01/28/2011 03:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Time to Clean Up

Big Coal has redefined the word "cheap" as keeping the profits and passing your true costs onto society.

The domination of this 19th-century fuel in America's energy production is based on extracting an abundant mineral and refusing to pay for its terrible consequences to the rest of society's health and economy.

A new report by the National Academy of Sciences found the national cost of treating health damages from the country's 500 coal-fired power plants to be $62 billion each year.

Another report by Physicians for Social Responsibility tells us that coal pollutants -- such as particulate matter, soot, smog, arsenic and mercury -- can damage all major body organ systems and contribute to four of the five major causes of death in the U.S.

According to the American Lung Association, each year, pollution from coal plants causes 24,000 premature deaths, 21,000 hospitalizations and 38,000 heart attacks.

And for us Hispanics, the consequences are even worse. Eighty percent of us live in the counties with the worst air quality. According to a LULAC study, 39 percent of us live dangerously close to a coal plant. And especially in communities of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, asthma is considered an epidemic.

"It's not fair for our people to have to suffer the consequences of this pollution," says Rose Gómez, a volunteer for the Pilsen Environmental Rights Reformation Organization, a community group fighting two very old coal plants in their South Chicago barrio.

The plants -- called Fisk and Crawford, owned by Midwestern Generation -- are more than 40 years old and claim to be exempt from having to modernize their equipment to reduce their toxic emissions. Each year, according to a Harvard University study, both plants unnecessarily cause 42 deaths, 2,500 asthma attacks and 500 hospitalizations in a community 70 percent Latino.

"These plants have been doing their dirty business for too long," says Gómez. "They have already created too many health problems for too many people."

But the biggest obstacle to end this situation is a stubborn local official, she says. Chicago City Alderman Danny Solís has so far refused to support a city ordinance that would force both plants to cut down their emissions. It turns out Solís has received more campaign contributions from Midwest Generation than anyone else in Chicago.

"It's very sad that a Latino official won't support this ordinance," laments Gómez.

This story has been repeating itself throughout the country for decades. Big Coal's lobbying power has blocked the necessary federal reforms to make this industry pay for the damage it inflicts on our communities.

But Big Coal's days are numbered. While Congress sits on its hands, our communities have said "enough!" Because of grassroots campaigns, such as the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, this industry's future is dim.

Since fall 2008, not one single coal plant has commenced construction. The Environmental Protection Agency has cracked down on new mountaintop removal coal mining operations. And PNC and UBS, mountaintop removal's main financiers, have joined several other banks that have limited their financial support of this destructive mode of extraction.

The only response Big Coal has now is trying to undermine the EPA's power to enact safeguards, something their allies in the new Congress are attempting with special intensity.

But even so, Big Coal's road ahead is all uphill. Thanks to EPA's safeguards, our friends and families avoided 1.7 million asthma attacks and saved $110 billion in health costs in 2010 alone.

Treating the health damage caused by coal pollution is expensive, and the cost of coal's pollution is driving up electricity prices across the country. The solution is for utility companies to invest in clean, renewable sources of energy that end our coal addiction, improve the health of our communities and create millions of clean energy jobs in the sectors of the economy that employ the most Latinos.

"Coal makes us all sick," says Rose. "It's time to move forward because the technology is available to produce cleaner energy."

The idea of coal being dirt cheap is getting blacked out. Time to clean up.

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