King would have fought coal plants

“Somehow the forces of justice stand on the side of the universe, so that you can’t ultimately trample over God’s children and profit by it.” — Martin Luther King Jr., “The Birth of a New Nation,” April 7, 1957

As a “chaplain of the common good,” I am persuaded that Martin would join in the cry against environmental injustice wherever it seeks to pursue its assault against God’s children.

I believe that he would be crying out against any coal-fired plants, rising anew or already operating, because they spew dangerous pollutants into the air and drain our precious waters. I believe he would be a mighty force in convincing us that coal plants are no longer needed in our beloved Georgia — or anywhere else. He would preach that coal plants represent injustice; that they are trampling over God’s children.

In his final years with us, well before the first Earth Day in 1970, Martin expanded his good work to include the pursuit of environmental justice for all. Environmental justice is the simple truth that rich and poor people of all races have the right to clean air and clean water. Environmental justice examines how corporate greed and government policies unfairly harm minority and disadvantaged communities.

We are all grimly aware that inequality and discrimination remain potent in all walks of life, from job pay to matters of common decency. But too many are unaware of the injustice placed on low-income communities and people of color in rural areas.

Pollution from coal mining and coal-fired power plants cause serious illnesses: asthma and other respiratory afflictions, kidney and heart disease, and cancer. Mercury released by coal fumes enters our lakes and rivers and accumulates in fish, making them dangerous to eat.

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered,” King preached in a 1967 sermon in Atlanta.

In 2002, the Coalition for the People’s Agenda, along with other groups, published “Air of Injustice.” This report detailed how African-Americans are harmed by coal pollutants. It revealed that 68 percent of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant, and noted that new power plants are most likely to be sited in African-American communities.

Already, African-American children are five times more likely to die from asthma than white children. And while coal plants everywhere are being abandoned or readapted for cleaner alternatives, Martin’s beloved native Georgia is taking foolish leaps into its dangerous and destructive past. Georgia has two new coal plants in planning stages (in central Georgia’s Washington County and in the southwest corner of Early County). Still another coal plant is being quietly talked about for Ben Hill County in south-central Georgia.

The “granddaddy” investor behind two of these plants (those for Washington and Ben Hill counties) is Cobb Electric Membership Corp., which chiefly serves Cobb County residents. (Power4Georgians is the actual developer of those two sites and is made up of several EMCs, the largest being Cobb EMC.) This EMC has never put a coal plant in Cobb County itself. But it has no problem placing huge, billion-dollar coal plants in minority communities many miles away. Out of sight, out of mind. That is social and environmental injustice!

We have learned about an investigation by the Cobb district attorney’s office into alleged racketeering, theft and mismanagement by Cobb EMC officials. My hope is that newly elected directors on the Cobb EMC board will pull the plug on all coal investments.

Georgia doesn’t need to be the last irresponsible place on earth choosing coal. As Genesis reminds us, we must all rise to the challenge of thoughtful stewardship of what has been entrusted to us, to care for “the fish of the sea ... the birds of the air ... the cattle, and all creatures upon earth.”

The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery is president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1957, Lowery and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He is the recipient of the 2009 Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.