The Bitterness of Coal: How This Dirty Fuel Punishes the Health of Latino Communitites

Dulce ("Candy") Ortiz has committed herself to putting an end to the bitterness that punishes her community, Waukegan, Ill.

This environmental justice activist of Mexican origin has said enough is enough and started to fight for the retirement of the coal-burning plant that for decades has been poisoning the air and water of this mostly Latino community.

"What I want is for the plant to be shut down for good, that it stops poisoning us," says Dulce, a member of a coalition named the Clean Power Lake County, where the plant is located, by the shores of Lake Michigan.

Built in 1923, the plant is one of the country's oldest and dirtiest. It's also the worst local source of toxic mercury and of sulfur dioxide, a basic component of dangerous smog. A 2010 study by the Clean Air Task Force concluded that every year the Waukegan Plant contributes to 570 asthma attacks, 34 premature deaths and 54 heart attacks. Another report by the Environmental Law and Policy Center revealed that the plant's pollution costs Waukegan residents $86 million a year in health costs. Ironically, the power generated by the aging facility is exported to other states, leaving Waukegan only with its toxic legacy.

"I just want a healthy future for my son, who thank God does not have asthma, and I don't want him to be like my mother, who does have asthma," says Dulce. One of every six Waukegan residents suffers from this illness.

This toxic bombardment not only comes from the air but also from the water. The Waukegan Plant has violated clean water regulations several times by dumping heavy metals of great toxicity, such as arsenic, boron, antimony and manganese, which have leaked to the ground water.

Also, each year, the coal plant spews almost 100 pounds of mercury into the environment. Just one gram of mercury can pollute a 20-acre lake. This potent poison is absorbed by fish, and humans get it into our bodies by consuming the fish.

According to a Sierra Club study, 31 percent of Latinos fish regularly, especially in lakes, and 76 percent of them consume what they catch and share it with their families. Because fishing is very popular in Lake County, these percentages could be much higher.

Unknowingly, these anglers could be putting their families and themselves in danger because mercury is a neurotoxin that can cause severe damage in the brain development of the fetus and young children. In high concentrations, it can cause mental retardation and even death.

"Midwestern Generation [the plant's owner] told us they will build a park for our children. But what good is a park when our kids cannot go out because of the pollution coming from the plant?" wonders Dulce.

This bitterness in Dulce's community repeats itself throughout the country. According to the EPA, more than half of all the water pollution generated in the U.S. comes from coal-burning plants. And four out of five of these plants have no legal limits in the amount of pollutants they can dump in the water.

That's why the EPA, for the first time ever, has proposed water-quality standards for coal-burning plants that will force these polluting facilities to clean up their mess. If they are finally approved, the days of the Waukegan Plant will be numbered. As it is, Midwestern Generation has already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Big Coal will fight these proposed EPA standards tooth and nail. But if the standards are finalized, for Dulce, it would mean the end of this bitterness called coal-burning pollution.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC