Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

How Coal Hurts Minorities

A new study finds Wisconsin a leader in environmental racism. But is the state improving?

By - Nov 29th, 2012 10:30 am
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Menomonee Valley Power Plant. Photo Provided by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Menomonee Valley Power Plant. Photo Provided by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Environmentalists have long been beating up on coal as dirty pollutant. But in last 20 years of so, a new twist was added: “environmental racism.” The argument was that toxic waste sites were more likely to be dumped or air and water pollution created in poor and minority neighborhoods.

A new study by the NAACP, “Coal-Blooded: Putting Profits Before People,” argues that coal-powered plants are more likely to be located in poor and minority neighborhoods and it singles out the Menomonee Valley plant operated by We Energies as one of the worst culprits. The company has already announced its plans to convert the plant’s fuel source to gas by 2016, but there are another eight coal-powered plants in Wisconsin which the EPA lists as being “high-priority violators” of the Clean Air Act. That includes the newer Oak Creek power plant run by We Energies, but company spokesperson Brian Manthey says that updated emission controls were installed in the plant this past summer.

The study is in many ways more damning of the Midwest than of the nation. When it comes to coal plants located near poor and minority neighborhoods, 8 of the 12 worst offenders were in the Midwest: Illinois is ranked as the very worst state, with Ohio, Indiana and Michigan not far behind and Wisconsin the fifth worst of the group.

It’s certainly possible for states to get along without coal. The study notes that the ten states least dependent on coal — Connecticut, Oregon, California, South Dakota, Hawaii, Maine, Alaska, Idaho, Rhode Island, and Vermont — produced a combined total of less than 1 percent of the nation’s coal-fired electricity. Many of these are states have great natural beauty, so perhaps they place more value on a clean environment.

The impact of coal emissions on public health is considerable; these pollutants can contribute to heart problems, lung disease, asthma and other respiratory ailments. The National Research Council has calculated that approximately 1,530 excess deaths per year are caused solely by particulate matter pollution from U.S. coal-fired power plants, and that “aggregate damages associated with emissions” from coal-fired facilities in 2005 were approximately $62 billion. The report’s authors note that other studies have calculated figures for total costs and mortality caused by U.S. coal plants that were up to six times higher.

The NAACP study ranks the 75 coal-fired plants in the nation with the worst impact on minorities.  “A total of four million people live within three miles of these 75 failing plants. The average per capita income of these four million people is just $17,500 (or 25% lower than state average), and out of these four million people, nearly 53 percent are people of color,” the report concludes.

Milwaukee’s four-decades-old valley plant has long been a target of criticism from environmental groups like the Sierra Club and by the Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope, which were involved with the Cleaner Valley Coalition. “Thousands signed petitions, hundreds have shown up at public hearings and talked with We Energies and the regulators,” Jennifer Feyerherm of the Sierra Club told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “This is what happens when people use their power together.”

But other factors played a part in We Energies’ decision. Elsewhere, utilities have switched to gas because the advent of hydraulic fracturing has expanded U.S. gas reserves and lowered prices.

We Energies declared it was making the change because it needs to comply with more stringent air pollution rules that take effect by 2019. And that may in turn be credited to the administration of President Barack Obama: in March 2011, the U.S. EPA proposed new standards for the regulation of toxins from coal-and oil-fired power plants, which will require significant reductions in emissions.

The Madison-based Center for Investigative Journalism did a well-reported story on the state’s coal powered plants which found the boilers they used go back to the 1950s, 1940s, even as far back as 1927 at the J.P. Pulliam plant in the Green Bay area. The Columbia Energy Center in Pardeeville, owned by the Madison-based company Alliant, emits the most total particulates and the most mercury.

“Older plants tend to have the fewest pollution controls, and as a result have more emissions per amount of electricity generated,” David MacIntosh, a Harvard University adjunct associate professor of environmental health, told the publication. “That’s one reason, from a public health perspective, why it’s important to focus on these.”

The story noted a 2010 study by the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force which estimated that emissions from Wisconsin power plants cause about 268 deaths, 201 hospital admissions and 456 heart attacks annually.

Former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration promised to study ways to lower emissions at the state’s 15 coal-burning plants at UW campuses, prisons and other state buildings, resulting in the retrofit or shuttering of some of the facilities. But that effort ended under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the story noted.

Alliant and We Energies also own coal-powered plants in other states. The We Energies plant in northern Michigan was ranked as one of the 100 worst in the nation by the NAACP study, but Manthey says the company plans to install updated emission controls at that plant as well. Alliant’s plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, was also rated one of the nation’s worst 100 offenders by the NAACP.

And the American companies running these coal plants typically enjoy high profits and chief executive pay. On average, the NAACP study found, the CEOs at these companies were compensated at 289 times the rate of compensation for their average U.S. employee.

Clarification: The comments from We Energies were not included in an earlier version of the story as I missed an email from Manthey. My apologies.

Short Takes

Marc Eisen did an interesting column for Isthmus arguing that Democrats need a business-friendly progressive in the mold of 1970s governor Pat Lucey. That in turn provoked an attack from some angry lefty Madison blog called “Forward Lookout” which called Eisen a “hack journalist,” apparently because he’s not liberal enough.

Eisen was my boss in the two years I worked for Isthmus in the 1980s and then did some stories for me when I was an editor at Milwaukee Magazine. He’s a respected commentator of long standing with a thorough knowledge of Wisconsin political history. I don’t know if I completely agree with his column; Lucey’s cuts in business taxes made sense back then but its probably not the solution needed now when many corporations pay no taxes. But the central idea that Democrats need to create their own road map to more jobs and economic development is soundly argued. Eisen, I’m sure, would welcome such disagreements, but the screed by Forward Lookout instead offers the worst sort of politically-correct intolerance.

-One economic development platform that should be part of any Democrat’s road map is alternative energy. Gov. Scott Walker has cut back investments in wind energy and solar energy, which create jobs in Wisconsin and protect the environment of a state that depends on tourism. Instead, he is relying more on fossil fuels, which generate jobs elsewhere (for oil and coal-producing states) and pollute a state that advertises itself as a vacation paradise.

-Is Wisconsin still a swing state for presidential elections, given that a Republican hasn’t won here since 1984? The always interesting poll analyst Nate Silver did a story that measures the “elasticity” of states: how likely they are to switch from Republican to Democrat and vice-versa. The District of Columbia is least elastic, with a score of 0.45; New Hampshire is the most elastic, with a score of 1.27. (The national average is 1.00) Wisconsin’s score of 1.10 makes it more elastic than all but 14 states and tied with one (South Dakota, believe it or not.) We’re still a swinger, but not perhaps as much as advertised, as the recent election proved.

Categories: Murphy's Law

26 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: How Coal Hurts Minorities”

  1. ddddd says:

    Really? You focus the headline on coal hurting minorities? It’s an income issue, not a racial issue. If you had changed the phrase from “poor and minority” to “poor or minority” it would make sense, at least in Wisconsin. Aside from the Menomonee Valley plant, just how many minorities live in Pardeeville, Pleasant Prairie, Oak Creek, Weston, Green Bay, Genoa or Alma where the other major coal plants are located?

  2. Brian Manthey says:

    Just to be clear, the Valley plant is currently operating in compliance with all environmental and regulatory rules and permits and our planned conversion will provide a number of benefits to our electric customers, including cost savings. The Oak Creek Power Plant emission numbers cited in the Center for Investigative Journalism are not related to the new units but are actually outdated numbers related to the four previously existing units. As of this summer, we have retrofitted those four units with the latest emission controls. The two new units on the Oak Creek campus were built with the latest emission controls included. Since 2000 the company has increased overall generation capacity by about 50% and reduced overall emissions (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury) by more than 70%. As for the plant in Michigan, we entered a joint agreement with another utility this week and will – if we receive regulatory approval- be installing modern emission control technology at that plant. -Brian Manthey, We Energies

  3. Jesse Hagen says:

    It’s great to hear that WE Energies is finally planning to reduce emissions at the Valley power plant.

    Now, what’s going on with all the polluted, wasted cooling water that is dumped in the river every day? A million fish a year killed might be why there are some water quality issues, not to mention 95 degree water in July.

    This is 2012, no one has any grattitude that their rivers won’t catch on fire. WE Energies needs to do better.

  4. Thanks for all of the baloney, I can make a sandwich.

  5. Bruce Murphy says:

    To dddd: Wisconsin is about 85% white, so a disproportionate impact on minorities would mean it affects more than 15% of minorities in the state and the Valley plant alone probably does that; the Green Bay plant may add to that.

  6. Tom says:

    You should be ashamed of a headline like that.

  7. PoorWhiteFolksArePeopleToo says:

    The only thing racist about this article is that you seem to have forgotten about poor white folks.

    To take issue with the author’s comment, have some confidence in your journalism. The valley plant “probably” negatively affects 15% of minorities? The Green Bay plant “may” add to that?

