By Mary Anne Hitt, Sierra Club
As a critical election season swings into full gear, a new report reveals some fascinating disconnects between how people vote and the safety of the air they breathe. Using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, Dr. Vivian Thomson, a retired University of Virginia professor, and her study team analyzed the difference in health impacts from coal power plant pollution levels now and those in 2007, before two Clean Air Act regulations, the mercury and transport rules (the latter is formally called the Cross State Air Pollution Rule), went into force. Both rules are on a hit list that a coal executive sent to the White House, and the EPA has already drafted a repeal of the mercury rule.
The research team has made their results easy to understand in this excellent story map full of visuals — called “Betraying the Base: The Potential Air Quality Impacts of President Trump’s Coal Advocacy.” In a nutshell, the study found that air quality has improved significantly in areas that are strongholds for Trump, thanks to coal air pollution regulations that his Administration is now aggressively working to repeal.
Trained as both a natural scientist and a political scientist, Thomson says she’s long studied maps of air pollution from power plants and election results maps. Most recently, she was struck by the areas of overlap with areas that have benefited significantly from power plant pollution reductions and those who voted for Trump. “There was a prospect of areas losing the gains these pollution standards had helped them reach,” said Thomson. “We wanted to see who’s got the most to gain and who has the most to lose.”
We have a lot to lose by way of air quality if these particular regulations — the mercury rule and the transport rule — are rolled back, undermined, or if the EPA fails to enforce them.
Looking at coal plant pollution reductions since 2007, the study notes that some of the best gains from those reductions are in counties that voted for Trump. “These are some of the people who stand to lose the most if power plant regulations are undermined in any way,” said Thomson.
The UVA analysis extends across 33 states in the eastern US. According to Thomson, “The gains from lower power plant pollution really cover a large swath of the eastern U.S. We have a lot to lose by way of air quality if these particular regulations — the mercury rule and the transport rule — are rolled back, undermined, or if the EPA fails to enforce them.”
One area that stands to lose the most is central Appalachia, where air quality has improved significantly, and where support for Trump is strong. Another area of concern is a region of the deep South sometimes called the Black Belt. These coal mining areas and communities of color are already burdened by disproportionate levels of public health problems, and those stand to become worse if these air pollution protections are repealed. “I’m worried about Black Belt counties in the South and coal mining communities farther north, who have a lot to lose,” explained Thomson.
“The story map shows the arc of counties from Arkansas to Virginia that are more populated by African-Americans — and those counties are suffering health-wise. Those communities and the coal mining countries in the North show the same kinds of vulnerabilities in terms of health and socio-economic status. Why should we rain more pollution on coal mining counties and Black Belt counties that are already not doing well? How is that fair?”
In her story map Thomson mentions analytical uncertainties, which are inevitable with these kinds of studies. But this first, careful look is certainly stark. As the midterm election nears, this study makes it clear that public health in vulnerable communities is very much on the line. For me and countless others, this shows yet again why we must move beyond coal and fight against all Trump administration attempts to undermine our clean air and water protections. The Beyond Coal campaign fights for everyone, no matter how you vote. We’re all affected by these dangerous Trump rollbacks.