Across the United States, a multitude of parties are dedicated to fighting environmental racism and injustices that unequally affect communities because of their demographics. Towns primarily comprised of people of color, non-English speaking immigrants, and lower-wealth individuals are significantly more likely to be affected by environmental injustices. We have heard of cities with unclean drinking water going unnoticed by state officials for far too long. Polluted air from excessive carbon and greenhouse gases affects the air quality of a given area. The only way to truly combat the injustice is to organize, strategize, realize, and act with the intent to improve the quality of life of those who are less fortunate.
In Orange County, California, a handful of groups are devoted to improving the lives of those subjected to unrestrained environmental injustices, despite risk-assessment strategies implemented by local agencies to identify risks of harmful pollutants and toxins that affect the environment. One of those organizations is the Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ). Founded in 2019, OCEJ has acquired attention in the media due to a campaign they spearheaded: “PloNo Santa Ana.”
Santa Ana, CA is facing a severe soil-lead contamination crisis. This crisis is impacting communities of color and those living at or below the poverty line. Due to the lack of testing in the area, both the people and the agriculture struggle with exposure to gigantic quantities of lead. OCEJ collected soil samples with the help of the University of California, Irvine’s Public Health Department in search for the specific amount of present lead. OCEJ also collected samples from roadway land use zones, parks, and residential and commercial areas. Their findings have concluded that over half of these soils contain amounts of lead surpassing state and federal standards. Fortunately, Santa Ana is making updates to its General Plan (GP) and has added a section on environmental justice. To aid in decision-making and policy creation, OCEJ sought to address soil remediation plans and health care endeavors. Furthermore, prominent figures, like Kathleen Treseder, have run for city councils to put environmental justice initiatives at the forefront to ensure that equity is displayed.
Imagine if hundreds of nuclear reactors concentrated in areas encompassing about 700,000–800,000 people in total were to have openly leaked copious amounts of radiation into adjacent neighborhoods for decades –a century even– with no enforced restrictions whatsoever. It would be absurd! Especially since nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima have dramatically elevated fears of radiation exposure amongst the public. However, trade out the radiation for carcinogenic toxins and the nuclear reactors for petrochemical plants, and that is exactly what is happening in the “Golden Triangle” of Texas and along Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.”
Since “black gold” was discovered at Spindletop in 1901, petrochemical plants and refineries have been metastasizing along the Gulf Coast for over one hundred years. Residents within these areas have been virtually locked into a parasitic relationship with companies like Gulf Oil, U.S. Rubber, Texaco, ExxonMobil, Goodrich, Koch Industries, etc. They have depended on petrochemical companies for employment, municipal funding, and education programs, but in exchange have suffered consistent exposure to carcinogenic chemicals like dioxin, benzene, styrene, and butadiene. Such prolonged exposure has resulted in unprecedented levels of breast and ovarian cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia among citizens directly and indirectly affiliated with the refineries.
On average, an estimated 1 in 5,000 people in the Golden Triangle and Cancer Alley are at an incremental lifetime cancer risk. The EPA’s upper limit of acceptable cancer risk is 1 in 10,000. According to ProPublica, “an estimated 256,000 people are being exposed to risks beyond this threshold and […] an estimated 43,000 people are being subjected to at least triple this level of risk.” Although institutions like EPA, OSHA, and even Johns Hopkins University have repeatedly studied the correlation between the petrochemical refineries and local cancer rates, official results have been mixed. However, in 1977, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) did report concerning levels of benzene in Texas and pushed OSHA to issue a non-binding guideline lowering the standard of industrial benzene use. This guideline was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980, who ruled in favor of petrochemicals. The opinion declared that a “safe” workplace was not guaranteed as being “risk-free.” Thus, workers’ (and thereby surrounding residents’) exposure to toxic chemicals were deemed justifiable “risks.”
Benzene and dioxin have been two of the most prevalent carcinogens produced by these refineries. Benzene, a sweet-smelling, colorless liquid/vapor, can interrupt important cell functions in your body, such as stopping red or white blood cell production. Long-term exposure to benzene can result in leukemia or severe bone marrow damage. Despite being labelled as a carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, petrochemical companies continuously use –and under-report– it. For example, in 2000, a whistleblower for Koch Industries reported that the company concealed the discharge of 91 metric tons of benzene over Corpus Christi, TX from environmental authorities (Jane Mayer, Dark Money). Dioxin is invisible to the naked eye, usually resembling dust. Dioxin is not intentionally synthesized; however, it frequently forms from burning wastes or dioxin-contaminated products. Refinery flares have been associated with dioxin contamination via reports of glowing ashes raining out from their exhausts. Small towns like Mossville, LA have been decimated by dioxin. Sullivan Ramirez, a local activist, reported that there “wasn’t one block that didn’t have cancer.” An EPA inspection of the average level of dioxins in the blood of Mossville residents was found to be triple that of the general U.S. population. Across in Reserve, LA, Mary Hampton made a similar observation: “Almost every household has somebody that died with cancer or that’s battling cancer… It’s the worst thing you’d ever want to see: a loved one, laying in that bed, pining away, dying.” Reserve’s risk of cancer from air toxicity (which includes dioxin exposure) is 50 times that of the national average.
It is necessary to emphasize that the majority of residents within the Golden Triangle and Cancer Alley are low-income, Black and/or Hispanic people. This is an environmental justice issue compounded by systemic racism and classism. Additionally, a sizable chunk of Cancer Alley is sitting atop some of the world’s most rapidly sinking land (Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky), layering another existential threat against residents. If the residents were wealthier, whiter, or more radioactive, then this problem would probably be taken more seriously by regulatory authorities. But it is not.
A study published this spring by researchers at Columbia University found that areas redlined by federal loan programs since the late 1930s ended up with more drilling wells, polluting industries, major highways, and shipping ports than non-redlined areas. This research adds to the growing body of evidence showing how communities of color are disproportionately exposed to pollution that results in increased poor health.
“Our study adds to the evidence that structural racism in federal policy is associated with the disproportionate siting of oil and gas wells in marginalized neighborhoods,” said lead author Joan Casey, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia Mailman School in a press statement. “These exposure disparities have implications for community environmental health, as the presence of active and inactive wells contribute to ongoing air pollution.”
According to an article on this study in the Washington Post, starting in the late 1930s, the federally sponsored “Home Owners’ Loan Corp (HOLC) marked areas across the United States as unworthy of loans because of an ‘infiltration of foreign born, Negro, or lower grade population’ and bordered them in red. This made it harder for home buyers of color to get mortgages; the corporation awarded A grades for solidly White areas and D’s for largely non-White areas that lenders were advised to shun.”
The researchers found that historically redlined neighborhoods that scored lowest in racially discriminatory maps drawn by the government’s loan corporation had twice the density of oil and gas wells than comparable neighborhoods that scored highest. “These wells likely contribute to disproportionate pollution and related health problems in redlined neighborhoods.”
According to the researchers’ press statement, oil and gas wells expose residents to air and water pollution, noise, and other sources of stress that can increase the risk of many types of disease: cardiovascular disease, impaired lung function, anxiety, depression, preterm birth, and impaired fetal growth. An estimated 17 million Americans live within one mile of at least one active oil or gas well.
This study provides a clear example of how institutional racism can define public policy and how it can impact people’s lives and their health for decades.