Watching a diverse, powerful coalition of groups in North Omaha, Nebraska, come together against a coal plant has been inspiring in the past few months. Residents are working with the Malcolm X Foundation, the Sierra Club, and many others to call for clean energy and the retirement of Omaha Public Power District's North Omaha coal plant.
They are tired of the health effects that air pollution is having on their neighborhoods. According to the Clean Air Task Force, pollution from burning coal at OPPD’s North Omaha coal-fired power plant is linked to 240 asthma attacks, 22 heart attacks, and 14 premature deaths annually, as well as more than $100 million each year in health and environmental-related costs, which are then passed on to taxpayers. North Omaha is largely an African American population, with an average household income of $17,000 The asthma rate in this community is nearly 20 percent -- more than twice the national average.
The North Omaha coal plant (pictured below) is one of the dirtiest in the nation. Last year, the NAACP ranked it the 16th worst environmental justice offender in the nation (although with recent coal plant closures and retirements, it's now moved into the top ten).
Krystal Craig used to live in the North Omaha neighborhood but was forced to move because of her son's severe asthma.
"It seems to be much better out here," Krystal said of her new neighborhood, away from North Omaha. She wishes the rest of the families in her old neighborhood could breathe easier. "I don't want people to have to pick up and move so their children can be able to breathe."
That's why Krystal and a coalition of groups delivered close to 1,000 petitions to the Omaha Public Power District last week calling for the utility to move beyond coal.
"The pollutants released by burning coal at the North Omaha power plant can be extremely irritating to the throat and to the lungs, which can trigger asthma attacks and contribute to larger health issues," said Cynthia Tiedeman, a retired Omaha Public School District nurse, who spoke at the delivery event.
Cynthia, Krystal, and many North Omaha residents want clean energy for their neighborhood -- and for all of Nebraska. Not only do they know it won't pollute the air or water, but they also recognize the potential clean energy has for generating jobs and boosting the local economy. It's no coincidence that companies like Facebook are choosing Iowa over Nebraska for siting new facilities -- it's at least in part because of Iowa's aggressive wind power development. Just across the river from Omaha in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Google has announced plans to expand an existing data center.
Nebraskans are tired of seeing the economic development go to Iowa -- look at how much money Mid-American Energy is investing in Iowa wind. These big wins for wind energy are possible for Nebraska, but without investment or good energy policies in place, Nebraska sits on the sidelines and watches economic development boom in Iowa.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, Nebraska has the fourth-greatest wind-power potential in the U.S., and it also ranks ninth in solar power potential. The state can do better for public health and the economy by moving beyond coal to clean energy.
We at the Sierra Club are proud to stand with the North Omaha residents in calling for more clean energy instead of more coal and asthma attacks. As Cynthia Tiedeman said, "Kids in North Omaha deserve better than pollution from an outdated coal plant in their backyards."