Mary Anne Hitt is director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, which is working to eliminate coal pollution, stop climate disruption and repower the nation with clean energy.
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As people in North and South Carolina continue to confront flooding and other massive damage from Hurricane Florence, it's heartbreaking to watch them have to deal with yet another hazard: the toxic coal ash leaked from coal ash ponds and landfills in the region. Even more infuriating is the denial coming from the company responsible for that pollution in the first place—Duke Energy in North Carolina.
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Lately, I've been finding strength in the things I'm thankful for and I wanted to share some of those with you for the Thanksgiving weekend. Many of us are carrying sadness, worry and fear in our hearts in the wake of the election, and some are dreading political talk around the Thanksgiving table.
If you need help with those tense holiday dinner table conversations, check out this great blog of practical tips from my Sierra Club colleagues. And if you need help for your weary spirit, I offer these five things I'm thankful for this season that give me hope for the next four years and beyond:
1. Courageous grassroots leaders are standing strong.
From the water protectors fighting to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline to the community leaders standing up to super polluter coal plants in the heartland, I'm so grateful for the ordinary people who are stepping up to lead the fight for justice and our future.
David can beat Goliath. I've seen it happen hundreds of times as director of the Beyond Coal Campaign, as I've stood with grassroots leaders who have won campaigns to retire 243 polluting coal-fired power plants. If there's one thing I've learned over the past decade, it's that people power can overcome impossible odds to win. It's also what will keep us moving forward over the next four years.
2. Climate pollution keeps falling—and we aren't going backwards.
Donald Trump may have vowed to try and dismantle our climate policies, including the Clean Power Plan, but he can't stop our progress in reducing climate pollution. As Politico reported on Nov. 18, the U.S. is already on track to meet the carbon reduction goals of the Clean Power Plan before it has even gone into effect—that's the policy to reduce climate pollution from power plants that was the centerpiece of the U.S. climate commitment in Paris (an agreement that 71 percent of Americans support, it turns out).
The Clean Power Plan is important and we'll fight to defend it. But no matter what happens, we can meet its climate targets. We'll make that progress by phasing out coal and ramping up renewable energy, which was the number one new source of electricity in the U.S. last year. Those trends aren't going backwards—and neither are we.
3. Coal can't stop clean energy.
Donald Trump may have promised to bring back the coal industry, but as many news outlets have reported, that was an empty campaign promise he won't be able to deliver. The industry will have friends in high places, but they won't be able to stop the market forces and grassroots pressure working against coal. Here's exhibit A—less than two weeks after the election, Baltimore's C.P. Crane coal plant became the 243rd U.S. coal plant to announce retirement after 55 years of operating in an urban area without scrubbers, contributing to lots of asthma attacks and other health problems.
Thanks to a decade plus of advocacy that included stopping 184 proposed coal plants, here's the reality on the ground—we aren't building any new coal plants in the U.S., almost half of existing U.S. coal plants have announced retirement, more retirements will follow as the remaining plants get older every day, and renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels in many parts of the U.S., for the first time in history. Plus, we've created almost 250,000 new solar and wind jobs in the process. These are deep structural changes in how we power America that Donald Trump can't reverse.
4. The fight for justice and our planet are interconnected.
One thing the 2016 election has laid bare is that our work for justice and sustainability are inextricably connected. If we try and address climate change, pollution and land protection without addressing inequality, racism and injustice, we will always end up taking one step forward and two steps back.
I'm thankful that my fellow environmental advocates are increasingly making these connections, which have long been at the heart of the environmental justice movement and that Sierra Club will be standing alongside diverse partners—advocates for women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, the LGBTQ community and working Americans—in the fight for our future. That includes working to diversify the economy in coal communities and bringing real progress, rather than empty promises, to the places that powered our country for the past century, like my home state of West Virginia.
5. States, cities and communities will keep driving our energy future.
The decisions about where U.S. electricity comes from are made largely in states and cities, not in Washington, DC. From utility commissions to state houses to city councils, these local venues have the final word on how much coal, gas and clean energy we use. These are also the places where the Sierra Club and our allies have built strength for two decades and that's where we will double down.
