Chemical Disasters Pose Risk to Communities of Color

When chemical plants leak, catch fire, and explode, communities of color are all too often located nearby.

An April 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in Texas destroyed this playground across the street, along with many homes. Lawmakers cited the disaster in floor debate on chemical-security legislation that the House ultimately passed.
National Journal
Richard Moore
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Richard Moore
July 31, 2014, 9:39 p.m.

Chem­ic­al plants leak, catch on fire, and ex­plode on a reg­u­lar basis, caus­ing death, in­jury, and chron­ic ill­ness to the people liv­ing near them in the af­ter­math. This suf­fer­ing is pre­vent­able. So are some of the dis­asters them­selves.

Last Au­gust, in re­sponse to a deadly and earth-scar­ring ex­plo­sion in West, Texas, Pres­id­ent Obama is­sued an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der form­ing an in­ter­agency task force with mem­bers who work for the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment, and the Labor De­part­ment’s Oc­cu­pa­tion­al Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion. The group was asked to de­vel­op a re­port on how to pre­vent chem­ic­al dis­asters. This group held In­ter­agency “Listen­ing Ses­sions” across the na­tion, and is­sued their re­port to the White House in June.

An­oth­er re­cent re­port, “Who’s in Danger? A Demo­graph­ic Ana­lys­is of Chem­ic­al Dis­aster Vul­ner­ab­il­ity Zones,” re­leased by the En­vir­on­ment­al Justice & Health Al­li­ance in May, demon­strated how com­munit­ies of col­or are in dis­pro­por­tion­ate danger from chem­ic­al dis­asters. We in the En­vir­on­ment­al Justice and Health Al­li­ance mo­bil­ized our 32 af­fil­i­ate or­gan­iz­a­tions in 12 states to en­gage in the In­ter­agency Listen­ing Ses­sions to de­mand that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment pri­or­it­ize the safety of the com­munit­ies and work­ers most at risk from chem­ic­al dis­asters and urged the in­ter­agency group to ad­opt strong re­quire­ments to pre­vent dis­asters through trans­ition to safer chem­ic­als and pro­cesses that already ex­ist.

In or­der for people liv­ing in the shad­ow of tox­ic-chem­ic­al plants to make their way to a meet­ing to tell their stor­ies to fed­er­al of­fi­cials in these listen­ing ses­sions, there were a lot of things that had to hap­pen. Some of these folks had to think about wheth­er or not they would lose their jobs if they spoke out, or if there would be push­back from the chem­ic­al plants on their fam­ily mem­bers who work there. In many com­munit­ies loc­ated closest to our na­tion’s chem­ic­al plants, these fa­cil­it­ies are a ma­jor em­ploy­er, if not the ma­jor em­ploy­er.

Most of the people liv­ing near chem­ic­al-dis­aster zones are people of col­or and low in­come. Many suf­fer from ill health from liv­ing around tox­ic-chem­ic­al fumes all of the time. Trav­el­ing the long dis­tances between those fed­er­al listen­ing ses­sions can be tough, eco­nom­ic­ally and phys­ic­ally. For ex­ample, when four Moss­ville, La., res­id­ents at­ten­ded a fed­er­al listen­ing ses­sion in Novem­ber of 2013, they had to drive 150 miles — al­most 3 hours — to Texas City, Texas.

Once there, they had to wait long hours, of­ten listen­ing to chem­ic­al-in­dustry lob­by­ists and em­ploy­ees talk about the “suf­fer­ing” that in­dustry would be forced to en­dure if they had to obey new reg­u­la­tions pro­tect­ing the pub­lic from chem­ic­al dis­asters. It’s worth not­ing that Moss­ville is an ex­cel­lent place to go to gain a deep­er and more ac­cur­ate un­der­stand­ing of suf­fer­ing. The town has been in­vaded by 14 pet­ro­chem­ic­al plants in the dec­ades since a former slave, John Moss, foun­ded the un­in­cor­por­ated town on the out­skirts of Lake Charles, La. It’s also a com­munity where so many people’s lives and health have been shaped by the chem­ic­al in­dustry and its dis­asters that when the film­makers be­hind the 2002 doc­u­ment­ary Blue Vinyl wanted to draw at­ten­tion to the health fal­lout for those liv­ing near a polyvinyl chlor­ide fact­ory, they centered their work in Moss­ville, La.

