Back when we started Moms Clean Air Force, I did my first interview with Dr. Robert Bullard, who has been described as the Father of Environmental Justice. He gave me a primer on why low-income and minority communities are at an increased risk of illness from airborne pollution. It came down to the simple explanation of geography. Fossil fuel plants and refineries are predominately placed near their neighborhoods and schools.
The recent study, Fumes Across the Fence-Line: The Health Impacts of Air Pollution from Oil and Gas Facilities on African American Communities, bears out Bullard’s earliest assertions. The Clean Air Task Force and the NAACP worked jointly to deliver an in-depth study of how African Americans were disproportionately impacted by the toxic emissions emanating from fossil fuel facilities.
There were plenty of statistics, but top takeaways included:
- African Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than
- African Americans are more likely to live in a fenceline community than the
The paper drills down on how and why oil and natural gas companies gravitate to localities where citizens have less power to push back and demand equity.
(Note: The long serving head of the Department of Environmental Justice, Mustafa Ali, resigned in March.)
Natural gas facilities release poisonous chemicals that are directly related to a greater risk or respiratory diseases and cancer. The emissions far exceed what the EPA has determined is “safe.” Smog is linked to 750,000 asthma attacks during the warmer summer months for children. During the school year, it caused 500,000 absences.
Petroleum refineries, like those overwhelming Port Arthur, Texas, are also examined in the report. “Unequal distributions” of locations are pointed to repeatedly. One of the stats underscored: “More than 6.7 million African Americans live in 91 counties with oil refineries.” One million African Americans is the equal to 2 percent of the African American population.
In Jefferson County, home to Port Arthur (devastated by Hurricane Harvey), the EPA has acknowledged that the city has a cancer rate that is 15 percent higher than statewide.
13.4 percent of African American children have asthma, which amounts to over 1.3 million children. The number of white children is 7.3 percent.
In Texas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania — 3 states that are in the top 10 oil and gas production states (2015) — African Americans comprised 10 percent of the population.
What are some of the toxins of concern spewing out of gas and oil plants?
Methane, benzene, formaldehyde, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
The report, filled with charts and tables, reveals that in metropolitan areas, health issues correlate to smog from natural gas pollution.
The report offers case studies, personal narratives, and ample data on the circumstance that affect the health of African Americans.
In reaction to the paper, Uni Blake, a “scientific adviser in regulatory and scientific affairs” for the American Petroleum Institute (API), offered a different point of view.
Blake wrote in a blog for Energy Tomorrow:
“…attacking our industry is the wrong approach and detracts from the real work that should be done to reduce disparately high rates of disease among African Americans.”
She then went on to describe the good that the natural gas and oil industry was doing for Americans. Blake opined that “the paper fails to demonstrate a causal relationship between natural gas activity and the health disparities, reported or predicted, within the African American community.”
The comment that got the most reaction was her premise that “genetics, indoor allergens and unequal access to preventative care” were the key factors in the “health disparities” impacting African Americans.
Meanwhile, the study put forth concrete actions to combat the situation.
- Support technology that reduces air pollution.
- Enact state level reductions of gas and oil pollution
- Fight to keep the methane pollution regulations put in place by President Obama’s America’s Clean Power Plan
Graph: Courtesy of oilandgasthreatmap.com