Of course we'll be defending against attacks in Washington, DC on our clean air, water and climate protections, with everything we've got. But we'll also be pushing cities to commit to 100 percent clean energy, campaigning for a clean energy transition in every possible local venue and looking to the states for leadership—and I'm sure we'll find it there.
More than anything, I'm thankful for my family and friends, for this beautiful planet that sustains us all, and for the opportunity I have, every day, to be a force for good in this world and build a better future for my six-year-old daughter. Take heart, my friends. We are all in this together. And we have so much to be thankful for, it turns out. Happy Thanksgiving.
This is big—for our climate, for clean air and water, for our future. It's also big because the U.S. government is honoring its treaty obligations. After a five-year struggle that engaged hundreds of thousands of people, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a landmark decision Monday to deny federal permits for the biggest proposed coal export terminal in North America—the SSA Marine's proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, a coal export facility at Xwe'chi'eXen (also known as Cherry Point), Washington.
In January 2015, the Lummi Nation asked the Army Corps to reject the project because it would violate U.S. treaty obligations to project the tribe's fisheries and ancestral lands. This is a huge win for the Lummi Nation and its Northwest community allies over the coal companies.
The Army Corps made the right choice and did its duty by upholding treaty rights and honoring the U.S. government's commitment to those treaties. Time and again, Pacific International Terminals has shown disregard for the Lummi Nation and its allies, who have for years voiced concerns about the project's public health, economic and environmental impacts.
I have had the great honor of joining tribal leaders in the Northwest and the Power Past Coal coalition over the many years of this struggle. The Sierra Club is proud and honored to stand in solidarity with these Tribal Nations and community partners in the fight against coal exports in the Pacific Northwest. I've been inspired and electrified by the hundreds of thousands of activists across the region who have spoken out at public hearings, written letters, submitted comments and rallied for clean energy instead of coal exports.
It's encouraging to see this fossil fuel project that poses great risks and harm to communities, the environment and local economies, receiving the thorough scrutiny it deserves. Northwest families deserve and will accept nothing less than this kind of leadership that protects our health, safety, local economy and climate.
This decision comes on the heels of the recent bankruptcy of Peabody Coal and the news last week that the U.S. crossed the milestone of 100,000 megawatts of coal plant retirements since 2010. Peabody was banking on this project as a major customer for its coal and this announcement deals another blow to promises by coal executives that they have a revival on the horizon—claims that we recently challenged in this open letter to the coal industry and industry analysts.
This is a historic win, but there is a lot more work to do. We will continue to fight until our communities are no longer threatened by these dangerous coal export proposals. Specifically, we will maintain our opposition to this project as long as the developers continue pursuing it and we will leave no stone unturned in our opposition to Millennium Bulk Logistics in Longview, which will have public hearings and a comment period this month and the Fraser Surrey project in British Columbia.
We will continue to fight Arch Coal, Cloud Peak, Peabody Energy and other coal companies that would jeopardize our health, safety, local economies and natural resources—like Lighthouse Resources', Millennium Bulk Terminals, which wants to force a coal export facility into Longview.
These dirty and dangerous projects will not move forward and we will strive to pursue pathways for justice for all communities as justice was upheld today.
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This week, a giant that had been teetering for many months finally fell, as Peabody Coal officially declared bankruptcy. For market watchers around the globe, this was a decisive movement in the long decline of an industry that once seemed invincible—the New York Times called it "Wall Street's retreat from King Coal." For those of us who live and work in Appalachia, this is the IMAX version of a movie we've seen many times before, one where coal company executives take the money and run, attempting to leave communities and taxpayers holding the bag for ruined communities, workers, mountains and rivers.
This time, we can't let them get away with it. There's way too much at stake.
The transition away from polluting coal to clean energy is essential to protecting the health of our communities and our climate and the Peabody bankruptcy is one of the clearest signs that there's no reversing that trend. Thanks to to the grassroots leaders who stopped the construction of 184 coal plants, secured the retirement of one-third of U.S. coal plants (232 and counting) and secured enough clean, renewable energy to replace that coal, the U.S. energy landscape has changed in a profound, irreversible way. Coal was providing half of U.S. electricity just five years ago and in 2015 that dropped to a historic low of 34 percent.
