Five years ago this spring, officials in Chicago announced that two coal-fired power plants responsible for an array of public health problems would shut down sooner than expected. The plants were considered the worst air polluters in the city, responsible for dozens of heart attacks, asthma cases and premature deaths every year. The NAACP rated them as top "environmental justice offenders" among power plants nationwide due to their proximity to low-income families and neighborhoods of color.
Years of grassroots organizing, along with looming costs associated with new pollution standards rolled out under the Obama administration, combined to force the plants out of business. Installing new pollution controls necessary to keep the aging facilities running just wasn't worth the cost to operators.
The improvements to air quality were evident soon after the plants shut down, according to Brian Urbaszewski, the director of environmental health at the Respiratory Health Association in Chicago.
"Less than six months later, the pollution billowing from those smokestacks simply stopped," said Urbaszewski during a press conference on Tuesday. Residents of the nearby Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods were "breathing easier," he added.
On December 9, as the Obama administration rushed to preserve what it could of its climate legacy before Donald Trump's inauguration, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, signed a bipartisan energy reform package. The new law isn't without controversy -- it buoys two aging nuclear power plants in addition to expanding the state's renewable energy portfolio -- but environmental groups say it will reduce Illinois' dependency on coal power, which produces climate-warming air pollution that damages public health. On Tuesday, Urbaszewski and other supporters released a study showing that the reforms are expected to prevent 100 heart attacks and 1,070 asthma attacks in the first year of their implementation.
Trump's Energy Policy Provokes Backlash
Illinois is not alone. Hundreds of clean energy bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year, according to InsideClimate News. Across the country, states and municipalities are setting their own climate goals and hastening transitions to cleaner energy. Some of their efforts stand in stark contrast to those of the Trump administration, which is determined to dismantle Obama-era air pollution standards along with a range of federal efforts to mitigate climate disruption. Others are acts of open defiance.
On Monday, the attorneys general of 11 states notified a federal court that they plan to sue the Trump administration if the Energy Department continues to delay new efficiency standards for appliances such as ceiling fans and commercial boilers that could keep 282 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere over the next three decades. Meanwhile, groups of state governors and mayors of major cities have sent letters to the White House opposing Trump's plans to gut federal climate efforts and have pledged to move forward with their own cleaner energy initiatives.
In California, state regulators are moving forward with new vehicle efficiency standards despite moves by the Trump administration to roll them back nationwide.
As promised, environmental groups are already challenging Trump's energy agenda in court. Last week, environmental and Indigenous groups filed lawsuits to block White House orders lifting coal mining restrictions on federal lands and approving a crucial permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, a potent symbol of the debate over fossil fuels and climate disruption.
Central to Trump's agenda for "energy independence" is undoing President Obama's Clean Power Plan, which is designed in part to wean the country off of energy produced by dirty coal-fired coal plants like the two facilities shuttered in Chicago five years ago. To undo these regulations and a host of others, Trump enlisted Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt worked with polluters to challenge Obama-era environmental regulations, including EPA standards for toxic air pollutants from power plants.
Pruitt is now facing his own backlash. Last month, the Sierra Club petitioned the EPA's Office of Inspector General to investigate whether the agency's new administrator violated its scientific integrity rules by expressing doubt about the link between fossil fuels and climate change in a recent television interview. Environmental groups say Pruitt's statements fly in the face of EPA's scientific findings on the matter, not to mention an international scientific consensus. The Oklahoma Bar Association is also investigating Pruitt for possible ethics violations revealed in thousands of emails between his office in Oklahoma and polluting industries.
Trump Clings to Coal as the Nation Moves On
Coal plants are the nation's top producer of climate-warming carbon dioxide, but that's not the only reason environmentalists want to to curb their emissions. These plants also pose serious dangers to human health, including asthma and heart disease. A new study shows that women living downwind from coal plants are far more likely to give birth to babies with below normal birth weights.
When tougher air standards force coal plants to install pollution controls or shut down altogether, the amount of "particle pollution" in the air is decreased dramatically. Urbaszewski said it would take 30 of these particles to span the width of a human hair, and they are small enough to penetrate into the deepest parts of the lungs and into the bloodstream.
"Many coal plants continue to operate without modern pollution and particle controls," Urbaszewski said, adding that the two plants shut down in Chicago weren't equipped with those controls.
Thanks to the energy reforms in Illinois, reductions in particle pollution alone would prevent thousands of asthma attacks and premature deaths over the next decade, according to Urbaszewski. Reducing the need for coal power will reduce other pollutants as well, including mercury and gases that cause smog.
Obama's Clean Power Plan could yield similar benefits on a national scale if Trump left it alone. The EPA estimates the plan could prevent 3,600 premature deaths and 1,700 heart attacks each year. However, Trump and Pruitt have said little about protecting public health as they prepare to reverse course on curbing air pollution. Instead, the administration claims its agenda will free the industry from "government overreach" and promote "energy independence" by extending the life of a beleaguered coal industry.
On Monday, the White House sent out a news release boasting about an Associated Press headline declaring that Trump is "methodically undoing Obama policies" on climate and other issues, fulfilling many of the president's campaign promises. Trump's energy agenda reflects the longstanding wishes of the fossil fuel industry and may find support in coal-producing states such as West Virginia, where Vice President Mike Pence recently stumped for Trump's policies, but the rest of the country is not on the same page.
A recent Gallup poll found that 59 percent of likely voters say protecting the environment is more important than developing traditional energy sources such as coal and oil, and 71 percent said the US should develop alternative energy sources solve its energy problems. Public investment in solar and wind power also enjoys broad public support. Even energy market analysts expect the coal industry to shrink as businesses shift towards cleaner-burning natural gas and renewables.
"People are thinking about this as an economic-advantage tool," Urbaszewski said of policies promoting alternative energy sources.
The Obama-era environmental and climate policies Trump is proudly undoing were designed to bring the US in line with international efforts to mitigate climate disruption. Trump may start to feel a global backlash next month, when the White House is expected to release its position on the Paris Climate Agreement in preparation for a G7 summit in Italy. In the meantime, it appears that the Trump administration will continue working to dismantle years of progress on air pollution while much of the country moves in the opposite direction.
Correction: This article incorrectly stated that the EPA Office of Inspector General agreed to investigate whether Scott Pruitt's public statements on climate change violated the agency's scientific integrity rules. A spokeswoman for the office told Truthout that the petition is under review but could not confirm that any further action had been taken. On Friday, Reuters reported that the Inspector General's office had referred the matter to the agency's scientific integrity officer.