WASHINGTON—Low-income communities, which often have the worst pollution problems, are expected to benefit from a federally mandated transition to cleaner energy sources, but only if states choose to make such areas a priority,  environmental advocates said Monday.


In addition to improving the environment, the Clean Power Plan — announced by the EPA in August with a goal to cut carbon emissions from power plants — also includes recommendations that states engage with low-income and minority communities, identify areas suffering the most from pollution and evaluate impacts of complying with the federal  standards before finalizing  implementation plans.


Although the plan intends to reduce pollution, some permitted compliance options such as cap-and-trade — the trade and sale of carbon allowances among power companies — will allow some plants to exceed pollution levels by buying allowances from cleaner plants. States can choose any method they want as long as total emissions are reduced so they do not have to prioritize the needs of vulnerable communities, said Elizabeth Perera, climate policy director with the Sierra Club, an environmental organization in a phone interview.


“A lot of our poorer minority populations are in states where administrations will continue to ignore environmental justice issues,” she said. “Unfortunately, that could continue if those administrations aren’t called upon by their populations to change.”


A report released in 2012 by the NAACP said 6 million Americans live three miles from a coal-burning power plant. The average annual salary of this population is $18,400 — about $3,000 below the U.S. average.


Mark Magana, president of the Latino environmental advocacy group GreenLatino, grew up in Los Angeles and said he remembers the negative impacts of pollution.


“For me as a child, the worst natural disaster we experienced were the days when the air quality index warning said unhealthy and our parents wouldn’t let us go outside and play,” said Magana during a briefing held by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. “To be told you can’t go out and play many days during the year is an environmental injustice.”


In comparison to affluent communities, low-income and minority populations have more cases of asthma and lung illnesses, such as cancer, which can lead to premature death, said Vernice Miller-Travis, senior associate with Skeo Solutions, an environmental consulting group.


“It’s just not that the air smells bad or that there’s bad opacity,” she said. “It’s not just that you can’t see for miles and miles, but it’s that those little particles of pollution are lodging inside people’s lungs and wreaking havoc.”