Jul 2 5:00 AM

New maps, court rulings show disparate impact of environmental injustice

Trains like this, with many dozens of tanker cars filled with volatile crude oil, run daily through areas disproportionately populated by the poor and communities of color.
Rick Wilking / Reuters

As the United States continues to embrace its expanded access to oil and natural gas, a number of new maps, mapping tools and studies — from a diverse set of sources — have evaluated the threats posed by pollution from and the transport of hydrocarbon-rich fuels. The results are perhaps unsurprisingly but all-too-disturbingly consistent: dangers to health and safety presented by expendable legacy energy sources fall disproportionately on poor and minority communities.

On Monday, the public interest groups ForestEthics and Communities for a Better Environment released their study, Crude Injustice on the Rails [PDF], which detailed the elevated threat faced by California’s communities of color from the expanded use of trains to ship oil across the state.

The groups mapped rail lines that carry “bomb trains,” the oil tankers that transport volatile types of crude oil in older cars that even government regulators concede lack important safeguards. Those trains, which now regularly traverse the U.S. and Canada, have been involved in a number of high-profile accidents — derailments, leaks and explosions that have resulted in death, property loss, evacuations and environmental catastrophes. The report found that Californians of color were more likely to live in bomb train “blast zones,” an area within one mile of an oil-train route.

Sixty percent of Californians live in so-called “environmental justice communities” — areas with an over-representation of low incomes, racial minorities or non-English-speaking households. But 80 percent of state residents in railroad blast zones are in environmental justice communities, and nine out of California’s 10 largest cities on oil-train routes show a higher than average discriminatory effect.

“In California you are 33 percent more likely to live in the blast zone if you live in a nonwhite, low income, or non-English speaking household,” said one of the report’s authors, Matt Krogh of ForestEthics.

The report concerns California, but has implications across the country. Chicago and Washington, D.C. are but two large U.S. cities where existing freight lines run through heavily populated areas with large poor and minority populations.

Of course, there are many “chicken and egg” types of queries that arise. Most of North America’s rail infrastructure predates the recent hydrocarbon boom, and the conclusion as to whether a rail line was forced through a disadvantaged community or whether groups of marginalized people with few housing options congregated in undesirable areas around train tracks depends on time and place.

But no matter the roots, the effects remain grimly the same. The environmental impact of oil trains falls disproportionately on communities already under stress, and that stress is now increasing as more and more oil travels by rail.

California, for instance, is seeking to expand the amount of its oil imports moved by railroads. In 2014, the Golden State transported one percent of incoming oil by rail, but the oil industry hopes to increase that figure to 25 percent. That would mean nine trains, each carrying 70,000 barrels of crude, traversing California every day, according to calculations in the ForestEthics report.

And while oil-tanker accidents along North America’s rail lines provide some of the most dramatic examples of what can happen as the continent continues to embrace expanded oil and gas production — with accidents in Illinois, North Dakota and West Virginia, to name but a few recent examples — the everyday burdens of particulate air pollution, toxic emissions and contaminated water sources also disproportionately fall on low-income and minority populations.

There are stark examples, such as Port Arthur, Texas, the Gulf Coast city slated to be the terminus of the hotly contested Keystone XL pipeline. Even without the added flow of diluted bitumen from tar sands thousands of miles to the north, Port Arthur is already a town that exists as a decades-old example of environmental injustice. West Port Arthur, overwhelmingly African American, with over a third of its residents in subsidized housing, is cluttered with oil refineries, chemical plants and snaking pipelines. Benzene, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and other toxic pollutants are pumped into the air — and breathed in by the residents — daily.

And that is even without the major “emission events” or “upsets” that spew even more refining industry detritus into the environment. Put it all together, and the county that includes Port Arthur has some of the very worst air quality in the entire U.S.

Not surprisingly, cancer rates in the area are 15 percent higher than the Texas average — and mortality from cancer in that county is more than 40 percent higher, according to the Texas Cancer Registry. And incidence of heart disease, respiratory ailments, nervous and skin disorders and a host of other illnesses is four-times higher in Port Arthur than it is only 100 miles upwind, reports the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Despite the fact that Port Arthur’s troubles are much detailed, they are not much on the minds of the greater public.

Perhaps in an effort to bring the problems of pollution and environmental justice home to more Americans, the Environmental Protection Agency has launched a mapping tool called EJSCREEN. Searchable for all 50 states, the interactive app allows users to compare and contrast environmental indicators — such as ozone concentrations, particulate matter and proximity to Superfund sites — across census tracts, and then maps those findings against demographic information.

The tool is actually a sort of work in progress, with a revised and improved version due out next year (the EPA is soliciting comments), but the maps generated by EJSCREEN are right in line with the findings along California’s railways and around Texas refineries.

There have been recent, if halting attempts to correct some of these problems, as with the EPA’s new oil refinery rule proposed last year. But as the ongoing battle for stronger carbon regulations and this week’s Supreme Court decision against the EPA’s rule-making rationale demonstrate, steps forward by regulators and community organizers have been met at many turns by a concerted push back.

But in another case decided this session, one that is not on its face obviously about the environment, the High Court may have shown advocates for environmental justice a way to again start the ball rolling in a progressive direction. In Texas Department of Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, the justices found enforcement of the Fair Housing Act should consider disparate impact, the standard that establishes that actions disproportionately distressing a protected class (such as a minority community) are discriminatory, even if the intent to discriminate is hard to prove.

It might come as little remedy to the people in Port Arthur now suffering from the host of diseases that come from the proximity of public housing to polluting industries, but the allocations of housing assistance that put them in this predicament are now at stark odds with what the Supreme Court says should constitute illegal discrimination. By the court’s logic, any state or local agency that receives federal funding, or any environmental impacts that fall under the jurisdiction of the EPA, should also receive scrutiny for disparate impact.

And for those first cases (which could be brought, say, under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act), the EPA need look no further than homes near the railroad tracks in Richmond, California, or the public housing in West Port Arthur.

Or any number of other poor and minority communities the EPA’s EJSCREEN tool shows to be suffering the effects of environmental injustice.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter