‘This Is an Emergency’: 1 Million African Americans Live Near Oil, Gas Facilities

In some states, 1 in 5 African-American residents lives within a half-mile of an oil or gas production, processing or storage facility, a new study says.

By Phil McKenna & Marianne Lavelle, Inside Climate News
November 14, 2017

A new analysis concludes what many in African-American communities have long experienced: Low-income, black Americans are disproportionately exposed to toxic air pollution from the fossil fuel industry.

More than 1 million African Americans live within a half-mile of oil and natural gas wells, processing, transmission and storage facilities (not including oil refineries), and 6.7 million live in counties with refineries, potentially exposing them to an elevated risk of cancer due to toxic air emissions, according to the study.

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When the authors looked at proximity to refineries, they found that about 40 percent of all people living in counties with refineries in Michigan, Louisiana and Pennsylvania are African American, and 54 percent in Tennessee are.

In three other states—Oklahoma, Ohio and West Virginia—they found that about one in five African-American residents statewide lives within a half-mile of an oil or gas facility.

“We have a real problem with air,” said Doris Browne, president of the National Medical Association, a national organization of black physicians and sponsor of the study. “We think it’s just a little smog and fog, but we need to worry about the pollutants in the air we’re breathing.”

The study, Fumes Across the Fence-Line: The Health Impacts of Air Pollution from Oil and Gas Facilities on African American Communities, was published Tuesday by the Clean Air Task Force and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Its findings are based on data from the U.S. EPA’s National Emissions Inventory and the National Air Toxics Assessment, which look at emissions and health risks on a county-by-county level. The authors applied additional analysis to focus solely on emissions and health impacts attributable to pollution from oil and gas facilities, and then used demographic data to estimate health impacts on African-American communities.

The exposure carries extra health risks, the study says. Among African-American children, the study connects emissions from oil and gas facilities to over 138,000 asthma attacks and over 100,000 missed school days each year. (Approximately 13.4 percent of African-American children nationwide have asthma, compared to 7.3 percent for white children.)

An Issue of Environmental Justice

The exposure to pollutants is tied to deeper systemic issues of oppression and poverty, said Marcus Franklin, program specialist on environmental and climate justice for the NAACP and co-author of the report.

Nationally, the study found, African Americans are 75 percent more likely than Caucasians to live in “fence-line” communities—those next to commercial facilities whose noise, odor, traffic or emissions directly affect the population.

Franklin said communities need more choice and control over their energy sources, and a shift away from fossil fuels.

“It is time to shape an energy future that is not exploitative and does not profit from acts of environmental racism,” he said.

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