I will always remember the summer of 2011 in Washington, DC, as the hottest days of my life. The heat on July 21 was particularly scorching. The heat index hit 119 degrees, the highest in the country at the epicenter of a heat wave that took the lives of dozens of people.
But for those involved in the fight against climate change, that day also brought us all a wonderful breath of fresh, cool air. Santa Claus wore his green tie and in the middle of July left us a historic gift that will bring down a great many number of polluting chimneys.
Michael R. Bloomberg, businessman, environmentalist and Mayor of New York City, joined the chorus of voices calling to replace coal with clean energy, and Bloomberg Philanthropies pledged $50 million to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.
"If we are going to get serious about reducing our carbon footprint in the United States, we have to get serious about coal. Ending coal power production is the right thing to do, because while it may seem to be an inexpensive energy source the impact on our environment and the impact on public health is significant," said Bloomberg with one of the country's dirties coal-fired plants in the background. "Coal is a self-inflicted public health risk, polluting the air we breathe, adding mercury to our water, and the leading cause of climate disruption."
This historic grant has a special meaning for those who suffer the consequences of coal pollution the most -- communities of color, such as us, Hispanics.
According to a recent study by the NAACP, Chicago's Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and other environmental justice groups, more than eight million people live within three miles of one of the country's roughly 500 coal-fired plants, and of those, three million are members of minorities.
Even worse, more than half of the five million people who live close to the 90 most polluting plants are members of minorities.
And one of the 12 worst, the River Rouge Power Plant in Detroit, spews its poisons across the river from the city's only Latino barrio, known as Mexican Town. The study says this plant alone causes 44 premature deaths and hundreds of asthma attacks each year.
Coal is sold as a cheap fuel, but what Big Coal does not include in its price tag are the devastating hidden costs this dirty fuel inflicts on all of us. Each year, these plants cause thousands of premature deaths, hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks and $100 billion in health costs.
That's why the Bloomberg grant could not have arrived at a better moment. It acknowledges Washington's inaction against this social crisis and the extraordinary achievements of the Beyond Coal Campaign.
The Beyond Coal Campaign started in 2002 as a three-person initiative with a minimal budget. Today, its accomplishments include the following:
- Stopping 153 new coal-fired power plants from being built, preserving market space for clean energy.
- Slating nearly 10 percent of the current coal fleet for retirement.
- Preventing the emission of billions of tons of pollution and climate change gases.
- And mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people in support of strong clean air and water protections.
In this Christmas in the summertime, Bloomberg has planted a seed of hope that promises that Big Coal's days are numbered.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_sc.