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Multiple hazards for health and environment

In1982, one of our community services in California was visiting orphanages. In one orphanage, we met a boy named Bryan, from the Navajo-Hopi tribes, who was particularly attached to us. He would cry whenever we left the facility. After a number of visits, we learned that the US Social Services had picked him up from a tiny apartment, where his mother lay dead. She was only 28.

Bryan’s mother, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all workers of the Black Mesa coal mine in Navajo Nation, Arizona. They all died of coal-related diseases.

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In 2010, 35 years after I first met Bryan, I joined the Feast of the Forest in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. It is an annual reforestation project where residents of Puerto Princesa as well as national and international guests flock to the city to plant thousands of different tree species in denuded forest zones. More than two million trees have been planted to date, making Puerto Princesa the first city in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia to be declared “carbon-neutral” and “carbon-negative” using the international guidelines set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

That same day of the Feast of the Forest, I was asked to help organize a livelihood program at the city’s environmental estate using organic farming methods. I immediately wrote to a few friends in the United States asking for donations of organic seeds for the project.

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We decided that the town of Aborlan, with its rich biodiversity, was perfect for our sustainable development projects: organic farming, assisting indigenous communities to achieve food sovereignty by increasing local and diversified food access and nutrition, and empowering people in the documentation and protection of their traditional knowledge and habitat. Eighteen percent of Aborlan’s population is composed of cultural minority groups such as the Tagbanua, Palawano, Batak and Molbog.

But now the provincial government has endorsed the construction of a coal-fed power generation plant in Aborlan. Even without the proposed coal plant, the community’s major health challenge is lung disease. The planned coal facility is seen to increase the incidence of serious lung ailments such as chronic pulmonary obstructive disease, fibrosis, and lung cancer. As well, it is expected that there will also be an increase in cases of prostate and breast cancer, heart disease, hormone disorders, generalized premature deaths, strokes, type 2 diabetes, and clinical depression because of pollutants from coal such as heavy metals, dioxins, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and even radioactive matter.

High levels of these pollutants have been linked to infant deaths, birth defects, reduction in IQ, negative classroom behavior, juvenile delinquency and increased violent behavior in children. We cannot expose our communities and children to such grave risks.

What can be the possible reason behind the proposed coal plant? It can’t be the development and progress of Aborlan. Is it greed? Palawan has numerous alternative renewable energy resources: hydro, biomass, geothermal, solar, and abundant natural gas. We can achieve progress and development in Aborlan and other parts of the country without destroying our environment, poisoning our children, and getting us all sick.

Coal-fired power plants are a thing of the past, and are being phased out in countries such as the United States. Last September, US President Barack Obama declared war on coal in his country. The US government is now using its influence to block new coal-fired power plants worldwide. Furthermore, the World Bank has announced that it will no longer provide financial support for new coal-fed power-generation projects.

“Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment,” says Dr. Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical School. “Accounting for the true cost of coal conservatively doubles or triples the price of electricity from coal per kilowatt hour generated, making wind and other forms of non-fossil fuel power generation economically competitive.”

Coal contributes massively to climate change. Because we are never going to have as much money as the fossil fuel industry, we need to rebuild the kind of mass opposition that marked the 1970s: Bodies, passion, and creativity are the currencies we can compete in. With the combined forces of labor, faith communities, academe, environmentalists and frontline communities who have the longest experience in trying to shut down dirty power plants, we can develop leaders around the country and build a strong base of allies.

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There is no other way; we have to win this. The science of climate change grows darker by the day, and the window for effective action is swiftly closing. But any chance we have requires people power to replace corrupt political and corporate power.

The proposed coal plant to be constructed in Aborlan threatens the health, public safety and economic vitality of our communities. We must all add our voices to the thousands of others opposing it and calling for the closure of all coal plants in the Philippines before it is too late.

We can do better. Our children deserve better.

Christine E.V. Gonzalez ([email protected]) is a doctor of naturopathic medicine and holds PhDs in holistic nutrition and natural medicine.

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TAGS: California, environment, Feast of the Forest, health, Navajo-Hopi tribes, Orphanage, palawan, Puerto Princesa
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