Let's be clear—with 300 U.S. coal plants still chugging along, thousands of Americans still suffering health problems from coal pollution and a climate on the brink of collapse, this transition is far from over. But it is underway, with a lot more work ahead of us. And as we make this shift, we can't leave behind the communities and families that have long relied on the coal industry.
That's why the Beyond Coal Campaign has always pushed for policies that will help transition coal communities to new economic opportunities and pressed lawmakers to fully fund initiatives that shore up coal workers' livelihoods as they move to new jobs. These initiatives also include guaranteeing that coal workers receive the healthcare and pension benefits they've earned.
So when the news hit this week that Peabody Energy declared bankruptcy, we joined a chorus of groups calling for the company to not do as so many others have—use the bankruptcy to shed their responsibilities to their workers, retirees and the lands near their old mines.
Peabody, once regarded as a titan in the American energy industry, is just the latest in a string of at least 50 coal industry bankruptcies since 2012. Just two months ago Arch Coal, the nation's second largest coal producer, filed for Chapter 11 protection; and Alpha Natural Resources, the fourth largest coal producer in the U.S., declared itself insolvent last August.
Peabody has more than $2 billion in mine cleanup liabilities, nearly $1.5 billion of which are unfunded, including nearly $900 million in Wyoming alone. This puts the company in a difficult financial situation, which understandably makes us nervous that it will bail on coal communities to satisfy its executives and creditors. It doesn't help that Peabody has a history of spinning off its responsibilities into smaller companies that seem like they are built to fail; leaving taxpayers holding the bag. Exhibit A is Patriot Coal, a subsidiary company that Peabody spun off to dump many of its Appalachian commitments—including mountaintop removal sites and worker pensions. When Patriot predictably failed, Peabody was nowhere to be found.
We can't let this happen again. Peabody needs to step up and take care of the communities responsible for its past success by guaranteeing that it will fulfill its obligations while sorts through its bankruptcy. Peabody isn't the only institution that needs to do the right thing, however. Coal communities across the country need Congress to step up as well.
The federal representatives of coal communities need to push Congress to invest in economic redevelopment and diversification, help shore up health care and pension plans for coal workers and their families, and ensure toxic mining sites are cleaned up and reclaimed. Fortunately, there are strong plans on the table—specifically the Obama Administration's Power+ Plan, which aims to provide billions of dollars to revitalize coal communities and Congress Hal Rogers' bipartisan RECLAIM Act, which will put $200 million a year for five years into land reclamation and economic redevelopment in areas struggling due to coal's decline.
Though these policies are a good start, nothing near the scale of what is needed has been enacted yet. We must push forward with more effort and more funding to guarantee that these communities aren't left behind in our growing clean energy economy. Peabody's bankruptcy underscores the urgency of making these plans a reality. It's time to stand and fight for a thriving, sustainable, prosperous future—together. Join us.
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We just got some great news for clean energy—today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) decided to participate in the Clean Line transmission project, which will bring a game-changing amount of low-cost, high-quality wind from Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle to the Southeastern U.S. Because I grew up in Tennessee, I'm especially excited to see this big step forward for a project that is poised to bring a massive amount of clean, renewable wind energy into the South.
The Clean Line will deliver more than 4,000 megawatts of affordable wind power to more than 1.5 million homes and businesses in Tennessee, Arkansas and other Southern states. It will be one the biggest leaps forward for clean energy in the country, and it will deliver all kinds of benefits, from creating jobs, to sparking innovation and economic development, to helping ensure the U.S. meets the carbon reduction commitment that we made at the Paris climate summit last December.
The decision comes after five years of review by DOE, and means the federal government will step in to help secure the transmission route, if and only if the developer can't reach agreement with a state (Oklahoma and Tennessee have already endorsed the project). It's a decisive step forward for this project, one that we hope will soon be delivering clean power to the Volunteer State and beyond. As Scott Banbury of Sierra Club's Tennessee chapter put it, “this isn't just about a transmission project. It's about the Tennessee Valley modernizing its economy, saving communities and customers millions of dollars in utility bills, and building a prosperous clean energy future."
