Some types of racism are less visible than others, yet no less destructive, for it is generally the poor and people of color who are most affected by pollution. Landfills, power plants, toxic waste sites, sewage treatment plants and industrial sites are often located in their communities.
This may be the worst type of racism, because pollution can cause serious illness, even death. Unlike identifying a culprit like the Ku Klux Klan, environmental racism is subtle. The chemicals can’t be seen, so cause and effect are difficult to establish.
Unfortunately, children are most susceptible to pollution, because their lungs are not fully developed, and they breathe more air and ingest more pollutants in relation to their size. According to a 2018 study from the Centers for Disease Control, 13.4 % of black children had asthma, compared to 7.4% of white children.
North Richmond, CA, a Black majority community located in Contra Costa County, has been home to the Chevron Richmond oil refinery for over a century. In 2010, according to an Environmental Protection Agency inventory, 3.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals, including benzene and hydrocyanide, were released into the air, water and waste sites there. More than 80% came from four oil refineries, including Chevron.
The long-term health effects on residents are clear. Blacks in North Richmond are 1.5 times more likely to die of heart disease and strokes, and 1.5 times more likely to go to a hospital emergency room for asthma than other residents of the county, according to a 2012 report in SF Gate, the San Francisco Chronicle’s news website.
Flint Hills, TX, near Corpus Christi, is another area impacted by environmental racism. The Flint Hills Resources Corpus Christi East oil refinery was found in 2018 to have the fifth highest average annual benzene emissions in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. By the way, the leader in that category was the now-closed Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in Southwest Philly. Benzene exposure can cause vomiting, headaches, anemia, increased risk of cancer and in high enough concentrations, death, according to the CDC.
The Flint Hills refinery is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, owned by the infamous Koch brothers. In 2000, they paid the largest civil environmental fine in American history to date, $35 million for oil spills in Texas and five other states.
Closer to home, the Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility in Chester emits more particulate matter than any other facility in the country, according to WHYY’s “Radio Times.” Meanwhile, the Covanta Camden Recovery Facility in Camden, NJ is the second-largest emitter of lead among incinerators nationwide.
Both of these majority minority communities aren’t alone in hosting trash incinerators. According to a 2019 report from the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School, nearly 80% of these facilities are located in marginalized areas, including 10 of the 12 that emit the greatest quantities of lead every year.
The report goes on to say that the plants are “A product of historic residential, racial segregation and explusive zoning laws that allowed whiter, wealthier communities to exclude industrial uses and people of color from their boundaries.”
The upside is that these plants are increasingly being seen as a less attractive option for managing waste. Last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to block plans for a $365 million trash incinerator planned for New York’s Finger Lakes region.
Combined with community activism, declining profitability may end up forcing cities to find a healthier, more sustainable solution to managing their trash.