Groups file complaint over Brandywine plant
Claim civil rights are being violated due to concentrated black population in vicinity
Prince George’s County is filled with a majority African-American population. Just under 65 percent of the county is African-American.
That’s why Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy organization, along with the Patuxent Riverkeeper organization and Brandywine Southern Region Neighborhood Coalition, are arguing that the state’s Public Service Commission violated civil rights by granting a certificate of public convenience and necessity to Panda Power Funds for Panda Brandywine’s natural gas power plant — the fifth one added within 13 miles of Brandywine.
Brandywine’s population is 72 percent African-American and the area is majority rural, but is designated as a heavy industrial zone in Prince George’s County according to the county’s planning board.
Neil Gormley, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the Patuxent Riverkeeper organization and Brandywine Southern
Region Neighborhood Coalition, said the community has been concerned with this issue long before the complaint was filed with the respective departments.
The end goal for them, Gormley said, is to have policy change and a more inclusive process for a community that has gone voiceless for “a long time.”
“They essentially said, ‘We don’t see any evidence of intentional racist conduct here and that’s the end of the matter.’ And that actually misunderstands the Civil Rights Act,” Gormley said. “When actions are going to disproportionally impact minorities on the basis of race that is a violation of the Civil Rights Act.”
Gormley said the process the community continues to go through is a “systematic problem.” The process systematically ignores environmental justice and racial impact, he said.
“The Maryland agencies need a more inclusive process,” Gormley said.
Fred Tutman, a Brandywine citizen and a member of the Patuxent Riverkeeper organization, said it’s not only “black lives that don’t matter. Black people don’t matter administratively,” he said. “This is systemically screwed up.”
Bill Pentak, the vice president of investor relations and public affairs at Panda Power Funds, said the argument that the power plant is systematically or covertly racist “holds no ground” with the company which has listened to the community.
“It’s absolutely without merit,” Pentak said. “The complaint wasn’t filed against us, it was filed against the state of Maryland. And the PSC went through an extremely comprehensive review prior to issuing our certificate.”
The state and it’s process have been “fully compliant” with the Civil Rights Act, Pentak said.
But Tutman said the process in question is not a “legitimate one.” The public service commission’s system does not include details from previous applications submitted, he said, and the community was told that those details “were not relevant” to the process.
“They never looked holistically,” Tutman said. “If they turn in the right paperwork, they can get this no problem. So what’s to stop five, six, seven, eight more? It’s the same injustice.”
The scope of the impacts on all power plants in the area needs to be looked at as a whole and not just individually, Tutman said. It does not make sense to not con- sider the area that they are operating in.
The process also needs to be more inclusive of the community, Tutman said. In order to get in on the process and combat the application, he said, a lawyer is needed for paperwork and filing. And many of the people who are against the process, he said, cannot afford legal representation so easily.
The burden needs to be on the applicant, not those in the community, Tutman said.
Tori Leonard, a spokeswoman for the Public Service Commission, said the commission is currently crafting a response to the complaint and would not comment on the matters of the approval process and the complaint at this time.
Pentak said the process was inclusive of the community and Panda made concessions to Prince George’s County in cooperation with community requests.
Panda agreed to hire locally from the area, keep the plant from rising over 100 feet on its buildout, chose minority business enterprises to work with for construction and pushed the power plant back off of Brandywine Road by more than 500 feet to reduce visibility.
“I have met with interested homeowners in their homes, business organizations and elect- ed officials,” Pentak said. “We have met with a lot of people and stand by the fact that we have a lot of support for this project.”
But Tutman said he is not buying it. If the Public Service Commission listened to the people in the area, the plant would not be going up.
“If they represent us, they’re surely not our advocates. That’s ridiculous. To even argue that in front of a community is a rank insult,” Tutman said.
To have a cluster of five power plants all grouped together within 13 miles of each other was always going to be problematic, Jim Long, president of the Mattawoman Watershed Society, said. Environmentally, it is going to have a negative impact on the land surrounding it in both Charles and Prince George’s Counties.
This is “sprawl pipeline development,” Long said, with multiple pipelines being developed around the Keyes Power Plant, Mattawoman Power Plant and, soon, the new Brandywine Power Plant.
“These plants have to run gas pipelines down to a huge pipeline that crosses the county. They go through swamps and wetlands when they do that,” Long said.
Pentak said the environmental impact from the new natural gas plant is going to be minimal. The power plant will also recycle water for cleaning from the Piscataway Wastewater treatment plant instead of using potable water, which will keep nitrogen buildup from out of the stream ways in the area.
If the plant was going to have an adverse effect on the environment, Pentak said, the plant would have never gotten state and federal approvals in the first place.
“The state of Maryland didn’t take our word for anything,” Pentak said. “They questioned everything. They went through it. They were very, very careful. They asked lots of questions.”
The power plant is disappointing, Tutman said, because county officials “only see the revenue” streaming in. The initial investment the company is bringing will help the citizens, but many of the jobs are technically precise and call for specialization.
Panda and the PSC have both highlighted positives, Tutman said, but the big picture shows a different story.
“You can cherrypick anything you want. But look at the downside. There’s no evidence that anybody looked at potential downsides,” Tutman said. “The property values, the historic community, the desire to live here. None of these things were considered germane or relevant.”