19 Jun 2013: Interview

Coal Pollution and the Fight
For Environmental Justice

As its director of "climate justice," Jacqueline Patterson is leading the NAACP’s campaign to shut down coal-burning power plants in minority communities. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, she talks about the skepticism she faces from her own constituents.

by diane toomey

When the NAACP recently released a report on the disproportionate effects of coal-fired plants on minorities, Jacqueline Patterson led the efforts to spread its message that these facilities were “killing low-income communities and communities of color.”

Jacqueline Patterson Interview
Jacqueline Patterson
Patterson is the Environmental and Climate Justice Director for the venerable civil rights organization — a job whose purpose is sometimes questioned by the NAACP’s own constituents. As Patterson puts it, “Some of the communities I work in were like, ‘Well, we’re dealing with double digit unemployment and people dying of AIDS, people being racially profiled, high murder rates. How is melting ice caps and polar bear extinction going to become a priority for us?’”

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Diane Toomey, Patterson discusses how she answers that thorny question and outlines the reasons behind the NAACP’s campaign to shut down coal-fired plants. She also talks about the often-difficult relationship between environmental justice organizations and major U.S. green groups. “We need to have tough conversations around organizational culture,” she says. “And we need more joint strategizing on how we can collaborate more effectively.”

Yale Environment 360: A few months ago, the NAACP released a report entitled “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People.” It examined the effects of coal-fired plants on minority communities in the U.S. Paint a picture of who is most likely to live near these power plants.

Jacqueline Patterson: Thirty-nine percent of the people living near coal-fired power plants are people of color, so what’s absolutely true is that there are a disproportionate number of people of color living next to these plants. Seventy-eight percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. We also discovered that Latino communities, as well as indigenous communities and low-income communities, are more likely to live next to coal-fired plants.

e360: The report assigned a so-called environmental justice performance score to 378 coal-fired power plants in the U.S. The score was based on the amount of sulfur dioxide and NOx [nitrogen oxide] emissions, the number of people living within three miles of the plant, and the median income and percentage of people of color in that population. Seventy-five of these plants were found to be failing. Define “failure” for me in this context.

Patterson: We used an algorithm based on those five factors, and then we
An African American child is three times more likely to go to the emergency room for an asthma attack than a white child.”
ranked them according to the score they received. The ones that were failing were the ones that had the worst EJ [environmental justice] score, the ones that were emitting the most sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide to the most people, and with the greatest proportion of people who are of color and low-income.

e360: The report focuses on the effects of three pollutants coming from these plants: sulfur dioxide, NOx, and particulates — all of which have known health consequences, including asthma and other respiratory problems. Talk about the incident rate of these illnesses in minority communities compared to white communities.

Patterson: An African American child is three times more likely to go into the emergency room for an asthma attack than a white child and twice as likely to die from asthma attacks than a white child. African Americans are more likely to die from lung disease, but less likely to smoke. When we did a road tour to visit the communities that were impacted by coal pollution, we found many anecdotal stories of people saying, yes, my husband, my father, my wife died of lung cancer and never smoked a day in her life. And these are people who are living within three miles of the coal-fired power plants we visited.

So both statistically, in terms of health surveillance data, and anecdotally, in terms of what you’re hearing from community members, we see that there is a higher incident of the very diseases that are impacted by these pollutants in African American communities.

e360: Have there been enough well-designed studies done on the health of communities living in very close proximity to coal-fired plants?

Crawford Coal Plant
Paul Dailing/Medill Reports/
Northwestern University
The Crawford coal-burning power plant, located in a low-income neighborhood of Chicago, was closed last year.
Patterson: We definitely need more in the way of these studies — that was one of the recommendations from the report. The Harvard School of Public Health did a study specifically on the Fisk and Crawford plants in Chicago, which was instrumental in helping to garner public support for shutting down those two plants [which were closed last year]. But we need more sophisticated studies.

e360: There have been a number of coal-fired plant closures in recent years thanks in part to cheaper and more abundant natural gas, and new stricter [U.S.] pollution regulations that will kick in by 2016 will make coal-fired plants more expensive to operate. In fact, five of the 12 of the power plants that received the lowest rating in your report have closed or have announced plans to close. How do you tease out the effect of activism versus other factors that are leading to these plant closures?

Patterson: We’ve long acknowledged that activism alone hasn’t been responsible for closing down these plants. We certainly say in all of our conversations that the boom in natural gas has had a significant effect on the cost of running these plants. There’s no denying that. I think that you can really only tell on a plant-by-plant basis the extent to which the community activism is going to have a significant impact.

e360: Since the report has been released what kind of feedback or outreach have you received from the owners of any of these plants?

Patterson: Some plant owners have said that the plants aren’t harmful to human health, that there are too many other pollutants in the area to be able to tease out the effects of the plants and that there’s no alternative to running these plants or the alternatives are too expensive and the rate payers would be the ones that would have to pay for that.

e360: For you, I would imagine nothing trumps the issue of health in the communities that live near these plants.

Patterson: I wouldn’t go as far as to say that. We don’t want to say, “Who cares if a hundred people lose their jobs?” We look hard at what the contribution of the plant is to the tax base of the community, and we look hard at who is being employed by the plant. Is the electricity being
You can only tell on a plant-by-plant basis the extent to which community activism is going to have an impact.”
generated by the plant being used by the community that is suffering these ill health effects?

So I wouldn’t necessarily say that we are absolutely saying that health trumps all because we don’t want to impose that on the community when they might not necessarily believe that. They might say, “Well, OK, my life might be 10 years shorter, but at least I’ll be working the whole time.” It’s a community-by-community calculation, conversation, and strategy.

e360: You just referenced working with the community at the grassroots level. How would you describe the working relationship between grassroots environmental justice activists and major anti-coal advocate groups?

Patterson: I think it varies from place to place depending on how well those national organizations put in the work and relationship building and the how open the grassroots organizations are to receiving it. I know that in Chicago, with the Fisk and Crawford [coal-fired] plants [which were shut down last year], the Little Village Environmental Justice organization was at the head of the work that was being done. And they did partner with groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club and the Rainforest Action Network, who brought new resources — be it skills or other technical assistance or organizing experience. And they had a successful collaboration.

e360: The report does have some strong words regarding this issue. It says that some of the larger groups will talk about how climate change may affect poor people and people of color in the Global South but not necessarily the poor people and people of color right here in the U.S.

Patterson: Yes, that has definitely been a historical challenge. That is something that is evolving. Every day we see advancement along those lines in terms of greater sensitivity and greater engagement [by U.S. environmental groups]. I would say that we’re on a positive trajectory around that.

e360: There is a notorious lack of diversity amongst the staff and board members of major environmental organizations. From your viewpoint, what are the reasons behind that?

Patterson: That’s a good question. We’ve begun to address that issue. We now have a weekly “black-green pipeline” career digest in which we send out jobs and training opportunities in the green sector. But I think the challenge we’ve observed is multifold. There’s been a historic failure to
We have communities that are losing people every day from toxic exposures.”
articulate the impacts of these issues on communities of color and low-income communities in the United States.

Even when I started to do this work at the NAACP, there were questions. Some of the communities that I would work in were like, “Well, we’re dealing with double-digit unemployment and people dying of AIDS, people being racially profiled, high murder rates. How are melting ice caps and polar bear extinction going to become a priority for us in light of all these issues?”

So I really had to do a lot of messaging around how climate change is a threat multiplier for those very things that they talk about. For example, extreme weather events have been impacting our right to safe housing, and shifts in agricultural yield that we see from climate change affect our right to food and water. And various environmental injustices, including exposure to toxins, impact our health. But unfortunately, there are just too few people who are making those connections. And if you’re a person who manages to get into one of these [major environmental] organizations, for whatever reasons, you feel this immense weight.

e360: You mean the weight of being the only person of color in an organization?

Patterson: Being a person of color, having to be that ambassador for bringing in a whole different way of thinking, analyzing, working, collaborating. That’s just a huge mountain to climb. When you come in as a person of color to those organizations, they expect you to be the one to pull everybody up that mountain, and that’s just a lot to ask of anyone.


An Advocate in Pursuit of
Environmental Justice at EPA

Matthew Tejada An Advocate in Pursuit of Environmental Justice at EPA
Matthew Tejada recently took over the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice after helping low-income communities in Houston fight air pollution in their neighborhoods. In an e360 interview, hew talks about how his work in Texas prepared him for the challenges of his new post.
e360: Van Jones, a former advisor to the Obama Administration on green jobs and an African American, has been quoted as saying we have a segregated environmental movement. Would you agree with him?

Patterson: I would agree with him. We have groups that have been doing environmental justice work for decades at the grassroots level. They’re working for similar aims in terms of protecting the environment, but they might be doing it from the perspective of protecting the communities that are affected. And then we have these big environmental groups, who’ve also been working on protecting the environment but with a different language, a different framing, a different focus. And traditionally, never the two shall meet.

e360: When you say different focus, is it a matter of one saving wilderness and biodiversity and grassroots organizations that are much more interested in toxic exposure and saving urban parks?

Patterson: Yes, I would say that. We have communities that are losing people every day from these toxic exposures, so understandably their focus is more on protecting people.

POSTED ON 19 Jun 2013 IN Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Pollution & Health Urbanization North America North America 


Excellent interview.

No doubt there were many coal based power plants which have become controversy due to pollution and health threat to human habitat. But what puzzles me is why people keep quiet when an announcement is made for setting up a coal/nuclear plants. Then one can impress on the plant owners that adequate pollution prevention methods are taken. Here in India there are agitations on the Coal power plants, Nuclear power plant and now on Solar PV Plant also (radiation hazards),Wind Turbines – birds killing and noise. Already the country is facing severe power shortage. If we begin to halt power projects, where does power come?

Solar energy has long been advocated as being better for the environment than fossil fuels. However, amongst fears that solar cells production might release more hazardous gases than fossil fuels, Chinese authorities recently suspended production at a solar panel factory after protests by residents who blamed the plant for causing air and water pollution.

