By: Suzy Subways
What would you rather see in your neighborhood—an asthma-causing natural gas plant, or solar panels installed for $26/hour by your formerly unemployed neighbors? If Philly’s public transit system and electric utility don’t make the same choices you and I would for our communities, it’s because they don’t really answer to us. But Philadelphians are getting organized to make them listen.
SEPTA’s racist asthma hazard
On March 23, SEPTA’s board authorized the construction of a natural gas plant in Nicetown, a low-income majority-black neighborhood in North Philadelphia. “My children go to school there, and we live there,” one parent testified before the vote. “It’s an already overburdened, polluted area, and we’re just concerned—myself and other parents—about the lack of a health study to show how the pollutants in the air can affect the neighborhood and young, developing lungs.”
The plant’s effect on young lungs is expected to be sickening. Natural gas power plants make ozone smog, which can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and is likely one cause of contributes to asthma flare-ups in children, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. While SEPTA estimated how much the plant will release of some types of pollution that are linked to everything from heart disease to impaired cognitive development in children, it didn’t study the health impacts.
“We definitely heard loud and clear that people did not want the plant in their neighborhood,” says Mitch Chanin, a member of the all-volunteer environmentalist group 350 Philly. “It’ll be next to SEPTA’s largest bus depot, a few blocks from the Roosevelt Expressway. People said, ‘We have enough air pollution.’”
In fact, nearly a third of all children in the 19140 zip code already have asthma, according to the Philadelphia Health Management Corporation. A statement by City Councilmember Cindy Bass said 19140 also has the city’s highest rate of childhood hospitalizations from asthma.
“This is a class war issue—it’s life and death for people,” says activist Ron Lester Whyte, who grew up a few miles from Nicetown. “You don’t go out to the Main Line or Upper Merion and see a natural gas plant in the middle of their neighborhoods. They want their neighborhoods to be clean, with fresh air for their kids. But they don’t care about that when it comes to poor people or Black people or working class people.”
SEPTA claims the plant will help slow climate change, because it’ll mean less reliance on coal-burning power plants. Natural gas does produce less carbon dioxide than coal. But when natural gas is extracted during the “fracking” process, and when it’s transported and used, methane leaks into the air. Harvard University researchers have found that methane leaks are increasing dramatically. And molecule for molecule, methane is a far more powerful cause of climate change than carbon dioxide.
Private industry robs the public
So why is SEPTA building this fracked gas plant? It will power six Regional Rail lines, used mostly by suburban commuters who live far from Nicetown’s smog. But why does SEPTA need its own power plant when it continues to buy electricity through the regional power grid? “SEPTA is saying that because of climate change, there will be more intense storms that will knock out the electricity supply to the trains, and the only solution is to generate their own electricity on site,” Chanin says, adding, “It seems a little perverse to say we need to use more natural gas to address problems caused by climate change.” And he’s skeptical that the plant is necessary to prevent power outages. “We asked SEPTA to conduct a full study that looks at all their options for making the rail system more resilient and reliable in case of power outages, but they refused to do that,” he explained.
To understand why SEPTA is building this plant, we need to look at two other big players in Pennsylvania politics: The Marcellus Shale Coalition and the Greater Philadelphia Energy Action Team.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition is the natural gas drilling industry’s trade group. It lobbies for laws to benefit the industry and pushes the media for positive news coverage of fracking. The Greater Philadelphia Energy Action Team looks for ways to turn Philly into a major “energy hub” for the transportation, storage and use of fracked natural gas and other fossil fuels.
SEPTA Board member Robert D. Fox’s law firm is a member of both of these organizations.
Activists objected to his conflicts of interest—and to the industry dumping its product on Philly’s public institutions to guarantee its own profits. Adams Rackes of Reclaim Philadelphia wrote in an op-ed, “There has been no serious justification for this unnecessary project…. It is a solution in search of a problem, a supply of natural gas desperately seeking demand.”