Here's how one of my Sierra Club colleagues in Arkansas described today's news:
"The Sierra Club is celebrating today's decision, which is a giant step toward bringing clean energy to our state and region," said Glen Hooks, director of the Arkansas Sierra Club. "Putting thousands of megawatts of clean wind energy onto the grid—including 500 megawatts for Arkansas—will undoubtedly lead to less dirty coal and gas being burned for electricity. We are on our way to cleaner air, healthier citizens, and a booming clean energy economy."
The Sierra Club applauds today's decision by DOE. In our race against to clock to avert a climate crisis, save lives from air and water pollution, and scale up clean energy, this project is an important part of the solution.
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Let's make one thing perfectly clear—while the Supreme Court's decision to put a temporary hold on the Clean Power Plan was disappointing, it won't revive the fortunes of the coal industry, slow the transition to clean energy or cripple progress toward meeting the climate commitment the U.S. made in Paris last year.
Tuesday's decision means the Supreme Court is temporarily pausing the Clean Power Plan from going into effect, while the courts consider the merits of the case. As that legal process unfolds, likely into 2017, something else will continue unfolding as well—the steady progress of the Sierra Club and our allies to retire coal plants and replace them with clean energy. As we outlined in a report released late last year, our strategy gives us a pathway to meet our climate targets, even as the Clean Power Plan makes its way through the courts.
Thanks to coal retirements and the rise of clean energy, U.S. carbon emissions are at their lowest level in two decades and are continuing to fall. In 2015, the U.S. got just 34 percent of our electricity from coal, the lowest level in recorded history and experts don't see a reversal of that trend. Since 2010, we've won retirement of 231 coal plants that make up one-third of the U.S. coal fleet and we're just warming up, with the goal of securing retirement of half the U.S. coal fleet no later than 2017.
The momentum behind clean energy keeps growing and this pause of the Clean Power Plan won't slow it down. In 2015 renewable energy—like wind and solar—was our biggest source of new power on the grid, making up 65 percent of all new electricity generation and eclipsing gas for the very first time. As we outlined in that report last year, all this progress has the U.S. already halfway to meeting the 2030 Clean Power Plan carbon reduction requirements, five years before the rule even takes effect.
With grassroots power and market forces on our side, the U.S. will remain on track to meet our Paris commitments in the electric sector, but there is still more the U.S. and Obama Administration must do to avert a climate crisis, including adopting strong standards to reduce methane pollution from all sources in the oil and gas sector.
While the Supreme Court stay is a disappointing development, we are confident that the courts will ultimately uphold the Clean Power Plan, just as they have upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's responsibility to address climate pollution under the Clean Air Act many times before. And in the meantime, we are fortunate to have a proven, resilient, grassroots strategy that ensures we will keep making progress on clean air and water, climate change and clean energy. We're not taking a break—we're stepping on the accelerator.
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The San Francisco Bay might be the last place that comes to mind when you think of dangerous coal projects. But as it turns out, there’s a big coal export proposal in Oakland, intended to ship coal to Asian markets from our nation’s biggest coal reserves, in the Western U.S. And the project is facing massive resistance. Last week hundreds of activists and community leaders gathered in Oakland, California, for a rally against the proposed coal export facility and also for a teach-in about the alignment of the campaign to block coal exports with struggles for social, economic and racial justice.
The San Francisco Bay Sierra Club united with SEIU Local 1021, No Coal in Oakland, Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter for the events. Activists have been working for months to convince the Oakland City Council to block the proposed coal export terminal slated for a former Army base in Oakland. The Oakland City Council had committed to voting on this issue by Dec. 8, but then delayed their vote to February.
Activists gathered at city hall on Tuesday, Dec. 8, to make their voices heard and gather for a community teach-in that brought together a broad intersection of Oakland activists.
“If Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal is allowed to store coal on City of Oakland-owned land, it will greatly impact the lives and lungs of people in the Oakland flatlands, who are the most vulnerable members of our community,” said Margaret Gordon, co-founder of West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. “The developer never proposed coal as a commodity until after agreements were signed with the city. Even now, the developer doesn’t have the funding together to make this terminal a reality without the cooperation of state and local government. The City of Oakland should take the strongest possible stance in opposing the storage of coal at the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal.”
