The view from here: In Racine, it isn’t unusual to see an elementary school and then some coal plants.
Elisa Young spent her childhood summers with her grandparents in the little farmhouse outside Racine, Ohio, a quiet, hard-working village on the border with West Virginia, well within the still-beating heart of coal country. The Ohio River is a constant comforting roar in the distance. On drives south, this is where the mountains start to show. In 2000, when her grandmother passed, Elisa and her family moved in to become the seventh branch in a tree dating back to when the government gave a long-ago grandfather this land in exchange for his sacrifices in the Revolutionary War. Now, Elisa is fighting a few battles of her own.
A year before she moved here from Athens, with no family history of cancer, the now-44 year old learned of the melanoma in her skin. She learned of a thyroid disorder a few years back, and last year she was told to undergo a regimen of chemo to stave off a separate precancerous condition. But even if she weren’t going through all this, she says she’d be angry anyway about all the toxins – blamed for everything from acid rain and cancerous conditions to radioactive contamination and global warming – that spew unfettered into the sky.
She soon learned about six neighbors with a variety of cancers and respiratory conditions, people who’d breathed the air here their whole lives and believed the coal industry had everything to do with how dirty it is. She counted four coal-fired power plants within 10 miles, burning coal that’d long been mined from the surrounding hills. When the wind blew across those stacks and strip-mined peaks, it almost always blew in Racine’s direction.
But an epidemiologist who works for several Southeast Ohio counties told her an Ohio EPA study would only be done if the cancers were similar in type. He did note a higher-than-average number of cancers in general, Elisa says, but victory could only come through regulatory change, and how do you prove such a link to legislators struggling to preserve jobs in a dying industry while sitting on small piles of money made from the support of it?
Five more coal burners are being planned in this same area, including one to which Cleveland Public Power is about to make a 50-year commitment. If all goes as proposed by Big Coal, the air above Elisa’s little patch of the American Dream just might end up choked with the highest concentration of carbon in America.
“If there was a robber or an addict and he shot me to take my money, he’d be a murderer,” she says on a break from her job as a medical transcriptionist, “but if they release all these toxins and I breathe them, and we die a more painful, prolonged death, then no one is held accountable. And that’s not really being talked about up there. How many Meigs County lives do you have to take per kilowatt hour of energy?”
IN A STATE with air quality ranking near the bottom of the list, in the place that pumps out some of the worst that we breathe, Elisa Young decided a few years back to found Meigs Citizens Action Now (CAN) and help lessen our historic dependence on coal, still used to turn about 85 percent of the world’s wheels. At the opposite end of the state, Cleveland leaders are about to adopt a plan to get two-thirds of Cleveland Public Power’s electricity from a proposed 960-megawatt coal-burning power plant, the first old-school coal burner being built in Ohio in about two decades.
By March 1, Cleveland City Council will end a long debate on whether to side with Elisa and actually go green – as Mayor Frank Jackson publicly envisions – or defy the rising tide of public opinion and science by going with the Jackson-supported CPP plan to buy into the plant and emit 7.3 million tons of pollutants into the atmosphere every year. Ultimately, Cleveland would get about 100 of the new plant’s megawatts. Advocates say the plan could solidify the century-old city-run utility for well into the future; critics say they’d be boarding a train bound for a cliff.
“We’ll be choking and turning brown, while you guys are going green,” Elisa quips. Then she adds, seriously, “This is just the energy industry trying to coerce people into making a very poor financial decision. They’ve gotta get another 50-years’ worth of infrastructure in place or they’re in trouble.”
That’s hard to deny. Even the leading Republican candidate for president this year, John McCain, has a plan to further regulate coal emissions toward a more eco-friendly future. Add to that tougher regulations being punched out at the state level, and that means far higher future bills from American Municipal Power-Ohio, the nonprofit supplier trying to build the new plant.
Aside from all that, construction costs for the plant, set to be finished when key AMP-Ohio contracts expire in 2012 and 2013, have skyrocketed from an original estimate of $1.2 billion in 2005 to a total cost (with financing) of $3.5 billion today – a hike that amounts to about $2 million a day.
Still, Ward 17 Councilman Matt Zone, chairman of Council’s Utilities Committee, sides with CPP Commissioner Ivan Henderson when he says that buying into the new plant will keep prices from rising so high that CPP would fail, allowing it to avoid the market for a majority of its needs.
Outside a council budget hearing late last week, Zone hadn’t wavered from that belief, though he admits it isn’t an easy position to assume.
“My bias is not to see any new carbon emissions,” he says, noting that he is “known as the environmental councilman.” “But it may be that we have to balance environmental justice with economic justice, so we can continue to deliver affordable and available electricity to a primarily low-income customer base.”
The Plain Dealer predictably editorialized about all the negative aspects of the plan but sided with the status quo anyway. Since “coal remains King,” it stated, it can’t matter that the contract favors the bill collector and that the future of the coal market is certainly uncertain. “How quickly [new regulations] get built into law may help determine 20 years hence whether CPP is making a wise investment in 2007. For now, however, the AMP-Ohio deal seems the smartest approach for CPP’s customers and for the city.”
So they’re sure it makes financial sense today; tomorrow’s problems are for the kiddies to haggle over. But they might be wrong about even that.