    What a looney lefty liberal hack.

  8. What about Montana? says:

    Wait a minute.

    Connecticut, Oregon, California, South Dakota, Hawaii, Maine, Alaska, Idaho, Rhode Island, and Vermont are beautiful because their residents don’t like coal and care about the environment.

    What about neighboring states like Washington, Montana, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wyoming, and many others also have “great natural beauty” and presumably do use coal (since they were not on the list). Are they less beautiful?

    What a BS cherry picked crap stat.

  9. Bill Sweeney says:

    Here’s an article that should help put everyone in the holiday spirit:
    McKibben is our modern day Old Testament Prophet who has been warning us about what could happen if we don’t take serious steps to address climate change. Governor Walker might profit by brushing up on his Book of Jeremiah. Maybe he could then see his way toward supporting more wind and solar energy before we inherit the whirlwind. McKibben makes the point that, unlike the practices of particular energy companies, the effects of climate changes can result in disasters that affect people of all classes and races. Instead of bickering about whether or not we all will take a ride down the fiscal waterslide, our elected representatives could be talking about introducing a carbon tax, more mass transit, and other ways to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. And they need look no further during this holiday season than the admirable example of Santa Claus who travels all over the world in a sleigh powered by reindeer.

  10. mewmew says:

    Bill Sweeney

    Please tell me what part YOU take into reducing emissions? Do you walk/bicycle to the store, your job, etc? Take the train to longer distance drives? Ride the bus? Dont tell anyone to do anything unless YOU YOURSELF DOES IT NOW..

    Me, an employeed conservative, that doesnt own a car because I’m not a lazy f.a. and walks everywhere for everything and takes trains and busses for longer distances. I feel we need to reduce dependancy and take care of our environemnt and bodies but I actually do what i think we should do. The govts job is to not tell us how to live, we are a free america.

  11. UncleSamSpoonFeedMe says:

    “Instead of bickering about whether or not we all will take a ride down the fiscal waterslide, our elected representatives could be talking about introducing a carbon tax, more mass transit, and other ways to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

    So instead of talking about getting our fiscal house in order we should create legislation that hurts businesses and destroys jobs, throw more money we don’t have at a government funded system transit system, and waste even more money trying to do something that the private sector will do way more efficiently anyhow (Solyndra anyone?).

    Surely you were rolling over laughing as you tried to type out that sentence, Bill. As the national debt spirals out of control, you say we should stop trying to fix that problem and just spend more money. Man, I wish I lived in the type of fantasy world where money was infinite and fiscal worries were slain by unicorn warriors from the rainbow void.

  12. SweeneyTodd says:


    1) Poor fiscal policy will ruin the country before “Climate Change” will. That is why people are worried about it and no-one talks about the ozone layer anymore.

    2) Why should my tax dollars go towards wind and solar energy? over the past 30+ years, those technologies have proven to be inefficient and thus the market has rejected them. Heck, in the first SimCity the solar plants and windmills were overpriced and underproduced. I don’t see anyone, much less the Governor, profiting from that garbage tech anytime soon. If it was profitable, the investment would flow. The same is true for mass transit and the useless streetcar you probably support.

    3) Santa Claus isn’t real and reindeer can’t fly. What a stupid comment to make given the relevant discourse provided by the rest of the commenters.

  13. I wish that I could slice this baloney thinner so that I could have a sandwich.
    Fact is that temps have been going down the last 16 years. Temps were up quite a bit when the vikings were conquering the known world around 1,000 AD. They spread red hair around the world at that time, ocean levels are the same, I visited their ruins in Newfoundland. Greenland was green with lots of grapes.
    The only Thing that will push up temps again is all the hot air coming the Libs. Temps have gone up and down for millions of years, red history.

  14. FactvsFiction says:

    Bill Sweeney – nice analogy, using a fictional character as a person we should strive to be like. Bill, is your analogy trying to tell us that a world powered on solar and wind energy alone is every bit as fictional as a jolly big man that goes all the way around the world in one night with flying reindeer? If it was, good job! That is pretty accurate… we will see a world run on solar and wind about as fast as we will see reindeer fly. Good job living in reality there, Bill.

  15. Stacy Moss says:

    I look forward to reading just about anything that dumps on We Energies. Whose the “We” here? No me.

    But this study seems bogus. It’s not as if this plant, or any of the old ones for that matter, where built in poor neighborhoods. Poor people moved near these plants. They made a choice. (Yes, poor people make choices too).