CCIG, the developer of the proposed export facility, promised not to include coal as a commodity handled by the terminal, but is now soliciting a partnership with four Utah counties that could allow the terminal to export up to 10 million tons of coal from their mines each year. A Utah funding body approved $53 million to buy space at Oakland Bulk Terminal for these exports. This deal is being conducted behind the backs of the Oakland City Council and the Port, both of which oppose coal as a commodity for shipping in Oakland. While the Mayor, members of the council and residents have demanded a stop to this backroom deal, the developer has yet to abandon the plans.
Those opposing the plan to export coal through Oakland have voiced concerns over how this decision will affect the community’s safety, the environment and public health.
"Low-income communities of color disproportionately overburdened by pollution are on the front lines of potential train derailment in West and East Oakland,” said Ernesto Arevalo, East Oakland environmental justice and housing advocate. “The transportation of coal is another burden to these communities that are already facing other environmental risks and displacement."
With U.S. coal use in sharp decline, thanks to nationwide grassroots advocacy over the past decade, mining companies are looking to Asian markets as their last hope. But they can only expand coal exports from our nation’s largest reserves—in the Western U.S.—if large new port facilities are opened up on the West Coast. Those proposals have consistently met a massive wall of opposition from local residents and elected officials concerned about clean air and water, public health and climate change.
"We believe it is so important that there be no coal in Oakland because of profound health concerns of residents," said Dominic Ware and Chris Higgenbotham of Black Lives Matter Bay Area in a joint statement. "We've already seen the impacts of gentrification in West Oakland. Now we're being exploited in another way by coal companies who want to pollute our communities."
The community leaders and coalition vowed at the teach-in to keep up the fight against the coal export plan as long as it takes—they are united in their opposition and working together for sustainable opportunities for the area. The speakers explored ways that environmental justice intersects with economic and racial justice. For example, for workers without access to sick days, asthma triggered by air pollution can mean losing their jobs, which in turn can lead to displacement from communities like Oakland that are experiencing an affordable housing crisis.
Here’s one short presentation from International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 in Oakland about their opposition to the coal export plan.
"What does social justice look like?" said Shonda Roberts, activist with Fight for 15. "To me it looks like a livable wage, a clean environment and safe communities. The only way that would be attainable is solidarity."
“The City Council can delay all they like, but we’re not going anywhere,” said Brittany King of the SF Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club. “So much is at stake here, from our global climate to the health of the West Oakland community. This week concerned Oaklanders from many different struggles came together to speak with one voice: We say no to coal exports in Oakland.”
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Seven years ago, I found myself on a two-person airplane flown by Doug Tompkins, as he gave me an aerial tour of one of the protected areas he and his wife Kris had preserved in Chilean Patagonia. I remember the plane being tiny and almost as transparent as Wonder Woman's and I remember it was perhaps the most breathtaking place I'd ever seen.
I'd come to Patagonia to work with Doug and his team on one of his famous coffee table books about environmental issues, this one on mountaintop removal coal mining, Plundering Appalachia. He'd approached me about doing the book after seeing me give a Google Earth virtual flyover of mountaintop removal. Soon after that, I found myself in the wilds of Patagonia, staying with Doug and Kris, enjoying their legendary hospitality, meeting an ever-changing cast of visitors (I was told I'd just miss Julia Roberts and her family by a day) and working long days and nights on the book with Tom Butler, George Wuerthner and Doug.
Doug was involved in selecting and editing every image and word in that book and I got the impression he approached everything that way, a combination of vast, far-reaching vision with precise attention to the smallest detail. He was both a lofty intellectual and a very practical, hands-on maker of things—businesses, national parks, films, coffee table books. While he wasn't afraid of public opinion, he was also very focused on shifting it, hence the books and his large publishing operation at the Foundation for Deep Ecology. And somehow his politics seemed simultaneously radical and pragmatic, not just putting forward grand, seemingly impossible ideas, but actually bringing them to life and making them a reality.
Most importantly though, he fiercely loved this planet and the people who were fighting for it. On my visit to Chile, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouniard was also there—they were in their sixties by then and about to embark on another big climb for the film 180 Degrees South, which retraces Doug and Yvon's now-legendary 1968 journey to Patagonia. Doug lived the slogan that he's credited with developing for North Face—"never stop exploring."
