A county is divided—along political, employment and environmental justice lines—as it faces an increase in the number of area power plants.

Within the next three years, there will be five large power plants operating within a 15-mile radius of Maryland’s Prince George’s County, according to an article published Friday (July 28) in the Philadelphia Tribune. Three (one coal burning and two natural gas) are already in operation, while two are in development.

The region, commonly known as PG County, is wrestling with the benefits and consequences of being in such close proximity to these plants, which emit ozone, particulate matter and sulphur dioxide into the air. The area has a population that is 67 percent Black. The five plants will be closest to Brandywine, a town in the southeast corner of PG County with 6,700 residents, 72 percent of whom are African-American. 

According to Prince George’s County Councilman Mel Franklin, “[The new plants] are going to probably be in the top five largest taxpayers of the county. And they will add to our commercial tax base, which helps us fund education, public safety, transportation.” In addition, construction of one plant, the PSEG Keys, will bring an estimated 900—largely union—jobs. However, once the plant opens, it will only offer 28 full-time positions. The other new plant, Panda Mattawoman, is expected to create 600-700 construction jobs, with 27 full-time openings to operate the plant.

While an improved tax base and increased employment opportunities will be beneficial for the area, residents are concerned about potential health risks of living near the plants. Per Philadelphia Tribune, “[When] the fifth plant—Panda Mattawoman—opens, Brandywine Elementary school will be within just a handful of miles of two new natural gas-fueled facilities, which will emit a mix of nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter that can trigger respiratory and other health problems.” Respiratory symptoms are already the top reason for emergency room visits in PG County, according to the county health department’s 2016 Community Health Needs Assessment.

In response to these and other potential health risks, the nonprofit Patuxent Riverkeeper and community advocacy Brandywine TB Coalition filed a federal lawsuit in May 2017 against various state agencies that approved the construction of the Mattawoman plant. The suit argues that these agencies failed to thoroughly assess the impact of pollution, traffic and noise on the surrounding community. The lawsuit is currently in the mediation process between the complainants and the state.

For Fred Tutman, head of Patuxent Riverkeeper, there is a clear reason why the community has been unable to halt construction of the plants: racism. “The most acutely affected live closest to where these plants are, they are predominantly Black communities,” he told the Tribune, adding that they do not have the power to effectively fight back. “By power I don’t mean electricity, I mean political power. I mean economic power.”