The Racist Placement of Power Plants in Pennsylvania: A Mechanism Used to Further Harm Communities of Color

Pollution from power plants significantly affects the health and livelihoods of residents living in close proximity to them. Power plants are proven to have a direct correlation to mortality rates in these communities because their emissions reduce air quality in the surrounding areas, which causes respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis. 

Not only are these health effects clear, but the placement of these power plants across the US, and specifically in the state of Pennsylvania, are in primarily BIPOC communities due to ingrained systems of racism. However, there are many steps that Pennsylvania can take to mitigate this massive problem, and reduce the effects of environmental racism in the state. 

Racist Placement of Power Plants

According to data collected by researchers studying this environmental justice issue, upper-income (app. $180,000+) Black communities in Pennsylvania are twice as likely to live near an existing power plant than the whitest, lower-income neighborhoods. In fact, 85 percent of Pennsylvania’s power plants are located in neighborhoods with more low income and Black families than the state median. The fact that these facilities are located in Black communities is not an accident — it derives from centuries of racist policies, and it severely affects the quality of life for individuals in these communities. 

Eric Marsh from Nicetown, PA is the vice chairman of the Neighborhood Advisory Sub-Committee, an organization that helps residents learn about city programs. In 2018, he voiced his concerns about the apparent prejudice of these placements to reporters from the Global Justice Ecology Project, a group that explores and exposes the intertwined root causes of social injustice, ecological destruction, and economic domination.

“As the father of a child recently diagnosed with asthma…I find it unconscionable that plants like these are cropping up across the state in only the poorest communities, with no real monitoring or mitigating systems in place,” Marsh said. “As a father, I refuse to stand by and let them poison our children and our communities.”

Proportion of Pennsylvania Census Tracts Within Three Miles of Existing Power Plants by Race and Median Household Income (MHHI)

  • >30% People of Color (%)
  • >90% White (%)

Source: Food and Water Watch, Pernicious Placement of Pennsylvania Power Plants: Natural Gas-Fired Power Plant Boom Reinforces Environmental Injustice

In 2018, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) proposed a new gas-fired power plant that would be placed in a small community where more than 90 percent of inhabitants living within one mile of the plant location were African American. This community is located in Nicetown, PA, a city that already, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has a higher particulate level than 78 percent of neighborhoods in the entire nation. The construction of yet another pollution-producing plant is an apparent case of environmental injustice against an already suffering community.

Concerned community members, like the longtime Nicetown, PA resident J. Jondhi Harrell, stressed how this power plant displayed a blatant disregard for Black lives. In that same year, he spoke out about SEPTA’s consideration to burden yet another African American community with a new power plant and the pollution that comes with it.

“To build the SEPTA plant in the heart of a poor black and brown neighborhood already beset with pollution overload is a blatant example of environmental racism,” Harrell said

Negative Health Impacts of Power Plant Placement

Pennsylvania has a marketed natural gas production, primarily from the Marcellus Shale, that reached 6.2 trillion cubic feet in 2018, making the state the nation’s second-largest natural gas producer after Texas. Pennsylvania accounts for 9.3 percent of the total energy production in the entire country, resulting in considerable amounts of pollution from power plants, which are powered by and processing these fossil fuels. 

The two counties in Pennsylvania with the largest African American populations, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, have the highest risk of asthma in the state, which is largely due to prolonged exposure to high levels of ozone and particulate matter. Within smaller communities in Philadelphia, African Americans endure some of the highest particulate pollution in the country along with the highest rate of childhood asthma hospitalizations. 

In 2014, researchers conducted a study in Pennsylvania and their results linked Allegheny County air pollution to lower infant birth weights, particularly in low income areas. Researchers concluded in the report that “poor pregnancy outcomes among the less affluent and minority residents of Allegheny County may be partially attributed to higher pollution levels in those neighborhoods,” and that this may be the result of “ongoing environmental justice issues.”

Looking Beyond Pennsylvania

These issues of prejudiced placement of polluting facilities and disproportionate negative health impacts are not unique to Pennsylvania. In today’s COVID-19 pandemic, the same health disparities can be seen throughout the country when analyzing the disproportionate death rates among African American communities. 

Due to risk factors like preexisting health conditions, inconsistent access to healthcare, and the effects of stress on one’s immunity, African American communities struggle to face the effects of a discriminatory system that gives them less armor to fight against the COVID-19 virus. In addition to these risk factors, African Americans also bear the burden of high exposure to particulate matter from these power plants, increasing the likelihood of suffering from complications and potentially dying from COVID-19. 

[Read more about pollution sitting:  How Systematic Racism Determines Outcomes for Black Americans ]

Dr. Sharelle Barber, an assistant research professor at Drexel University, confirms the origin of these health disparities noting the “striking racial inequalities, especially for Blacks” that are “rooted in structural racism.” Similar patterns are seen in national statistics because, while majority-Black counties account for only 30 percent of the U.S. population, they were the location of 56 percent of COVID-19 deaths.

The wrongs of environmental injustice against communities of color is a serious issue and must be addressed. The racist placement of these power plants reinforces the notion of infrastructural racism that, in this case, could possibly lead to the premature deaths of many. We must work hard to keep our communities safe and healthy, especially during this difficult time riddled with the COVID-19 global pandemic and social injustice. 

Featured Image: Eilis Garvey on Unsplash