WASHINGTON (CNS) — About the time in June that the Environmental Protection Agency introduced a plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, Martha Huckabay and her neighbors in St. Rose, Louisiana, began to smell a foul odor from a chemical storage facility near their home.
Huckabay did not know about the EPA’s Clean Power Plan then, but she said she soon came to realize that clean air was a right that everyone deserved.
These days, Huckabay, her family and hundreds of her neighbors belong to St. Rose Community One Voice an environmental justice organization they quickly organized to advocate for round-the-clock air quality testing and iron-clad pollution regulations that protect the health and well-being of residents.
“We got organized because we were all coming down sick,” Huckabay told Catholic News Service. “We want them to stop polluting the air.”
The foul odor that continued for days caused illnesses in 84 percent of the residents surveyed by Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a Catholic Campaign for Human Development-funded environmental justice organization in New Orleans. Huckabay’s 4-year-old son, Dawson, was among the sickest, suffering severe stomach pain and diarrhea for a month. She said his weight dropped from 36 pounds to 30 pounds.
The odor was traced to the International Matex Tank Terminals facility where Shell Chemicals operates an asphalt plant just west of Huckabay’s home in a middle-class community 15 miles from New Orleans. Within days, officials of both companies acknowledged that noxious fumes were released when high-sulphur oil was being processed. Officials at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said the issue has been resolved to their satisfaction.
But members of St. Rose Community One Voice are not satisfied because the fumes, while not as offensive, continue, Huckabay told about two dozen representatives of Catholic organizations meeting Oct. 20 at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ headquarters in Washington. The representatives gathered for a daylong review of the EPA proposal, which calls for reducing carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
“We want our community to breathe clean air,” she told the group, which included Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. “Our children have a right to breathe clean air.”
The archbishop has twice addressed the need for limits on carbon emissions this year in letters to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Both times he called for a power plant standard that would protect people’s health while slowing climate change. He declined to side with any particular proposal, however.
“The church cares not because we’re environmental specialists, but we look at ourselves, on humanity, and what we want to do is ask, ‘In what (way) does environmental policy affect the human person?’ We’re concerned about the poor, which are the most affected by policy decisions in this area,” Archbishop Wenski told CNS before addressing the conference.
“The other aspect of it is a sense of stewardship and care of creation. We want to help promote the healthy state of the world for future generations,” he said.
The EPA plan specifically takes aim at carbon dioxide, fluorinated gases, nitrous oxide and methane releases. It sets individual goals for states to achieve, allowing each state to establish its own plan to meet the targets.
It also calls for programs to promote energy conservation on the demand side.
The proposal estimates that it will lead to between $55 billion and $93 billion in health and climate benefits in 2030. The costs of the plan are estimated at between $7.3 billion and $8.8 billion.
In addition to the Catholic community, the plan has garnered plenty of interest. More than 1.2 million comments have been received and more than 3,000 people have attended public hearings, the agency reported.
Laura Anderko, associate professor of nursing and health studies at Georgetown University, explained to CNS that the standards were necessary to protect human health, especially among poor people, who are more likely to live near power plants, and to begin to slow climate change.
“The Clean Power Plan, from a health perspective, it doesn’t go far enough, but it certainly is a good start,” Anderko said.
“In the short-term, if we can decrease air pollutants, sulphur dioxide, mercury emissions, we’re going to see a quick reduction in asthma attacks, a quick reduction in heart attacks and reductions in hospital visits, emergency department visits and also premature deaths,” she explained.
Industry groups have charged that the proposal is too costly to implement and that it will cost the economy much needed jobs. They downplayed the EPA projections of the gain in health benefits.
However, Archbishop Wenski told CNS he believes that the need for jobs and the importance of protecting people’s health must be balanced.
“Hopefully, there’s the understanding that the economy is of the service of man and not the opposite,” he said. “Hopefully, policy will seek humane ways of mitigation and the vibrancy of the United States can redirect people to other types of sustainable employment.”
Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, and conference attendee, said the EPA proposal is needed in a world driven by fossil fuel consumption. He also said that in addition to reductions in carbon emissions, Catholics can help reduce energy consumption.
“Each of us must do our part to conserve, to live more simply, to be advocates for the poor and to be protectors of creation, as Pope Francis says,” he said.
Information about the EPA proposal is available online here.