By Wayne Jebian
A little more than a decade ago, the state took on the “Sooty Six,” Connecticut’s dirtiest power plants, and passed legislation that eventually reduced emissions by 86 percent. At the time, it was called “a fantastic victory for public health in Connecticut.” But critics say it has not helped inner-city Latinos and others who are seeing increasing incidents of asthma and other illnesses.
In Hartford, activist Carmen Cordero points to the exhaust from the smokestack of the trash-to-energy plant operated by Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority (CRRA) in the city’s South Meadows. A member of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice she says, “They say they are turning trash into energy, but not only are they burning our trash; they are burning everyone else’s trash and we’re inhaling it,” she said.
More than 60 towns send their trash to this plant for incineration. That number is declining and last year the Connecticut General Assembly passed Public Act 12-2, which prohibits towns from passing laws that say “not in my backyard” to solid waste. State Rep. Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven) is especially concerned about this issue and has been watching it closely. He says, “Our cities are hubs for dumping. We should recycle more of it, There will be another bill this year, and more should be done, because at the end of the day, it is about the health of our constituents in our districts.”
Connecticut has two of the nation’s Top 10 asthma capitals: New Haven, at number two, and Hartford, at number six, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (Bridgeport is not much further down the list at number 15.) This issue is of great concern for Candelaria and other legislators who represent the Latinos and other residents that live in urban centers near highways with their constant exhaust, in the shadows of smokestacks from power plants, on the receiving end of rural and suburban towns’ waste streams, and exposed to higher levels of indoor pollutants.
However, the spokesman for the Hartford trash-to-energy plant says the plant has greatly reduced its emissions over the years, and is well under state and federal legal levels. The emissions charts on its website illustrate this reduction. Regardless, activists like Cordero would like to see the plant closed. Paul Nonnenmacher, director of public affairs at CRRA says that is not going to happen. “I would refer them to the facts. What facts do they present that we’re causing problems? If they don’t have any facts, then they should stop trying to scare people because they are doing it needlessly,” he says, adding that the CRRA has no plans to shut down the plant in the foreseeable future.
Connecticut Children’s Medical Center has an Asthma Fact Page for parents and caregivers concerned about the causes of asthma, ranging from pollen and other outdoor pollutants to cockroaches, mold and a host of indoor factors. CCMC’s page lists “smog” as a cause of asthma, while CRRA’s Asthma Fact Page does not.
However, with so many factors contributing to environmentally-triggered health problems, it is impossible to single out any one culprit according to Dr. Vivian Cross, a commissioner on the CT Advisory Commission on Multicultural Health. She says high concentrations of deteriorating buildings, poorly maintained by landlords, may also go a long way in explaining a great deal about the health disparities between cities and suburbs.
It’s also a pattern that presents itself when looking at levels of lead poisoning in children. In both the cities and suburbs, Connecticut has a high proportion of older housing stock, housing that over the years has been exposed to lead paint. However, “African American and Latino children are disproportionately impacted by lead poisoning,” she said, saying that many city landlords may not be in compliance with federal standards.
But with science unable to provide satisfying answers, Cordero says she finds her facts in the stories and lives of friends and neighbors. “Take a walk through the neighborhood and ask folks how they are feeling,” said Cordero. “Ask them how their mother is doing; how their grandmother is doing. You’ll hear about their asthma. You’ll hear somebody had cancer. Just take a walk through that neighborhood, the neighborhood that’s directly in the path of those toxins.”
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: Asthma Capitals 2012
- Connecticut Association of Directors of Health: Health Equity Initiative
- Connecticut Children’s Medical Center: Asthma Information for Parents and Caregivers
- Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice
- Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority: Emissions Performance page
- Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority: The Facts about Asthma, Your Air and CRRA
- “Sooty Six” Campaign, a History
- WNPR’s “The Air We Breathe” on Where We Live
Photo by Wayne Jebian