WASHINGTON, D.C. (NNPA) – For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency may require oil refineries to regularly measure the air quality at their perimeters. These fence line measurements will give surrounding communities (largely low-income communities of color) data on the level of pollution they are exposed to each day.
The EPA’s proposed rule changes are the result of a lawsuit brought against them by environmental advocacy nonprofit, Earthjustice and a few grassroots groups around the country, including the Community In-Power Development Association. The group is based in Port Arthur, Texas, a historically Black neighborhood turned fence line community surrounded by four oil refineries, six chemical plants, one international incineration facility, and one pet coke facility. Pet coke is both a refining byproduct and a fuel source that, when burned, emits more carbon dioxide than coal.
Hilton Kelley founded the association in 2000. He says the lawsuit was years in the making.
“For almost 20 years, the EPA has done nothing to revisit their guidelines and say, wait a minute—it’s time to push these guys to upgrade and use better technology to protect human health,” Kelley said.
“We’ve been asking for at least six or seven years to get them to revisit these guidelines and take a look at the possibility of updating them. I think it’s every five years or so, they’re supposed to look at ways they can increase protection of citizens who live next to these kinds of facilities.”
The civil suit was filed in federal district court last year. In February of this year, the EPA settled and a consent decree was signed for the agency to begin the process of updating its rules for petroleum refineries. In addition to the fence line data, the proposed rules include caps on emissions from storage tanks and incinerating gases through a process called flaring, which releases billowing black smoke into the air for hours at a time. They also propose mandatory updates to monitoring equipment and public health procedures.
“To its credit, the EPA realized it had a responsibility to people. The case was resolved amicably to avoid unnecessary litigation,” said Emma Cheuse, senior associate attorney at Earthjustice. “Some communities are bearing the brunt of pollution more than others, and that burden is falling too much on communities of color, and low-income communities.”
Oil refineries in particular release tens of thousands of tons of toxins into the air annually, including a known carcinogen called benzene. Places such as Richmond, California; Dearborn, Michigan; Port Arthur, Texas; Northeast Philadelphia, and many more, literally host and neighbor hundreds of the nation’s industrial plants.
Take Southwest Detroit, for example. When Theresa Landrum was a girl growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a pleasant place to be. Residents tended vegetable patches and fruit-bearing trees. The land was rich, situated on mineral fields. Just beyond the rail lines, neighborhood kids ventured into wetlands to chase rabbits, salamanders, garden snakes, and other wildlife. The men in Landrum’s family made a decent living at the industrial plants in the area. Marathon Petroleum was the closest one, and at that time, she says, it was “just one building up on a hill.”
Today, the Marathon Petroleum Detroit refinery stretches for miles along I-75, refining 123,000 barrels each day. In 2011, University of Michigan researchers found that Landrum’s neighborhood, zip code 48217, was the most polluted area in Michigan. A few years prior, Marathon bought out and relocated neighboring Oakwood Heights (a predominantly White neighborhood) with intent to “preserve it as green space.” No such buyout materialized for Landrum’s community, although it is closer to the refinery.
“Things started to not grow anymore,” Landrum said. “A lot of neighbors, friends, and family got sick—with breathing problems, asthma, illnesses like COPD, sarcoidosis, all kinds of cancers, skin rashes. They just attributed it to our lifestyle, but a lot of people didn’t smoke or drink and ate healthy, from their garden.”
Landrum lost both her parents to lung cancer, and is a cancer survivor herself. She’s part of a growing number of people and communities organizing to hold industrial companies and regulating agencies accountable for toxic emissions.
On August 5, she and other community members, environmental organizations, and concerned parties from all over traveled to Houston to testify at an EPA hearing on the proposed regulation updates.
“The real game changer is the fence line rule,” said Saleem Chapman, environmental justice program manager at Clean Air Council, a mid-Atlantic advocacy organization based in Philadelphia. Chapman, a Philadelphia native, traveled to Houston to give testimony on behalf of the communities the council serves.
“Philadelphia is one of the most polluted cities in the nation—and people are not currently aware. We can’t develop proper resources or the proper ways to keep people protected because we don’t have access to the data. We’re as much in the dark as the communities.”
Regulations that are already in place to protect fence line communities aren’t being enforced, some say. Landrum, for example, cites local elected officials and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality as barriers to environmental justice efforts.
“The MDEQ has been very lax in doing their jobs. They tell us we have to be their eyes and ears. If something happens, we have to call them to send an inspector. They’re very hesitant to issue violations, and they do not deny any permit,” she said.
“[Other parties] are concerned, but there’s power in money. Marathon is free to pass around money. Very few officials, politicians, and legislators are speaking against Marathon and industry in general.”
Kelley echoed similar observations.
“They just believe that since the nation or the world needs this product, that they can get away with doing whatever they have to do to produce it. And basically they have for many years,” he said. “Even though there’s laws on the books that govern these tasks within the Clean Air Act, these guys find it very economically suitable for them to just skate by.”
Environmental justice and environmental racism are concepts that have been around for decades. The former aims to achieve equality for all in environmental decisions, procedures, and rules. The latter refers to the practice of establishing environmental hazards in or near communities of color and/or little means.
The concepts are still unknown to many. But as climate change becomes a more critical issue, and as community organizers spotlight their homes on the frontlines, the concepts are gaining traction.
The EPA will continue to solicit public comments on its rulemaking through October 28. The resulting rules will be issued next year. “I think because of work we’ve done over the years people are becoming more aware, but I find that a lot of folks are really shocked when they learn that communities… live so close to refineries and chemical plants,” Kelley explains.
“We live within a stones throw of a chemical storage tank. It’s very taxing on one’s nerves to live in such a community, but [Port Arthur] is an area where the land is cheap and historically, it’s the only area Black people could live, back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. So it just became a way of life.”