socially and economically disadvantaged.

In fact, the population living in closest proximity to Martin Drake (within 1 mile) has a higher percentage of people of color than Colorado Springs as a whole.  It is 16.8% Hispanic-origin (versus 12% for the city as a whole), 7.2% African-American (versus 6.6% for the city as a whole), 2% American Indian (versus 0.9% for the city as a whole), 1.7% Asian/Pacific Islander (versus 3% for the city as a whole), 7.3% multiracial (versus 3.9% for the city as a whole, and 4% some race other than white or those listed above (versus 5% for the city as a whole).  It is also less educated and poorer.  29.4% of the population within 1 mile of Martin Drake is below the poverty level, versus 8.7% of the city as a whole.  48.9% of the working age population in that 1 mile makes less than $25,000 per year, versus 24.1% of the city as a whole.  20.1% of that same population does not have a high school diploma, versus 9.1% of the city as a whole.

Within 3 miles of Martin Drake, the percentage of people of color mirrors Colorado Springs more closely, but the population is still markedly less educated and poorer than Colorado Springs as a whole.  The population is 14.5% Hispanic-origin (versus 12% for the city as a whole), 5.4% African-American (versus 6.6% for the city as a whole), 1.3% American Indian (versus 0.9% for the city as a whole), 1.7% Asian/Pacific Islander (versus 3% for the city as a whole), 4.1% multiracial (versus 3.9% for the city as a whole), and 6.5% some race other than white or those listed above (versus 5% for the city as a whole).  25.2% of the population within 3 miles of Martin Drake is below the poverty level, versus 8.7% of the city as a whole.  36% of the working age population within that same three miles makes less than $25,000 per year, versus 24.1% of the city as a whole.  15.3% of that same population does not have a high school diploma, versus 9.1% of the city as whole.

A study just released this month by the NAACP, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, and the Indigenous Environmental Network bolsters the above data.  The study evaluated for environmental justice performance the 378 coal-fired power plants in the U.S. that generate over 100 megawatts of power each year.  The evaluation considered  SO2 and NOX emissions, the total population living within three miles of the plant, and the average income and percentage of people of color among that population.  Martin Drake is one of these 378 plants; it was also one of the 75 plants studied that received a “F” grade.  In fact, the study ranked Martin Drake as the 26th worst-performing plant in the nation in terms of environmental justice, based on the facts that it emitted a yearly average of 7,758 tons of SO2 and 4,192 tons of NOx and that the community of 78,101 people within 3 miles of the plant has an average income of $20,905 and is comprised of 26.6% people of color.

The health impacts being disproportionately visited on this population are both deadly and costly.  A 2010 report on power plant pollution by the Clean Air Task Force (which used a well-established and extensively peer-reviewed methodology approved by the US EPA’s Science Advisory Board and the National Academy of Sciences) assessed death and disease caused by coal-fired power plants at over 13,000 deaths, 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks per year, at a cost of over $100 billion dollars per year.  An interactive website run by the Clean Air Task Force using that same methodology estimates that Martin Drake causes 8 deaths, 13 heart attacks, 160 asthma attacks, 8 asthma ER visits, 6 hospital admissions and 6 cases of chronic bronchitis a year, at a cost of around $65 million per year (in 2010 dollars).

From an environmental justice perspective, Martin Drake should be shut down.  Its costs are just too great.

Sources


2 Replies to "The Social Justice Case for Shutting Down Drake"

  • TJ
    December 16, 2012 (9:22 am)
    Reply

    That’s why new emission scrubbers are being installed. That way, we can continue to enjoy the benefits of low cost electricity and further reduce the emissions. Cheap electricity is good for the ratepayers and good for the economy of the city. Increasing the cost of electricity will not attract new businesses to the city and will most likely cause existing businesses to shut down or move away.

    How do you propose to generate the electricy if this plant is shut down? It is a base load facility, meaning that it runs nearly 24 x7 at full capacity to meet the demands of the city. Natural gas comes at a higher cost and also produces emissions. Renewables such as solar and wind can’t provide a constant base load. We obviously can’t replace it with more hydro generation. Reducing the demand through conservation isn’t practical. What’s left – nuclear generation?

    Also, for those that refer to the steam coming from the cooling towers at the plant as “clouds of white smoke”, we can educate them by letting them know is is simply water vapor – nothing else.

  • JJ
    December 23, 2012 (12:40 pm)
    Reply

    While I agree fully with all of TJ’s accurate and well reasoned comments, I would love to see the eyesore that is Drake leave the downtown area of Colorado Springs. The city has two choices: 1) move forward with the installation of new pollution control equipment for somewhere near $100 million dollars and keep burning the fuel of the 1900’s; or 2) stop generating a majority of our power from coal; move to natural gas; and do this for little more than 3 times that cost of the pollution control equipment that keeps us stuck with last century’s technology. We would get our downtown back and I am sure we would attract many new businesses and downtown activities: maybe a convention center, a ball park, new neighborhoods, and parks. That’s a future we all can embrace.


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