Guest Commentary

There is foul air outside my window—and the windows of many Southwestern Native Americans

I think it's fair to say that most of the Washington, D.C., politicians attacking clean-air safeguards don't have the same view out their front windows as the families in my small community of 300 people.

We look out on four polluting smokestacks, a small mountain of coal ash and seeping wastewater ponds. All are part of the Reid Gardner coal-burning power plant that was built in 1965, just a few hundred yards from our homes on the Moapa River Indian Reservation in southeastern Nevada.

Because coal-burning power plants operate largely out of the sight of most Americans, worries about coal pollution might seem remote. But the soot, nitrogen, sulfur and carbon pollution coming from these plants lands not just on our heads (and inside our lungs); it gets carried across the West by the wind.

My neighbors and I feel coal pollution up close. Our children and elders suffer from asthma and other respiratory ailments, and that makes the issue immediate and personal. Emissions from coal plants have been linked to lung disease, premature death, heart disease and asthma, according to the Harvard Medical School.

"If you really want to know what it feels like, try breathing for a minute through a straw," pulmonologist Dr. Mark R. Windt recently told the National Journal, describing what happens when human lungs are exposed to the nitrogen and particulate pollution from burning coal. "The actual lung structure changes. It makes it difficult for oxygen to pass through and get to the blood."

Our children are losing more than their health because of the power plants; they're losing their culture, too. We used to hunt ducks and geese on our land—but no longer. The birds land in the coal wastewater ponds. We used to harvest medicinal plants, but not anymore. The plants have been contaminated over the years by the plant's coal-ash dust, soot and other pollutants. There are too many mornings when our elders can't do a morning walk outside, and too many afternoons when our kids stay indoors because of bad air.

The technology to remove toxic byproducts of burning coal from the air has been available for decades, but the Environmental Protection Agency has only recently begun to require its use on older coal plants. Now that long-overdue protections are finally moving forward, however, the fossil-fuel industry and its political allies in Washington are responding with scare tactics. They say that tighter pollution controls threaten the American economy, and they are lobbying hard to eliminate pollution safeguards altogether.

Almost lost in the smog is the fact that there are enormous economic benefits to cutting coal pollution. The Southwest is home to four aging coal plants—Reid Gardner, Navajo Generating Station, Four Corners Power Plant and San Juan Generating Station—and the asthma attacks, heart attacks, premature deaths and hospital visits caused or intensified by their pollution add up to more than $750 million a year. These high health costs get passed on to the public, according to the national Clean Air Task Force. Preventing these health impacts over 10 years would save more than $7.5 billion.

Cutting haze at the Grand Canyon could also help ensure the continuation of the tourism that generates more than $680 million a year for the regional economy and provides 12,000 jobs, according to Northern Arizona University.

Although an eventual transition from coal to clean energy is the best solution, old coal plants like the 46-year-old power plant on our doorstep need to install effective pollution controls without delay. Yet the EPA indicates that it may sign off on a plan for Reid Gardner that sets air pollution limits four times weaker than what's been required elsewhere—and not nearly what industry-standard technology can deliver.

My community may suffer more because we live near a coal-fired power plant, but every community deserves to breathe clean and healthy air. Air-quality and public-health safeguards should not depend on political winds driven by those who never have to inhale the pollution they authorize.

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