Environment
Emma Lockridge/Al Jazeera

Report: America’s poorest minorities at highest risk of chemical accidents

New study says industries and regulators fail to make situation safer for some of the country’s most vulnerable

Americans at highest risk from accidents at chemical plants are largely from minority communities and are disproportionately poor — and industries and regulators are failing to take measures to make their situation any safer, according to a new study (PDF). 

These “fenceline zones” are places where chances are highest for death or injury after a chemical accident, and the demographics of these areas form a “pattern of ‘environmental racism,’” according to the report, released Wednesday by three environmental groups.

“The percentage of blacks in the fenceline zones is 75 percent greater than for the U.S. as a whole, while the percentage of Latinos in the fenceline zones is 60 percent greater than for the U.S. as a whole,” the study, released by the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, Coming Clean, and the Center for Effective Government, said.

Poverty levels in these high-risk zones are 50 percent higher than in the rest of the United States, with home values, incomes and education levels significantly lower than national averages in areas closest to chemical plants. And some activists allege the companies intentionally locate their plants in poor communities because they know the residents don’t have the resources to put up a fight.

About 134 million Americans are vulnerable to accidents at chemical plants, including water and wastewater treatment facilities, power plants, bleach production facilities, petroleum refineries and paper mills.

The report urges regulators to sew up loopholes in the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 and require “full disclosure of toxic substances,” which pose potential threats to citizens. It also calls for companies to eliminate the worst of these chemicals and provide protection and information for communities most at risk.

“Federal programs almost universally fail to require facilities that store or use highly hazardous chemicals and endanger millions of people (who are disproportionately black, Latino and poor) to determine whether safe alternatives could be used,” the report said.

The Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Associates, an industry group, did not return a request for comment on the report. 

Al Jazeera spoke to residents of Detroit, Michigan, and Charleston, West Virginia, about how “environmental racism” affects them.

Detroit: ‘When did we become guinea pigs?’

Children play touch football in the 'hazmat playground' in summer 2013.
Children play touch football in the “hazmat playground.”
Emma Lockridge/Al Jazeera

In southwest Detroit, some residents have complained that they are surrounded by chemical pollution caused by the dense industry in their area.

People who live in Boynton, a poor, mostly black community, told Al Jazeera that their main concern is a tar sands oil refinery that abuts the neighborhood. Constant emissions from the Marathon refinery are making them sick, they said, and almost every home in the subdivision has been hit by cancer, organ failure or respiratory illnesses.

And while the nearby, mostly white neighborhood of Oakwood Heights was paid above-market prices by Marathon for their homes so that they could leave, the mostly black neighborhood of Boynton has received no similar offer.

“When did we become guinea pigs? This is so egregious,” said lifetime Boynton resident Emma Lockridge.

Marathon spokesman Jamal T. Kheiry told Al Jazeera that Oakwood Heights was offered buyouts because it was a “residential island” surrounded by industry. He added that Boynton was part of a Detroit neighborhood stabilization plan to restore marginalized areas, whereas Oakwood Heights was not.

Boynton residents cite their “hazmat playground” as an example of what they say is a blatant disregard for their safety. The former playground is a now-empty field that sits in the middle of the neighborhood. It was a place for picnics and barbecues until soil testing in 2004 found chemicals such as lead, arsenic and petrochemicals in high concentrations.

A request for comment from Detroit Public Schools, which owned the field before it was donated to the Boynton community, was not answered at the time of publication.

Levels of lead at the playground were over 5,000 parts per million, according to an environmental report by the Environmental Protection Agency obtained by Al Jazeera. According to U.S. government standards, the safe level of lead in soil is 400 parts per million in play areas and 1,200 in non-play areas.

Lockridge said there was still no public outreach to let the community know about the danger — the field was left open, and Boynton residents continued to use it for recreation.

"There's kids over there playing touch football and rolling around in the grass. The community still doesn't know what's going on over there," Lockridge said.

Requests for comment from Detroit city officials were not answered at the time of publication.

Charleston, West Virginia: ‘Many … see us as just poor, dumb hillbillies’

During a Jan. 9 coal processing chemical spill in West Virginia that tainted water for 300,000 residents in and around the capital, Charleston, some of them among the poorest people in the country, regulators and experts struggled to determine when the water was safe to drink again.

At the time of the spill, there was little scientific research about the chemical — MCHM — which left an unsettling licorice smell wafting from toilets and faucets across the region.

Without access to tap water, some of West Virginia’s poorest residents had to spend their money on bottled water.

“I believe many in this nation see us as just poor, dumb hillbillies who can be sacrificed,” Dustin White, a West Virginia environmental activist, told Al Jazeera during the water crisis.

The state didn’t declare the drinking water safe until weeks later, long after the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its water trucks had left, leaving residents to fend for themselves. 

Even now, months after the spill of almost 10,000 gallons of MCHM into the Elk River, the habit of avoiding tap water prevails. 

"People still aren’t drinking the water!" Vivian Stockman, spokesperson for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, told Al Jazeera in an email. "They just don't trust it yet." 

Institute, West Virginia: ‘Chemical plant stored right next to … a historically black college’

In Institute, near Charleston, Pam Nixon, a former resident of the town and a member of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, told Al Jazeera that dangerous pesticide chemicals were stored at a Bayer CropScience plant for years in a predominantly black community of about 600 people.

Nixon, a retired West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection official, said that MIC, the same chemical that leaked and killed thousands in 1984 around a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, was used in the plant.

An explosion at the plant in 2008 killed two workers

“The most blatant example of environmental racism was from a chemical plant stored right next to WV State University, a historically black college,” Nixon told Al Jazeera in an email. 

“Since 1984, nowhere else in the world was this chemical stored in quantities large enough to be deadly except right in Institute. That finally changed a couple of years ago after an explosion killed two workers, very close to the MIC tank. Such conditions would not have existed next to a predominantly white college.”

After legal pressure from residents, said Stockman, the company stopped storing MIC. A spokesman for Bayer, which still operates the plant, confirmed Stockman's statement.

In an emailed statement, Bayer CropScience told Al Jazeera that "the safety of our employees, neighbors and the community is the first priority at the Institute site. Included in that priority is the safeguarding of our environment: our air, land and water."

Activists say pattern is no accident

To Henry Clark, an environmental activist and resident of Richmond, California, where a Chevron oil refinery fire sent thousands to hospitals in 2012, it is no accident that these facilities are near poor areas.

“This is planned because the companies know that the communities are low-income and probably don’t have political clout. So they just take advantage,” Clark said. “Communities like mine are on the front line. Playgrounds are just across the fence from chemical companies. This is what I call environmental racism.”

And it’s not just the threat of accidents. The pollution that plants put into the air — and the unnerving alarms they sound — sicken and frighten people who live near them.

Yudith Nieto, with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, said the stress of living near dangerous chemicals weighs on people.

“People live in a kind of trauma of an incident happening and not being told what to do in case of an emergency,” she said.  

Despite the relative powerlessness of poor neighborhoods in the face of corporations running such plants, activists and locals in such neighborhoods are determined to continue working to protect communities at risk of a disaster.

“These are human rights violations, period,” Clark said. “These low-income communities of color are targeted for these types of facilities because they may be less organized and not have the political clout. But we are fighting back. And we will continue to do so until the disproportionate impact is reduced.”

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