How a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) Informed a Community about a Proposed Power Plant
We initiated a Health Impact Assessment (HIA), bringing the community into meetings about the HIA process and goals. The community joined HIA researchers, City of New Orleans administrators and representatives from the energy company in scoping the research. This activated community engagement in the HIA process – and that engagement now lives far beyond the HIA and its results.
A convergence of opportunities came together in 2014 when the Louisiana Public Health Institute (LPHI) and its partner, the Alliance for Affordable Energy (AAE), put together a successful HIA proposal from a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by Pew Charitable Trusts. The RFP required linking the HIA to a specific upcoming policy decision.
LPHI and AAE identified the pending decision (initially slated for the City Council docket in 2016, but subsequently delayed) for building a new power plant in New Orleans East on the site of an old plant. New Orleans is one of only 2 municipalities that regulates its an investor owned utility and the old power plant was due to be retired by 2016.
In developing the HIA proposal, LPHI and AAE proposed a systematic scientific examination to identify both the benefits and disadvantages to the health of residents residing near a proposed gas plant. The HIA sought to provide City Council — in addition to the community and all other stakeholders — a balanced view of the potential health effects prior to voting for a new power plant. The City Council and the energy company both gave letters of support to the HIA proposal.
What Happened and How
Community engagement is a critical component of the HIA process. At HIA-rollout meetings in late 2014 and early 2015 with community groups in the surrounding neighborhoods of New Orleans East, we learned that community members did not know about either the old or the proposed new power plant despite the fact that the older plant (since decommissioned) had been in operation since 1965.
The initial HIA awareness training in late 2014 included community leaders, energy advocates, City administration representatives, and the energy company. Local researchers from the community began to identify both short- and long-term issues critical to the health and welfare of New Orleans residents. The activated community began to develop its voice. Community members started appearing at City Council meetings where the new gas plant proposal was on the docket. Starting in late 2017, City Council meetings included large groups of “supporters” of the plant with matching shirts (identified in 2018 to be actors paid by the energy company’s contractor).
The HIA concluded in 2016 with the results packaged into a detailed report, a brief Policy Report with key recommendations for policy-makers, and a scientific report on subsidence related to groundwater extraction at the plant site, an unanticipated finding that arose during the HIA. The results were disseminated widely through community meetings throughout the City as well as individual briefings with City Council members and other key stakeholders.
Entergy paused the proceeding to propose a smaller, alternative gas plant, the City Council kept postponing the vote, even after the HIA was complete, due to public outcry.
Community Engagement and Activism Has Continued
The activated community’s awareness and activism has continued, with the help of AAE and other environmental groups. They formed the No Gas Plant community on Facebook to extend its advocacy reach. The City Council knows that the community will show up to meetings, is informed and is interested how local decisions impact their health.
In early 2018, the City Council voted in favor of the plant but that approval was mired in a series of scandals, lawsuits, and political changes. A new Administration and City Council (one City Council member was elected Mayor and several new members of the City Council were elected) were inaugurated in May of 2018. Several of the new City Council members have proposed re-examining the vote, while the energy company is pushing to construction and has recently indicated that is has already spent $96 million on the project. On Feb. 21, 2019, the City Council voted unanimously to affirm their predecessors’ March 2017 decision to approve the new power plant.
The HIA results were important but have become secondary to an activated community focused on the health and economic issues that would affect them directly. The community voice is strong and engaged and continues to monitor and challenge this issue as it moves forward for approval.
An HIA is a “combination of procedures, methods, and tools by which a policy, program, or project may be judged as to its potential effects on the health of a population and the distribution of effects within the population” (European Centre for Health Policy, 1999, p. 4).