Race, Class, and Climate: Organizing for a Better Future in Pueblo, Colorado – Non Profit News

Image Credit: Kimberly Cho at bombilla® (www.bombilla.co)

This article is part of Climate Justice Organizing for Belonging, a series co-produced with NPQ and Mothers Out Front. The key question guiding this organizational shift—and this series—is: what does successful organizing look like for the most impacted when resources fully support them?

Pueblo, CO—a city a little less than a two-hour drive from the state’s capital—is an environmental sacrifice zone, or frontline community, where residents are disproportionately impacted by environmentally harmful human infrastructure. Xcel’s Comanche Power Plant, a large coal-powered electric generation station, calls the city home. But A Mothers Out Front campaign is changing Pueblo’s environmental and health trajectory through bold action that led to the coal plant’s retirement almost 39 years earlier than its originally scheduled closure date. The campaign is also helping Pueblo residents to not have to choose between environmental health and economic opportunity.

The Comanche Power Plant is the top source of air toxins in the city and the number one emitter of greenhouse gasses in the state. The energy generated by the plant does not go to Pueblo residents but instead serves Denver and the EVRAZ steel mill, also located in Pueblo. Though they bear the brunt of the Comanche Power Plant’s environmental impacts, Pueblo residents get their electricity from the Black Hills gas-powered plant, which has some of the highest electricity prices in the state. The plant blames state legislation for the high prices, but it uses an investor-owned model that prioritizes shareholders rather than the community it serves.

Meanwhile, the EVRAZ steel mill uses Salt Creek, located southeast of Pueblo, as an industrial waste sewer. Fountain Creek, located north of the city, has for decades been a recipient of pollution and was recently found to be contaminated with PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals.” Both creeks are tributaries of the Arkansas River, which provides drinking water to millions, including Pueblo residents.

In short, Pueblo is paying the price of having some of the state’s worst polluters as its neighbors, without reaping any benefits. Far from happenstance, the situation in Pueblo is a classic example of environmental injustice. The median household income in Pueblo is about $47,000—significantly below the median Colorado household income of $80,000. Too often, low-income means limited political influence. Wealthier communities have the resources to fight off polluting industries, so those industries find homes in poorer areas, like Pueblo.

There’s also a strong racial factor at play. An EPA-funded study found that exposure to air pollution is higher in communities that are predominantly of color—regardless of region or income. This means that race, even more so than economic status, is the principal determining factor for exposure to pollutants, something we see at play in Pueblo. It’s also not a coincidence that our community, with major polluters in our midst, has higher rates of cancer and respiratory ailments than the state average.

The energy and steel plants argue that they are critical to Pueblo’s economy. Companies say they will bring jobs and tax revenues, but they fail to mention the environmental and health harms they bring too. They insist that Pueblo must choose between economic wellbeing and a healthy community—but only communities like ours—low-income, BIPOC, with limited political power and desperate for resources—have to make such choices.


Retiring the Comanche Power Plant

Mothers Out Front realized that the only way to set Pueblo on a different path was to take things into our own hands. In 2020, we joined efforts with other local organizers to close the biggest polluter in the area—the Comanche Power Plant, which is owned by Xcel Energy. We used several grassroots tactics, such as tabling, giving presentations with other local community groups, and text and phone banking, to turn people out to the Public Utilities Commission’s public comment sessions. In October of 2021, we helped fill El Pueblo History Museum with more than 120 people, two-thirds of whom supported retiring the plant by 2030.

Thanks to our activism, the Comanche coal plant—initially schedule to retire in 2070—will close in 2031. Future generations of Pueblo children won’t grow up breathing toxic pollutants. To power the steel mill, Xcel Energy is building the largest solar project east of the Rockies. One of the major concerns for coal-impacted communities like ours is that once coal operations are shut down, the revenues they pay to cities and counties will cease. The Comanche plant, however, will pay the same tax revenue through the next six years, meaning our county won’t suffer immediate economic losses due to the transition.

Crucially, Comanche has also promised that workers will not lose their jobs despite the plant’s closing. That’s what makes Mothers Out Front’s victory huge in the fight for a just transition—it’s not just about closing a coal plant, but about making sure workers aren’t left behind. Workers at the power plant were understandably nervous about the plant closing, but the support of labor unions and Xcel’s commitment to keep employees’ jobs alleviated their anxieties.

While Mothers Out Front is helping to bring Pueblo’s industrial legacy to a close, the transition to clean energy must be inclusive and equitable so that we don’t perpetuate the racial and economic injustices that led to environmental injustice in the first place.

In Pueblo, while we’re worried about climate impacts such as droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires, and industrial impacts such as toxic air and dirty water, we’re also focused on creating good jobs that don’t harm our environment and that realize racial equity. Big wins such as the closure of the Comanche Power Plant make all the hard work worth it, for they bring us closer to a day when we can watch our kids play without worrying about the air they’re breathing or the water they’re drinking.

Pueblo is making strides toward a just, sustainable future. With over 300 days of sunshine, plentiful wind, and geothermal potential, we can be a leader in renewable energy—and it’s already happening. We must keep fighting so that we aren’t forced to choose between health and labor, or between the environment and the economy. Because when we fight for racial, economic, and climate justice, we can have it all.