The coal pile rises like a black tide, spreading long and deep in the flats along Interstate 10. If Tucson Electric Power has its way, this fuel will eventually feed the Sundt Generating Station, contributing to a haze in our skies and, according to two new reports, more death and illness in the predominantly poor, mostly minority communities that surround it.
"The coal you can see stockpiled from I-10, they want to burn it," says Tucson-based Sierra Club organizer Dan Millis. "We want to keep it on the ground, and out of Tucson's lungs."
Unfortunately, that may not happen anytime soon. Due to the plant's age (the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality concluded that it came online in 1962), Sundt, at 3950 E. Irvington Road, has been exempted from requirements to install costly, emissions-cutting upgrades. The rationale is that those upgrades are unnecessary for plants nearing the end of their productive lives.
The Sierra Club and other groups have questioned that exemption from the state's haze-rule implementation plan, and called upon the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the ADEQ decision.
"The plant should be held to more-stringent standards," says Millis, adding that representatives from environmental groups have met with TEP "to see what we can do to get fewer emissions in our air."
In the meantime, the Sierra Club and other groups want the Sundt generator to switch from coal to natural gas—which it is equipped to do—and save that enormous black pile as an emergency reserve.
Calls to TEP spokesman Joe Salkowski for comment on the Sundt generator were not returned. But two recent reports speak volumes about the toxicity of this plant in Tucson.
One is from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the other from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Both rank Sundt high on a national list of outdated coal burners that need to be shut down.
According to the Union report, Ripe for Retirement: The Case for Closing America's Costliest Coal Plants, 42 percent of our nation's electricity last year was generated by coal-burning plants like Sundt. And like Sundt, more than three-quarters of those plants have outlived their 30-year life spans.
"Most are inefficient," says the report, "operating far below both their power generation potential. ... They lack essential modern pollution controls," it continues, "so they damage public health. The sulfur they emit causes acid rain. The mercury they release poisons waterways and fish and causes neurological damage in children. ... The soot they emit creates smog that causes lung disease, premature death, and triggers asthma attacks. ... Burning coal demands billions of gallons of cooling water from vulnerable rivers and lakes, and leaves behind vast quantities of toxic ash residuals, while coal-mining causes extensive and lasting damage both to human health and the natural environment."
The report goes on to describe coal-fired power plants as "our nation's largest single source of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the primary contributor to global warming."
And according to the NAACP report, the burden of living with dirty old plants like Sundt disproportionately affects minority neighborhoods. While Rachel Carson's groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring helped prod America out of its apathy regarding toxic pollutants, that shift did not immediately filter down to working-class minority communities.
There was an awakening in 1982, however, when African-American residents in one rural North Carolina community learned that the toxin polychlorinated biphenyl was being dumped in a nearby landfill. Their outrage resulted in massive civil disobedience and more than 500 arrests. Today's powerful environmental-justice movement is largely attributed to that watershed event.
With the publication of the NAACP's Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People, that movement is now turning its attention to dirty, aging plants such as Sundt, and highlighting the health toll they exact on surrounding, often-minority communities.
The study looked at 378 coal-fired plants across the country, evaluating their impacts upon minorities and the poor. It also singled out a dozen companies for an "F" rating based on their poor performance in relation to social- and environmental-justice issues.
Among those failing companies was UNS Energy, the parent company of Tucson Electric Power. Like the others, UNS was targeted for having a coal plant "sited ... in densely populated areas with high proportions of low-income people and people of color."
The Sundt plant certainly fits that bill. According to the report, it emits more than 2,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 1,400 tons of nitrogen oxide each year into the air over some of Tucson's poorest minority neighborhoods. Another study, published by the Clean Air Task Force in 2010, concluded that pollution from Sundt is responsible for six heart attacks, 68 asthma attacks and four deaths each year.
Yet the plant continues burning coal, and polluting neighborhoods that lack the clout to stop it.
"Often, you find there's more political power in communities that aren't low income, or communities of color," says Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP's Climate Justice Initiative and a co-author of the study.
As a result, polluting plants are "disproportionately in communities of color and low-income communities," Patterson says. "One reason is that property values tend to be lower in areas that have toxic facilities. When someone is low-income, they would look to buy in a place that has lower property costs."
The other factor, she says, "is that political piece, in terms of not having the political power to be able to fight to get something out of the community."
Those communities subsequently suffer from what Patterson calls "clusters" of health concerns. For instance, "across the board, you'll see higher rates of asthma," she says. "African-American children are three times as likely to go into the hospital from asthma, and twice as like to die from it."
Patterson says tighter federal regulations are in the pipeline. "But meanwhile, these plants have been spewing out toxins for years. How many lives have been lost or compromised without those standards?"