Ash on the Reservation
For years, residents have complained of extremely high cancer and asthma rates, which they associate with the 50-year-old plant and its coal ash dump (a landfill for coal combustion waste). They report seeing clouds of fly ash hanging over the air. They believe the ash – which contains toxic metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and selenium – is damaging their lungs and lowering the area’s life expectancy.
Sadly, their reports don’t surprise me at all. I’ve spent time in a town directly adjacent to a coal ash dump, and these are the exact same stories I heard there, where nearly every home has a cancer victim and a child with asthma.
Not only have I heard their stories – I’ve felt them myself. After a brief afternoon in LaBelle, PA, my eyes itched and burned. My skin developed a strange reddish rash where it had been exposed. My breath got shorter. I didn’t sleep that night because of a severe migraine – the second migraine I’d ever experienced in my life.
It also didn’t surprise me to find out NV Energy has been falsifying their pollution reports without punishment (punishment? They’re expanding!) It’s terrible – it’s criminal, even – but it’s happening everywhere.
No, what surprised me was finding out how commonly we place power plants near reservations.
11% of all power plants are located 20 miles from tribal land, affecting roughly 48 tribes on 50 reservations. Yet only a small portion of the nation’s 2% Native American population lives on reservations. These numbers are incredibly disproportionate.
Native American opinions on coal plants and energy policy vary. However, some communities are seeking local control over their energy options. In the past, these crucial decisions have been determined by a federal agency: the Bureau of Indian Affairs within the US Department of the Interior.
I’m all for giving our native brothers and sisters the authority they seek. Frankly, any town affected by coal waste should get a say in how that waste is regulated, let alone make decisions about new projects.
The laws are meant to protect the nation’s most vulnerable minorities. Yet time after time, energy companies place the burden of their toxic waste on poor communities with impunity.
Of all those communities, it’s perhaps most painful to seem them pollute Native American reservations, where a people whose land has already been desecrated continue to fight, hundreds of years later, for the chance to live.
(Photo credit: Aerial photograph of the Nevada Power Company’s Reid Gardner Generating Station near Moapa, Nevada, USA. / Bobak Ha’Eri)