The General James M. Gavin coal plant in southeast Ohio. Credit: Analog Kid / Creative Commons

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The environmental justice chair for the Cleveland NAACP said the group’s recent comments in support of coal and nuclear power don’t reflect its positions “moving forward.”

The Cleveland chapter caught activists off guard in October when it filed comments in support of a federal proposal to prop up uneconomic coal and nuclear plants in the name of grid reliability.

“In order to mitigate the risk that such generating units may be deactivated prematurely, the Cleveland NAACP strongly urges FERC to adopt the rule proposed by DOE,” its Oct. 20 comments said, citing the jobs and economic opportunities provided by the power plants.

The comments, submitted by the group’s economic development committee chair Danielle Sydnor, appear to contradict the national organization’s position against coal-fired power plants and other fossil fuel operations, which have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

Sydnor and branch President James Hardiman did not respond to interview requests. The group’s environmental justice chair, Kent Whitley, said he was not involved in preparing the comments, and that they don’t reflect his priorities.

“Smoke goes somewhere,” Whitley said. “You’ve got problems with asthma. You’ve got problems with heart disease. You have a whole bunch of issues that come from a coal plant.”

A boon for FirstEnergy

The U.S. Department of Energy proposal follows a directive from Energy Secretary Rick Perry. It asks the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to guarantee full cost and profit recovery for certain coal and nuclear plants with on-site fuel storage.

Among the would-be winners: Ohio’s FirstEnergy Corp.

The subsidy is similar to a state proposal that FirstEnergy began lobbying for in 2014 and that consumer advocates and environmentalists have called a “bailout,” forcing utilities to buy all electricity from certain baseload power plants regardless of the market. Bills and court proceedings on the most recent subsidy plans continue at the state level.

The Cleveland NAACP supported FirstEnergy’s plan in September 2015. Whitley, who was then chair of the group’s political action committee, said at the time that “the plan’s ability to retain jobs and support local communities makes this endorsement essential.”

The Cleveland NAACP’s comments in the federal proceedings note that FirstEnergy gives the chapter $25,000 per year.

The same language about premature plant closures affecting skilled employees that appears in the Cleveland NAACP comments also shows up in comments submitted by leaders from the City of Akron, where the company is headquartered, and Summit County, Ohio, and the City of Belmont, West Virginia, where it has power plants. A similar statement also appears in a letter from the Lake County Emergency Management Agency in Ohio.

A FirstEnergy spokeswoman said in an email that the company encouraged the Cleveland NAACP and others to submit comments to FERC.

“While I don’t have information on specific meetings or conversations, we speak with a wide variety of officials, groups and organizations about issues impacting the industry as a normal course of business,” Jennifer Young said.

Moving forward 

Whitley said his charges “moving forward” as environmental justice chair will be to focus on the issues of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as safe neighborhoods, safe water, food deserts and lead-based paint problems. He hopes FirstEnergy will continue its low-income assistance programs and enhance energy efficiency programs so customers can lower their electric bills and reduce the need for financial help. Solar panels could also help reduce electricity bills, he noted.

Whitley also said he is proud to have played a part in lobbying for the closure of a FirstEnergy coal plant in Cleveland.

Ohio Conference NAACP  President Tom Roberts said he was not in a position to comment on the Cleveland chapter’s letter to FERC, but he stressed that environmental justice is a priority for the state organization.

“Access to clean energy is not just an environmental issue for us,” said Roberts. “It’s a civil rights issue. African American communities disproportionately have their share of all of these costs” associated with pollution from the energy, farming, and other industries.

Nationally, the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program has a mission of “shutting down coal plants and other toxic facilities at the local level.” It issued a report in 2013 that identified 75 coal-fired plants that disproportionately harm the health of low-income people and people of color.

Brooks Berndt, environmental justice minister for the United Church of Christ, which has its headquarters in Cleveland, agrees with the national NAACP’s assessment.

“Nationwide, people who live in close proximity [to coal plants] are more likely to be from low-income communities and people of color,” Berndt said. “They’re going to carry the health burden of that more than the rest of society.”

Kathiann M. Kowalski

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.