A Million Black Americans Face Health Risks From Living Near Industry

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

More than a million black people face an increased risk of cancer and asthma thanks to air pollution resulting from oil refineries or natural gas facilities in their backyards, a troubling new report has found.

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The report, released by the NAACP on Tuesday in partnership with the Clean Air Task Force and the National Medical Association, takes a first-of-its-kind look at how black communities—especially those living near industrial activity—are impacted by air pollution.

Air spewing out of oil and gas facilities can contain methane, which contributes to smog formation and the warming of the atmosphere; benzene, a carcinogenic compound; and other volatile organic compounds, which add to the smog problem and can irritate the lungs.

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The report’s data comes from two previous reports from the Clean Air Task Force. These reports used the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Emissions Inventory to break up emissions and where they’re coming from in a community. This time around, the collaboration focused specifically on black communities.

“The main takeaway is that communities that live near oil and gas facilities are suffering real health impacts, but the impact is not limited to those communities,” said Lesley Fleischman, a research analyst with the Clean Air Task Force that co-authored the report, to Earther. “Air pollution is affecting communities across the country, and African American communities are particularly impacted.”

Across the entire U.S. black population, the report attributes 100,000 missed school days each year to ozone smog from natural gas infrastructure such as drilling sites, as well as about 138,000 asthma attacks. Black Americans already suffer disproportionately from asthma, and experts say it’ll only get worse as industries continue to enter their communities without emission standards improving.

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These impacts tend to concentrate. Texas and Louisiana are home to many black communities that see not only high levels of oil and gas production, but also high levels of asthma and cancer risk. Across the East Coast as well, the report shows that high rates of asthma attacks overlap with oil and gas production.

But the association is not always so clear-cut: In Ohio, nearly 200,000 black people, or 19 percent of the state’s black population, live within a half-mile radius of oil and gas facilities. However, Ohio didn’t see health impacts that compared to those of states like Texas or Louisiana.

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Overall, the authors say their estimate for the number of African Americans at risk due to oil and gas pollution likely downplays the true severity of the situation.

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“We tried to isolate the impacts specifically from oil and gas facilities, but that’s just from the facilities themselves,” said Fleischman. “That doesn’t even take into account pollution from the increased truck traffic or trains or the water pollution.”

The co-author hopes that this report will shed light on the threats black people in the U.S. are facing as the Trump administration attempts to roll back environmental protections the Obama administration put in place. The way Fleischman sees it, common-sense, low-cost solutions exist to reduce emissions and protect Americans’ health. These include requiring companies to conduct frequent leak detections and repair surveys to avoid unnecessary emissions of air pollutants from leaks.

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“We should be doing everything we can to do that,” Fleischman said.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

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Whenever I read epidemiological studies I think of the old joke: did you hear about the guy who read that most accidents happen within five miles of your house? No, what happened? He moved.

I’m sure when Ronald Reagan signed the “Enterprise Zone Tax Act”of 1982 he didn’t see race. As a matter of fact, enterprise zones have pretty much spread throughout the land over the past 30 odd years. Rural areas are becoming enterprise zones faster than you can say Pennsylvania Marcellus shale gas development and natural gas liquids processing. Most of the new O&G development is not where black folks are or black folks can get good jobs; e.g. northwestern North Dakota. And good luck to the NAACP making impact on Port Arthur, Texas. The whole town is an enterprise zone. Almost like a sovereign city state. Same with Houston.

It’s those pesky regulation, kids that’s keeping America from being great again. Pruitt’s EPA is kind of Zombie Reagan, btw. An entire federal environmental policy based on enterprise zones.

From the horse’s mouth (The Gipper):

The Enterprise Zone concept is based on utilizing the market to solve urban problems, relying primarily on private sector institutions. The idea is to create a productive, free market environment in economically-depressed areas by reducing taxes, regulations and other government burdens on economic activity. The removal of these burdens will create and expand economic opportunity within the zone areas, allowing private sector firms and entrepreneurs to create jobs—particularly for disadvantaged workers—and expand economic activity.

Enterprise Zones are based on an entirely fresh approach for promoting economic growth in the inner cities. The old approach relied on heavy government subsidies and central planning. A prime example was the Model Cities Program of the 1960's, which’ concentrated government programs, subsidies and regulations in specific, depressed urban areas. The Enterprise Zone approach would remove government barriers freeing individuals to create, produce and earn their own wages and profits. In its basic thrust, Enterprise Zones are the direct opposite of the Model Cities Program of the 1960's.