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SEPTA’s new natural gas plant exemplifies environmental racism | Opinion

Vulnerable communities should not be sacrificed for the good of suburban residents and higher-income Philadelphians.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass opposes the location of SEPTA's natural gas plant.
Councilwoman Cindy Bass opposes the location of SEPTA's natural gas plant.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

"Race is the biggest indicator in the U.S. of whether you live near toxic waste."

That's what a Quartz author concluded after reviewing a 2016 study published in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters. 

The study found "a consistent pattern over a 30-year period of placing hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live."  In Philadelphia, we are facing this fact firsthand in the Nicetown, Germantown and lower East Falls neighborhoods with the impending SEPTA natural gas plant.

SEPTA's defense of the location is that the plant, which will power Regional Rail operations, must be built near those neighborhoods because that is where all of the power for Regional Rail is fed. But it's time for SEPTA to really examine its history so we do not repeat past mistakes. SEPTA must ask itself: Why was the Regional Rail electric grid placed at the Midvale bus depot, which was built in the 1990s during the scope of the Environmental Research Letters study, in the first place?

SEPTA says this natural gas plant will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but I ask, for what populations? Vulnerable communities should not be sacrificed for the good of suburban residents and higher-income Philadelphians. SEPTA is tone deaf; as it moves its entire fleet towards electric, hybrid, and environmentally friendly power sources, its history of neglect of this community and the existing Midvale facility continues.

Environmental racism is real. Environmental health impacts and disparities like asthma, respiratory disease, and brain disease are real. Our residents, our seniors, and our children are suffering.

The Environmental Protection Agency has flagged Nicetown as a neighborhood with some of the highest rates of fine particulate air pollution in the nation. In addition, children living within the 19140 zip code adjacent to the plant have some of the highest rates of asthma hospitalization in Philadelphia. That is without the addition of this natural gas plant.

Soon after SEPTA announced plans to build a natural gas power plant in Nicetown, I repeatedly asked SEPTA to halt the project and perform a health impact study to learn how the particulate matter released by the plant would affect the community. When it did not, I appealed to Air Management Services to not grant SEPTA the necessary air permit to build the facility.

At the time I said, "We just do not know the long-term environmental impact that this type of natural gas plant can have in a residential neighborhood like Nicetown." That point still stands.

The Nicetown neighbors have a fierce brigade of fighters who have been on the front line for years opposing the gas plant on behalf of the health of nearby residents. Neighbors and environmentalists have done their due diligence, reaching out to city agencies and departments, my office, and state elected officials. We are now a mobilized group of elected officials, activists and neighborhood residents joined together to oppose the bull-in-a-China-cabinet approach to building a potentially hazardous facility near lower-income neighborhoods of color.

That Environmental Research Letters study found that minorities and low-income neighborhoods are targeted by hazardous facilities' developers because those communities typically do not have the resources or political pull to mount opposition.

But this time, in the Nicetown and Germantown communities that I serve, they do.

Cindy Bass is the Philadelphia city councilwoman for the Eighth District.