The practice of environmental racism in Maryland is now reaching the legal system. The state is facing a civil rights lawsuit after approving plans to build a fifth power plant in the unincorporated town of Brandywine, a majority-Black town located in Prince George's County that already struggles with problems related to pollution.
"The Maryland agencies that decided that this plant should be built are putting a bunch of pollution sources into a community that's 75 percent black, while whiter communities get cleaner air," said Neil Gormley, the attorney with Earthjustice who filed the complaint. Earthjustice is the country's biggest nonprofit environmental law organization.
Gormley also called the situation "an egregious example of discrimination."
Brandywine is 72.2 percent Black, the U.S. Census reports. Overall, Maryland is only 30 percent Black.
The suit alleges that approving the construction is in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states in part: "No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, … be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
Mattawoman Energy's proposal to build a 990-megawatt plant was approved in November. Two other plants are currently under construction near Brandywine as well. When all three of these projects are completed, there will be three large gas-fired plants — within three miles of one another — in Brandywine's immediate vicinity, and five large fossil fuel-fired total plants within 13 miles.
According to the complaint, the construction echoes a continued pattern of environmental racism in Maryland. The 14 counties that are 15 percent Black or less have a total of just three large fossil fuel-fired power plants. Howard and Montgomery Counties are both geographically and financially similar to Prince George's County, but Howard County has none of those power plants, and Montgomery County only has one.
"But while the population of Prince George's County is 64.5 percent black, the population of Howard County is only 17.5 percent black, and the population of Montgomery County is only 17.2 percent black," the suit notes.
"Prince George's County already has unhealthy air," Gormley said. "It violates national standards for ozone pollution, ground-level ozone, which is well understood to contribute to asthma, other respiratory problems and even premature death."
Black residents in Maryland are already hospitalized for asthma at rates more than twice as high as those of their white and Hispanic counterparts, research finds. And Blacks in Maryland are more than four times as likely as whites to go to the emergency department for asthma and more than three times as likely to go to the hospital for asthma. In addition, Blacks are almost 2.5 times more likely than whites in Maryland to die from asthma.
The complaint is filed against the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC), Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), all of which are recipients of federal funds.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Brandywine TB Coalition and the Patuxent Riverkeeper.
The Brandywine TB Coalition is an organization set on "protecting the environment, improving public health, … and improving overall quality of life." The Patuxent Riverkeeper is a not-for-profit group that fights environmental issues, including unsustainable development. Both groups have members that would be directly affected by the construction of the plant.
The complaint alleges that no one from the PSC, MDE or MDNR denied that the new construction will have negative side effects on Brandywine residents, with PSC even stating that the development of the plant will be "unfortunate for Brandywine."
Fred Tutman, CEO of Patuxent Riverkeeper, said race is absolutely a factor in the construction of the power plant.
"National experience teaches us that projects like high-polluting power plants typically go to areas with the least political power and the most people of color — and also in neighborhoods where the clean air, water and open space are most at risk," he said.
Kamita Gray, president of the Brandywine TB Coalition, said, "We have a fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food."
The situation occurring in Brandywine echoes the water crisis currently happening in Flint, Michigan, a majority-Black city where residents were exposed to lead-contaminated water in their homes for months. The government, which had knowledge of the water not meeting safety standards, did not step in for months, until residents had already ingested the contaminated water. Recently, the United Nations concluded that the crisis would not have happened at all if Flint was "well-off or overwhelmingly white."