“On the Navajo Reservation,” Shaina Oliver says, “coal plants, oil and gas drilling, and uranium mines are neighbors.”
Shaina is a Tribal member of the Navajo Nation, an Indigenous rights’ activist, a state coordinator for Moms Clean Air Force in Colorado, and the mother of four boys. She is all too familiar with the health impacts that can come with having neighbors like oil and gas facilities: born prematurely, Shaina was diagnosed with asthma as an infant, and as a child, she struggled to breathe when the air quality was poor. Family members suffered from respiratory and heart problems, and her youngest son now struggles with severe allergies, too.
Indigenous communities face a multitude of health disparities linked to air pollution, including higher rates of asthma, diabetes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), mental illness, adverse birth outcomes (including premature birth), and premature deaths than the general population. They are more likely than other communities to live within half a mile of oil and gas facilities, and the National Tribal Air Association (NTAA) estimates that 200 methane and/or coal power plants are within 50 miles of Tribal lands. Living near oil, gas, and coal facilities exposes people to higher levels of air pollution, and directly harms their health.
New research affirms what environmental justice and Indigenous rights’ activists like Shaina already know: Indigenous communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by the harms of air pollution, and often excluded from the health benefits of environmental progress.
The last few decades have seen steady improvements in air quality, with accompanying health benefits for the general population. But the benefits of this public health progress weren’t evenly distributed. A new analysis, published in March in the American Journal of Public Health, aimed to compare average concentrations of air pollution in counties where American Indians lived versus other counties between 2000 and 2018. Specifically, researchers looked at data on concentrations of PM2.5, a form of fine particle pollution that can become easily embedded in the lungs and bloodstream, using a combination of techniques that included air quality monitors on the ground and satellite-based models that allowed for more comprehensive estimates of PM2.5 concentrations across the US. In 2000, concentrations of PM2.5 were lower in counties where American Indians lived, but by 2015, concentrations of particulate pollution were actually higher in American Indian communities. Between 2000 and 2018, the researchers found, air pollution declined less in American Indian communities on Tribal land than in other parts of the country, meaning that Indigenous communities bear a disproportionate burden of dangerous air pollutants.
There’s a long, deeply painful history to the weight of environmental injustice on Indigenous communities. Present-day survivors of Indigenous American genocide, like Shaina, still fight daily for their right to drink clean water and breathe clean air.
“When Indigenous families leave the reservation,” Shaina says, “we are systemically segregated and redlined into communities that have been set aside for affordable housing areas. Often the only option is to live next to highly polluting industries that spew toxic chemicals in the air and contribute to ground-level ozone or smog.”
The new research on disparities in PM2.5 trends between American Indian and non-American Indian communities highlights an urgent need to strengthen air pollution regulations and air pollution prevention strategies in Tribal territories and other communities where Indigenous Americans live. According to analysis from the NTAA, the number of Tribal air quality programs has declined since 2012. Each year, the Environmental Protection Agency grants approximately $11.8 million in funding for air quality programs under the Clean Air Act, and these funds are critical to the Tribes’ ability to operate and maintain air quality programs on their lands. While this funding increased to $12.4 million in 2021, NTAA’s analysis says that this amount is still insufficient to meet the needs of federally-recognized Tribes.
For Shaina and her community, the fight for clean air is personal: “Now is the time to push for key considerations for reducing pollution impacts, because we are in a climate crisis,” she says. “We need justice in every breath.”