    It’s the City we should be talking to about this public health issue, if indeed there is one. 1,500 deaths a year nation wide is a very low (.5%) and vague number . Really? How do they know that? Another study put the figure at 13,000, attributable to small particle pollution. “Attributable” is a tricky word. It means some thinks X caused Y, not that X really caused Y.

    There are 2.5 million deaths in America in 2011. More than 35,000 people kill themselves each year.

    How old where the people who allegedly died from coal? Last time I checked, if you don’t die of one thing you are going to die of another.

  16. Stacy Moss says:

    ps. There has been a lot talk in this comment section on “Baloney” which means “nonsense”. Unlike the sandwich makers in this lot Bruce Murphy makes sense (he uses facts for example). But making sense is not the same as truth. An effective lie has to “make sense.”

  17. D says:

    LOL @ this article. Coal hurts minorities? The Menomonee Valley is a historic industrial area,why wouldn’t a power plant be located there? Let’s shut down Falk too! And the Milorganite plant near the ‘Hispanic area’ as well. Pathetic.

  18. Owned says:

    Looks like Bruce Murphy got owned today!
    Unlike the laws of physics and finance, it looks like **this** Murphy’s Law can be broken!

    mic drop

  19. Bill Sweeney says:


    I commend you for your personal efforts to reduce your carbon footprint. I try to do some things, but I am nowhere near as committed as you are. Let’s hope that others who see your commitment will take steps to follow your example. With regard t0 government: there is no way of getting away from it. We are going to have it and the laws and decisions and policies of the government, (local, state or federal) are going to influence how we live. We are free to the extent that our elected officials respond to and feel accountable to the voices of all the people, not to just those with money and power. When the fossil fuel industry hires lobbyists to influence our elected officials into providing weak or lax regulations with the result that there is more pollution of our air and water, that affects how we live. If our environment is damaged, and our health negatively affected, then we become less free to lead the lives we and our families want to.

    UncleSamSpoonFeedMe (that’s hard to type without spaces)
    Did you read the article by Bill McKibben? Hurricane Sandy sent a message to the effect that the fallout from Climate change has the potential to be much more disastrous to our overall welfare and economy than the national debt. When Clinton left office, the budget was balanced. The Bush tax cuts were unnecessary, based on the “fantasy” of trickle down economics which have been tried and failed over the last 30 years. My larger point is that we cannot improve the economy, or get “our fiscal house in order” without paying some serious attention to climate change.

    1) It is very poor fiscal policy to ignore Climate Change. I believe that an artificial hysteria has been created about fiscal policy. Every income group except for the poor are paying a lesser percentage of income toward taxes than they did 30 years ago. There has been a growing gap in serious income inequality over the last 40 years in favor of less than 1% of the population, the mega rich. Correcting that would go a long way toward getting our fiscal house in order
    2)Why should your tax dollars go towards the fossil fuel industry which is the primary contributor to climate change which is wreaking havoc on the environment you and your fellow citizens inhabit? Our taxes have subsidized and continue to subsidize the fossil fuel industry, highways, corporate agriculture etc.. If we stopped doing that, mass transit and alternative energy might prove to be smarter and better investments.
    3) Since you sign yourself as SweeneyTodd, I assume that you have already butchered your family so they will not have to read or hear your hurtful remarks Santa Claus and Rudolph.

    That was not the purpose of my analogy (is it an analogy?) It was an attempt at levity which at some quarters came back as Return to Sender.

    Stacy Moss
    Poor people do make choices, but as a general rule which I am sure you would agree with, they have far more limited choices than people with more wealth do. With regard to the Valley Plant, there was a lot of testimony at public hearings from doctors and nurses who work in the near north and south sides about the increase in asthma in children and other negative health effects which they believed in part was due to pollution coming from the Valley Plant. I have seen national maps which outline areas of the country where there is concentrated pollution which obviously is found mainly in big urban areas. The Southeast corridor from Waukesha down to Gary Indiana is one of the worst in the country. The concern regarding the Valley plant was the delay in addressing the pollution concerns there when other plants were being upgraded or converted to natural gas. The implication was that the delay was due to it being located near poor neighborhoods.

  20. Jesse Hagen says:

    Nice response Bill Sweeney. As for Murphy getting “owned”, no one really takes anonymous & obviously fake online personas with any gravitas. It’s probably the same riled up person, the echo chamber only works on the gullible.

  21. FactvsFiction says:

    Sweeney – your analysis about economics is very flawed. First, you praised Clinton’s balanced budget. I have a few things to say about that. First, he had the help of a Republican Congress in order to make many necessary reforms, such as welfare reform. 2nd, he had the help of an economy that was being completely revolutionized by the internet. Any President (Bush, Obama, Reagan, Carter, anyone!) would have had an easy time balancing the budget with the huge windfall of tax revenues coming from the thriving economy the internet produced. That leads me to another point – tax revenue itself is more of a product of the underlying economy than the actual tax rates. Tax rates have been historically about 17.7% of GDP and have deviated very little from this regardless of the marginal tax rates. This is because higher rates constrict economic growth, so there is less income/profit to tax, and vice versa with lower rates. This “trickle-down economics” (a liberal phrase) you refer to HAS worked the two times it has been tried in a nontrivial fashion. We had the fastest growing economy in our nation’s history under Reaganomics in the 80’s, and the growth from it was so strong it carried all the way into the late 90’s until the tech bubble burst. Then under Bush when he passed his tax cuts (which were for everyone, not just “the rich), the economy recovered fast and strong (much faster and stronger than out current “recovery”) from the fallout of the tech bubble and 9/11. Obviously the debt crisis and housing bubble reversed those gains, but you would be asinine to believe that crisis was caused by the tax cuts. The underlying cause of the crisis is too long and complex to go into at this moment, but believe me it is much more complicated than the simpleton liberal reason “it’s all Bush’s fault.” If any economic theory has been disproven in the last 30 years (more like last 60 years!) It is the Keynesian top-down approach liberals cling to.

    Also, with regards to climate change, how exactly does dealing with climate change “get our fiscal house in order?” Are you seriously saying that if the earth’s temperatures remain at some level the liberals deem to be precisely where it needs to be that all of a sudden our budgets will be balanced just like that? Wow, take me to your fantasy world where Santa Clause and flying reindeer are real! Anyway, what this whole climate change fiasco comes down to is an excuse to give governments more money and control (precisely the reason for Keynesian economics, too). First of all, we don’t even know for sure if this global warming trend will continue, or what exactly is causing it. Sure, humans contribute to it, but by how much? We know that over the last 30 years sunspot activity has increased dramatically. It has increased so much in fact that scientists fear large sunspots may cause an EMP-like destruction to our satellites and electronic systems. How much control do humans have over sunspot activity? None. And before this sunspot activity heated up, back in the 70’s scientists were worried about global cooling. And all the so-called “solutions” the liberals have come up with for a problem we aren’t even sure we can fix ourselves have a huge negative impact on the economy with only an infinitesimally small impact on temperature trends. Ever hear of a cost/benefit analysis? Basically – you shouldn’t do something if the costs far outweigh the benefits. Eventually, just like the internet revolutionizing our economy in the 90’s, the free market will find a way to alleviate some of the problems we face. The kind of technology we need to reduce our “carbon footprint” won’t come from a government bureau – great things rarely do.

  22. Tom says:

    FactvsFiction — you are right on! I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for the eloquent remarks.

  23. Dave Reid says:

    “Eventually, just like the internet revolutionizing our economy in the 90′s, the free market will find a way to alleviate some of the problems we face. The kind of technology we need to reduce our “carbon footprint” won’t come from a government bureau – great things rarely do.” hmmmm. ISU, DARPA, CERN, AND NCSA.

  24. John says:

    So the only coal fired power plant in WI that is near a minority majority area is in the process of being converted to natural gas. How does this reinforce your hypothesis?

  25. Mike Loew says:

    Am I the only one that thinks Gene Klappa has done a horrible job as CEO of WE Energies and needs to have his pay cut, not increased?
    What a great visionary, let’s bulid a coal plant in the 21st century. And now wants to saddle us with the increased costs!!

  26. Sheepshead player says:

    FactvsFiction, when Clinton left office the US was paying down its debt by running a budget surplus. (A budget surplus is the ONLY way we can pay down the debt.)

    Barely one month into his first term, G W Bush–before a joint session of Congress–explicitly said he wanted to cut taxes for the SPECIFIC purpose of cutting the budget surplus (and implicitly announced that he was opposed to reducing the deficit).

    His exact words on February 27, 2001, were:

    “You see, the growing surplus exists because taxes are too high, and government is charging more than it needs. The people of America have been overcharged, and, on their behalf, I’m here asking for a refund. ”

    When the Republicans had a chance to continue paying down the debt, they instead called it an “overcharge” of the taxpayer and opposed it. That’s why I don’t believe it when Ryan and Co. claim they are worried about the debt.

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