Many of you knew Doug much better than I, but I feel fortunate to have spent a little of my time here on Earth with him. Farewell to one of the greats.
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This week I’m in Paris for events around the international climate summit. It’s an honor to be here at all, but it’s even better to be here representing the powerhouse grassroots movement that’s moving America beyond coal.
Here in Paris, there’s a lot of buzz about coal, which is the number one source of the carbon pollution that’s throwing our planet into chaos, both in the U.S. and internationally. As the New Yorker pointed out this week, everyone knows the coal industry is on the ropes, but we’re still digging up and burning a lot of the stuff. The New York Times reported on a study finding the coal industry is in a permanent decline. Another report released in Paris this week found if all planned coal plants are built around the world, it will truly be game over for the climate. But the good news is that, thanks to clean air safeguards, the transition to a clean energy economy and grassroots activism all around the world, that coal pipeline is going bust.
The bottom line is no matter what path you take to a safe climate, all roads lead to much bigger reductions in coal use as an essential part of the solution. Can we do enough in time to leave a safe world for our kids?
I’m here to answer that question with a resounding yes. Based on a decade of working with one of the most effective and tenacious campaigns in the history of the environmental movement, I know that we can—and will—prevail in the push to clean energy, even in unlikely places. For proof of that, you can look at the 184 new U.S. coal plants stopped by this movement or the 206 plants that have announced retirement since 2010.
But for a more recent example, look no further that Oklahoma, home to Climate-Denier-in-Chief James Inhofe, where we just won an epic round in an epic campaign.
Earlier this year, Michael Grunwald at POLITICO wrote about our work in Oklahoma as part of his feature story on the Beyond Coal Campaign. He profiled a year-long proceeding and trial before the state utility commission, where Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) was seeking to saddle it’s customers with a $1 billion rate increase that included $500 million to retrofit and prop up an aging coal plant.
Well this week, the utility commissioners voted 2-1 to deny the request by OG&E for approval and cost recovery for their so-called "environmental compliance plan." The utility said it was “stunned” by the rejection.
With this vote, OG&E has no approval to move forward with its plan or to raise the rates of Oklahoma families and businesses to pay for propping up the 35-year-old Sooner coal plant. That means we saved ordinary Oklahoma families $500M in rate increases going to an aging coal plant that spends another half billion per year to import coal from Wyoming. It also means we persuaded an elected board of utility commissioners in Oklahoma to reject life extension plans for aging coal plants on the grounds of economic risk. Oklahoma and its neighboring states of Texas, Kansas and Colorado are home to world-class wind energy resources that provide jobs to tens of thousands families and generate zero carbon electricity for millions of homes.
This is a game changing victory and it should send a signal of hope all the way to Paris. It's because of this momentum and our nation's commitment to cut carbon emissions through the Clean Power Plan, that the U.S. is positioned as a leader in the Paris negotiations.
As world leaders debate and discuss the path forward to a safe climate, this grassroots victory is one of many that should give them confidence—the people are leading, the wind is at our back, the economics are on the side of clean energy and even in the most challenging of places, we can win. If we can be bold, so can they. As UN climate envoy Mike Bloomberg and Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune put it in a recent op-ed for CNN, “the decline in coal use ... stems in large measure from citizens demanding cleaner air and action on climate change.”
They’re standing up to protect our climate and also to defend the health of their families. A new study released this week found that coal pollution is one of the most dangerous threats to our hearts. As the Washington Post reported:
"Exposure to emissions from coal-fired power plants over a long period of time is significantly more harmful to the heart than other forms of carbon pollution, a new study says.
"The risk of death from heart disease, including heart attacks, was five times higher for people who breathed pollution from coal emissions over 20 years than for those who were exposed to other types of air pollution, according to the study’s findings. The burning of coal releases fine particles with a potent mix of toxins, including arsenic and selenium."
In fighting for the health of their kids and the future of our planet, these regular Americans are taking on one of the most powerful industries in the history of the planet and winning. We just did it again and we’re just getting started. I’m proud to be carrying that message to Paris and I’m so grateful to every advocate and supporter out there who made it possible.
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