The fracking industry has had its eye on SEPTA for years. In 2012, when SEPTA bought fuel-efficient hybrid buses instead of buses fueled by natural gas, State Representative Stan Saylor threatened to punish SEPTA by cutting its funding. He was the third most powerful Republican in the House at the time. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that SEPTA officials took the threat seriously: “Believing that Harrisburg’s desire is mainly to increase markets for natural gas, SEPTA offered to explore building a natural-gas powered generator at its Wayne Junction station to produce electricity for its rail system and heat for the station.” And boom. The gas plant in Nicetown was conceived.
SEPTA will be paying for it for at least 20 years. “Their claim is that it’s guaranteed to save them money,” Chanin says. “We think they’re just saying this is cheaper than buying electricity generated at other fossil-fuel fired power plants. They haven’t compared cost projections for natural gas with projections for renewable energy. If you contract to buy wind energy for 20 years, you know exactly what it’ll cost, and there’s no fuel to buy. If natural gas prices spike and SEPTA is locked into a 20-year contract, fares might have to rise, and people might have to be laid off.”
350 Philly, neighborhood residents, and other allies in the Fossil Free SEPTA campaign have been asking Councilmember Bass and Mayor Kenney to stop the plant’s construction. Whatever happens, Fossil Free SEPTA will continue to push SEPTA to switch to renewable energy. SEPTA is actually considering building more gas plants, at 69th Street and near 30th Street Station. Visit 350philly.org to learn more and get involved.
Visions of environmental anti-racism
But what if SEPTA and PECO listened to the people? Instead of fracked gas plants, would we get electric buses built here by Philadelphia workers and powered by the sun and wind? Instead of smoggy coal plants that fuel climate change, would we run our homes on local solar energy?
The Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) and Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER) are calling on PECO to create jobs installing solar panels for local workers in areas with high unemployment. The plan is to boost our region’s use of solar energy so that 20% of PECO’s electricity would be generated using local solar power by 2025.
And it would create jobs in Philly neighborhoods where the loss of factory work over the past few decades has caused deep poverty. “Local solar generates the most jobs of any energy source, by far,” says Greg Holt of EQAT. “They’re good-paying jobs. The average is like $26 an hour, and about half of them don’t need more than a high school diploma.”
A community-based demand for green jobs is one way to fight environmental racism. “We see this campaign as very intersectional,” Holt says. “It addresses a lot of things like local community control, divestment and reinvestment—issues that are of course universal, but also form parts of the Movement for Black Lives policy platform.”
Whyte says the basic structures of society need to change. “For me, environmental racism is part of a larger structure of white supremacy, racism and class war, where society gets benefits from the fossil fuel industry, but all of the negative impacts are pushed onto mostly Black and Brown people, poor people,” he says. “Obviously the answer is clean energy, but so many people are making so much money right now from the status quo, that they don’t want to change it, and they don’t care that the byproduct of the system is killing and hurting Black and Brown people, because the system wasn’t really created for us anyway.”
Environmentalist nonprofits should hire people from impacted communities, he says. “They want to have people at their marches and rallies, but they don’t want to actually bring people into the organization and hire them and have them be actually at the table.”
Whyte is part of the #DumpWells campaign to get Mayor Kenney and City Council to take Philly’s money out of Wells Fargo bank. Wells Fargo is using our dollars to fund the Dakota Access Pipeline, private prisons, and the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, which makes our air unsafe to breathe. If #DumpWells can get the city to ditch Wells Fargo and start its own public bank, we might be on our way to a future in which all Philadelphians could have a say in what our money is used for, what kind of jobs we have access to, and what is in the air we breathe.
Visit EQAT.org/walk for info on EQAT and POWER’s 100-mile walk through PECO’s service area May 8-22, from old energy sites to new, to demand local solar jobs. Join in for an hour at an action along the way, do the whole walk, or ride along in the van!