And let’s think about the concept of “chem­ic­al dis­aster” it­self. Most people would think of chem­ic­al dis­asters in terms of the fires and ex­plo­sions and spills in the news. They think of the apo­ca­lyptic im­ages broad­cast after chem­ic­al dis­asters in places such as West, Texas, in 2013; Rich­mond, Cal­if. in 2012; and Elk River, W.Va., in Janu­ary of this year. But many blacks and Lati­nos in the neigh­bor­hoods where the chem­ic­al in­dustry chose to place their plants live in com­munit­ies gripped by a slow-mov­ing chem­ic­al dis­aster of chron­ic ex­pos­ure to tox­ic chem­ic­als that have been linked to asthma, can­cer, and oth­er health prob­lems, which has been iden­ti­fied in the re­port “In­dus­tri­al Sources of Di­ox­in Pois­on­ing in Moss­ville, Louisi­ana” — a re­port based on the gov­ern­ment’s own data. (The re­port was pro­duced by a co­ali­tion of en­vir­on­ment­al groups.) These health chal­lenges hap­pen to be chron­ic and, all too of­ten, dis­pro­por­tion­ately com­mon in these same com­munit­ies.

This en­tire scen­ario is un­fold­ing in front of a fa­mil­i­ar back­drop: cli­mate change. A re­cent poll of black phys­i­cians re­leased by the Na­tion­al Med­ic­al As­so­ci­ation iden­ti­fied clear health im­pacts dis­pro­por­tion­ate to black com­munit­ies from cli­mate change, in­clud­ing an in­crease in the sever­ity of chron­ic ill­nesses due to air pol­lu­tion. Add to that the tox­ic stew when chem­ic­al tanks and pipelines be­come com­prom­ised dur­ing ex­treme weath­er events such as hur­ricanes and tor­nadoes, and you’ll see that the com­munit­ies of col­or near chem­ic­al plants bear the brunt of tox­ic chem­ic­al ex­pos­ure with the in­creased chance of chem­ic­al dis­asters from cli­mate change.

Now we want it un­der­stood that we are grate­ful that Pres­id­ent Obama is­sued an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der in Au­gust 2013 to study the threats of chem­ic­al plants blow­ing up. We ap­pre­ci­ate that un­like any oth­er pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions, Obama’s En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency has sent staff out to com­munit­ies and en­gaged groups like the En­vir­on­ment­al Justice and Health Al­li­ance to help fig­ure out a solu­tion. We also ap­plaud Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden for sup­port­ing a plan to en­cour­age the chem­ic­al in­dustry to use what is called In­her­ently Safer Tech­no­lo­gies.

We’re con­cerned that the new in­ter­agency re­port, re­leased in June, merely sug­gests a “vol­un­tary” ef­fort from the chem­ic­al in­dustry to put in place plans to re­duce the chem­ic­al-dis­aster threat. This is an in­dustry that is not known for its trans­par­ency or hon­est deal­ings about the chem­ic­als they make. Renowned journ­al­ist Bill Moy­ers ad­dressed this along with the in­dustry at­tacks on the emer­ging sci­ence about the im­pacts of these chem­ic­als. The chem­ic­al in­dustry has not proved to us that they have the in­teg­rity to suc­cess­fully man­age a “vol­un­tary” pro­cess.

We want the gov­ern­ment to lay down the law to the pet­ro­chem­ic­al in­dustry. It’s time to be clear that these com­pan­ies are re­spons­ible for their products do­ing harm. They should be ac­count­able to the com­munit­ies where they make chem­ic­als, to the work­ers, and to those who buy their chem­ic­als.

We want Pres­id­ent Obama’s In­ter­agency Task Force on Chem­ic­al Dis­asters to design and im­ple­ment strong pro­tec­tions from chem­ic­al dis­asters for those in harm’s way. We want the pet­ro­chem­ic­al cor­por­a­tions held ac­count­able for the de­struc­tion they cause. We want this for all people, of all col­ors liv­ing in danger from chem­ic­al dis­asters. And we want it now, be­fore more people be­come sick, sick­er, or die from pre­vent­able chem­ic­al cata­strophes.

Richard Moore is the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Los Jardines In­sti­tute in Al­buquerque, N.M., co-co­ordin­at­or of the En­vir­on­ment­al Justice and Health Al­li­ance, and was a found­ing mem­ber of the EPA’s Na­tion­al En­vir­on­ment­al Justice Ad­vis­ory Coun­cil.

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comesop-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. In­ter­ested in sub­mit­ting a piece? Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com with a brief pitch. Please fol­low us onTwit­ter andFace­book.

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