by Summer-Solstice Thomas, CHEJ Science & Tech Intern

On Wednesday July 31st, 2019, the morning air in Baytown, Texas filled with black smoke after an explosion the Exxon Mobil Olefins Plant. Nearby residents described the blast as so powerful that their houses shook and their windows rattled. Residents downwind of the plant were notified of a voluntary shelter-in-place, advising them to stay inside with their windows and doors shut. It was lifted four hours later after air monitoring had found no contaminant concentrations large enough to be “of concern.”

As one of the United State’s largest petrochemical facilities, the Baytown Olefins Plant, is one of three Exxon Mobil plants all around one mile from each other, forming a triangle of chemical processing and refining. The air cancer toxics risk, as reported by the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), for a three mile radius zone with its center equidistant from these three facilities is 62 in a million. This means that if a million people were chronically exposed over a lifetime to the concentrations of air contaminants in this zone, 62 of them would contract cancer as a direct result of such exposure. This high level of cancer risk falls within the 99th percentile for the state of Texas and the 95th-100 percentile nationally, which means that the cancer risk for Baytown, Texas is some of the highest in the entire nation. Meanwhile, the NATA respiratory hazard index for the same zone is 3.3, indicating that the estimated long-term exposure to respiratory irritants is, on average, 3.3 times greater than the corresponding health-based reference concentration. This high level of respiratory hazard is also some of the highest in the nation: it falls within the 97th state percentile and 90-95th national percentile.

Here at CHEJ, we see Baytown as an example of a “sacrifice zone,” a region especially concentrated with intensive industry operations, leading to levels of chemical exposures that threaten the health of the community’s residents. Due to the phenomenon of white flight from metropolitan industrial centers in the 1960s, and the pattern of siting industrial facilities in areas with low property values, sacrifice zones are often communities of color and/or low socioeconomic status. The health burden experienced by these residents living near numerous chemical facilities is often compounded by limited access to healthcare and other wellness resources. Current regulatory policies don’t take into account the clustering pattern common to chemical facilities, leaving such communities disproportionately exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals. 

Other examples of sacrifice zones are Detroit, Michigan, where 48217 has been dubbed “the most toxic zip code in the US,” or St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana where the NATA air toxics cancer risk is 500 in a million, over 15 times the national average. Unsurprisingly, these zones follow not only the pattern of extreme chemical exposure, but of this disparate burden falling on low-income communities of color. 48217 consists of predominately African-American residents, with an 89% minority population. Over half the population living within three miles of the largest facility in the area, a Marathon Petroleum refinery, falls below the poverty line. St. John the Baptist hosts another major Marathon refinery, where 34.1% of the people residing within three miles of the facility live below the poverty line. The parish itself is 63.6% minority. In 2017, this refinery emitted 79 tons, or 158,073lbs, of chemicals identified by the EPA as Hazardous Air Pollutants, defined as “those pollutants that are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects.” 

These, and other facilities across America, emit huge amounts of air toxics every day, endangering the communities around them. More comprehensive and effective regulatory legislation is clearly needed to ensure not only that residents of Baytown, Detroit, and St. John the Baptist, but that every American, has clean air to breathe. 

Marathon Refinery in Detroit / Wikimedia Commons

Marathon Refinery in Detroit / Wikimedia Commons