News today inspires this week's song. A campaign already targeting LA's utility for its reliance on coal power has gotten a $50 million boost from Bloomberg Philanthropy for its national work. The Sierra Club says it will use the money to double the number of organizers it has for its Beyond Coal campaign, place people in 45 states, and aim for a hard-to-reach target: the group wants to shut down a third of the country's older coal plants by 2020.
In the Sierra Club's announcement, former NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: "If we are going to get serious about reducing our carbon footprint in the United States, we have to get serious about coal. Ending coal power production is the right thing to do, because, while it may seem to be an inexpensive energy source, the impact on our environment and the impact on public health is significant," said Bloomberg. "Coal is a self-inflicted public health risk, polluting the air we breathe, adding mercury to our water, and the leading cause of climate disruption."
Today's song of the week is by Hazel Dickens. It's called "Black Lung."
Hazel Dickens died back in April, just this year, at the age of 75. Her song Black Lung was written for her older brother, who died of that disease. Her voice, especially a cappella, is haunting and forceful as she sings:
He went to the bossman but he closed the door.
Oh, it seems you’re not wanted when you’re sick and you’re poor.
You’re not even covered in their medical plan
And your life depends on the favors of man.
Down in the poor house on starvation’s plan,
Where pride is a stranger and doomed is a man,
His soul full of coal dust till his body’s decayed,
And everyone but black lung’s done turned him away.
When she performed that song in the seventies and eighties, coal occupied a slightly different place in our national imagination. The health hazards were underpublicized, less well understood, and unaddressed. That's changed: and so has the attitude of coal power users.
About two years ago, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, with then DWP chief David Nahai alongside him, announced as his second term began that LA would wean itself from coal power by 2020. It was a bold policy direction for LA and its influential utility.
Almost immediately the Intermountain Power Plant cancelled plans for an expansion. John White with CEERT told the NY Times that cancellation at IPP "reflects a changing need of power customers, increasing awareness of the dirty footprint associated with coal, and a strong desire to pursue a new, cleaner direction." Sierra Club touted it as the 100th coal plant not to get built since 2001. Nahai resigned. David Freeman and Austin Beutner came in and out and in and out. Now the DWP's led by Ron Nichols. Coal power accounts for about 45% of American power. It's less than that in Los Angeles, but more than a lot of places. The policy pronouncement that Mayor Villaraigosa made as his second term began is now something less than an aspirational statement; city officials would just as soon forget it happened. But with Sierra Club juiced up by $50 million, and Greenpeace at its side organizing its members, environmental groups don't seem likely to drop the issue any time soon as the rate hike discussion continues.