In India, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), has exempted solar photovoltaic (PV) power projects from the ambit of environmental clearances.

We must fight for safe guards for power plants from pollution but not closure. In some cases these protests are initiated by vested interests.

Dr. A. Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 21 Jun 2013


Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Email address 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.

Diane Toomey, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, is an award-winning public radio journalist who has worked at Marketplace, the World Vision Report and Living on Earth, where she was the science editor. She also has reported on science, medicine and the environment for WUNC, the public radio station in Chapel Hill, N.C.



On Ravaged Tar Sands Lands,
Big Challenges for Reclamation

The mining of Canada’s tar sands has destroyed large areas of sensitive wetlands in Alberta. Oil sands companies have vowed to reclaim this land, but little restoration has occurred so far and many scientists say it is virtually impossible to rebuild these complex ecosystems.

As Fracking Booms, Growing
Concerns About Wastewater

With hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas continuing to proliferate across the U.S., scientists and environmental activists are raising questions about whether millions of gallons of contaminated drilling fluids could be threatening water supplies and human health.

In Developing World, A Push to
Bring E-Waste Out of Shadows

For decades, hazardous electronic waste from around the world has been processed in unsafe backyard recycling operations in Asia and Africa. Now, a small but growing movement is seeking to provide these informal collectors with incentives to sell e-waste to advanced recycling facilities.

As Uses of Biochar Expand,
Climate Benefits Still Uncertain

Research shows that biochar made from plant fodder and even chicken manure can be used to scrub mercury from power plant emissions and clean up polluted soil. The big question is whether biochar can be produced on a sufficiently large scale to slow or reverse global warming.

A Legal Call to Arms to Remedy
Environmental and Climate Ills

University of Oregon law professor Mary Wood says environmental laws in the United States are simply not working. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, she explains why she believes a new strategy and robust judicial intervention are needed to protect nature and the climate.


MORE IN Interviews

Wendell Berry: A Strong Voice
For Local Farming and the Land

by roger cohn
For six decades, writer Wendell Berry has spoken out in defense of local agriculture, rural communities, and the importance of caring for the land. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about his Kentucky farm, his activism, and why he remains hopeful for the future.

How Rise of Citizen Science
Is Democratizing Research

by diane toomey
New technology is dramatically increasing the role of non-scientists in providing key data for researchers. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Caren Cooper of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology talks about the tremendous benefits — and potential pitfalls — of the expanding realm of citizen science.

Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo on
Russia and the Climate Struggle

by diane toomey
In a Yale Environment 360 interview, the outspoken executive director of Greenpeace discusses why his organization’s activists braved imprisonment in Russia to stop Arctic oil drilling and what needs to be done to make a sharp turn away from fossil fuels and toward a green energy economy.

A Legal Call to Arms to Remedy
Environmental and Climate Ills

by fen montaigne
University of Oregon law professor Mary Wood says environmental laws in the United States are simply not working. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, she explains why she believes a new strategy and robust judicial intervention are needed to protect nature and the climate.

How Industrial Agriculture Has
Thwarted Factory Farm Reforms

by christina m. russo
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Robert Martin, co-author of a recent study on industrial farm animal production, explains how a powerful and intransigent agriculture lobby has successfully fought off attempts to reduce the harmful environmental and health impacts of mass livestock production.

Using Ocean Robots to Unlock
Mysteries of CO2 and the Seas

by todd woody
Marine phytoplankton are vital in absorbing ever-increasing amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, researcher Tracy Villareal explains how he is using remotely operated robots to better understand how this process mitigates climate change.

Finding a Better Message on
The Risks of Climate Change

by diane toomey
To overcome polarization on the issue of climate change, Yale professor Dan Kahan says in an interview with e360, scientists and the media need to frame the science in ways that will resonate with the public. A message that makes people feel threatened, he says, simply will not be effective.

How High Tech is Helping
Bring Clean Water to India

by todd woody
Anand Shah runs a company that is using solar-powered “water ATMs” to bring clean water to remote villages in India. In an e360 interview, Shah talks about how his company is using a high-tech approach to address one of India’s most intractable public health issues.

Scientists and Aid Experts
Plan for a Warmer Future

by diane toomey
Climate scientists and humanitarian relief workers need to collaborate far more closely to prepare for a future of increased extreme weather events. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Harvard University public health expert Jennifer Leaning analyszes the results of a meeting between these two very different factions.

Leaving Our Descendants
A Whopping Rise in Sea Levels

by fen montaigne
German scientist Anders Levermann and his colleagues have released research that warns of major sea level increases far into the future. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he raises important questions about how much we really care about the world we will leave to those who come after us.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


Twitter: YaleE360
e360 on Facebook
Donate to e360
View mobile site
Share e360
Subscribe to our newsletter
Subscribe to our feed:


About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America


Photographer Peter Essick documents the swift changes wrought by global warming in Antarctica, Greenland, and other far-flung places.
View the gallery.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video that chronicles the story of a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant, was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Watch the video.

header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.