The Environmental Racism Dimensions of One Gas Plant Explosion

A massive fire at a Philadelphia gas plant is not just an isolated infrastructure moment

a B|E Green Riff

Image result for philly oil refinery explosion

The massive oil refinery explosion and fire that ripped through South Philadelphia recently will be viewed as just another everyday American infrastructure failure. And public officials, while concerned about the size of the fire, will attempt to reassure a wary public that it’s under control because, “thankfully, no one was hurt.”

It is, however, much more than that and people have been getting hurt by that refinery for quite a long time. Given the proximity of that refinery, the largest and oldest of its kind in the United States, to residential neighborhoods, this latest disaster represents a new wrinkle in the ongoing discussion over the disproportionate exposure of vulnerable Black and Brown populations to heavy polluting chemical and fossil fuel sites.

Philadelphia is a city of 1.6 million where nearly half the population identifies as Black. The PES refinery, according to the NAACP’s 2017 “Fumes Across the Fence Linereport

… is responsible for 72 percent of the toxic air emissions in Philadelphia, which contributes largely to a citywide child-hood asthma rate that is more than two times the national average.62 Toxics released from the refinery include ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, benzene, and sulfuric acid, which cause effects ranging from headaches to cancer.

Chronic disease rates are rather high. Local environmental advocacy group PhillyThrive has been highlighting this for years now, capturing it in a 2017 survey of residents around the PES refinery, finding that:

  • 33.9% of participants living near the refinery had asthma at some point in their life, compared to the national average of 7.7%1.

  • 52.6% of respondents living near the refinery had one or more of the following health conditions: asthma, heart disease, cancer, or another respiratory condition.

  • 82% of respondents expressed negative feelings about the PES refinery, with the top critique being that it’s dangerous, a hazard and a health concern.

  • 95% of people who live near the refinery wanted the city to consider having polluters like PES pay for the damages they have caused.

Here are some glaring findings from the NAACP report …

Cancer mortality rates are among the highest in the area where the PES plant is situated in Philadelphia …

Image result for maps of philadelphia cancer rates

A recent 2019 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) report shows glaring pollution inequity impacting Black and Latino populations, as well ….

Researchers note …

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution exposure is the largest environmental health risk factor in the United States. Here, we link PM2.5 exposure to the human activities responsible for PM2.5 pollution. We use these results to explore “pollution inequity”: the difference between the environmental health damage caused by a racial–ethnic group and the damage that group experiences. We show that, in the United States, PM2.5 exposure is disproportionately caused by consumption of goods and services mainly by the non-Hispanic white majority, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic minorities. On average, non-Hispanic whites experience a “pollution advantage”: They experience ∼17% less air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption. Blacks and Hispanics on average bear a “pollution burden” of 56% and 63% excess exposure, respectively, relative to the exposure caused by their consumption. The total disparity is caused as much by how much people consume as by how much pollution they breathe. Differences in the types of goods and services consumed by each group are less important. PM2.5 exposures declined ∼50% during 2002–2015 for all three racial–ethnic groups, but pollution inequity has remained high.

Hence, the recent oil refinery explosion in Philly should not be viewed as one in a string of incidents highlighting national infrastructure failure requiring repair. It should offer an opportunity for a revived national discussion on the public health consequences of the fossil fuel supply chain and the unequal, uneven distribution of pollution from that supply chain according to race and zip code.


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