EJHA report: People of color most vulnerable to toxic chemical disasters

They are ‘treated as if they are disposable human beings


By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


Blacks, Latinos and other people of color, and low-income residents are disapportionately in harm’s way if a worst-case factory disaster occurs.

A new report, “Who’s In Danger? Race, Poverty, and Chemical Disasters,” by the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance (EJHA), a national coalition of grassroots groups, studied 3,433 facilities nationwide, including 52 in Minnesota, that manufacture chemicals, blench, pulp and paper; water treatment plants; electric power plants; and oil refineries that store or use “highly hazardous chemicals.”

Dr. Henry Clark 9l) and Michele Roberts Photos courtesy of  EJHA

The 200-page report concerns residents living in “vulnerability zones” — areas up to 20 miles in all directions of the facility — that are less likely to escape from a toxic or flammable chemical emergency. It found that such residents are disproportionately Black or Latino, have higher rates of poverty, and have lower housing values and education levels lower than the national average.

The potential dangers include “a toxic gas cloud or blast” or factory leaks that could “go undetected for days.”

The EJHA report lists chemical manufacturing plants, bleach manufacturing plants, and water treatment plants as the three industries with the highest numbers of facilities that can affect the most people. Blacks and other people of color often are “in harm’s way,” said Dr. Robert Bullard, the dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

“[This] is not rhetoric stuff. It’s reality. Every day and every week there are incidents,” said Bullard in a May 1 teleconference call when he, the report authors and other advocates spoke to reporters.

“Real, everyday people” are impacted every day, added EJHA National Co-coordinator Michele Roberts. “Sadly, we have witnessed too many tragic catastrophes,” she added, pointing to what happened this past January in Charleston, West Virginia, when a highly toxic chemical was released from a factory into a river. “At least 100,000 people are still sick, and over 300,000 people are out of water,” she observed.

Dr. Henry Clark is a longtime resident near an oil refinery in Richmond, Calif., in a primarily Black, Latino and low-income community. “I was born and raised there, not more than a block away,” said the 69-year-old man. “I had to bury several of our members over the years that died from some sort of respiratory [illness] or cancer that was associated with chemical exposure from the refinery.”

Many residents living there are still dealing with the aftermath of a 2012 explosion in which reportedly over 15,000 persons went to local hospitals due to respiratory problems, continued Clark. “I was affected myself. It was the worst accident I ever experienced.”

“I grew up with asthma,” said Yudith Nieto of Houston, Texas. Her Manchester neighborhood is “completely surrounded by industries. We experienced all types of smells,” she added. “After a while, you are no longer able to pick up the smells in your nose because of so many chemicals.”

Dr. Henry Clark (l) and Michele Roberts Photos courtesy of EJHA
Dr. Henry Clark (l) and Michele Roberts
Photos courtesy of EJHA

“People-of-color communities are treated as if they are disposable human beings. This is environmental injustice and racism,” said Roberts.

If an accident occurs, the EJHA report points out that safety plans often are not in place or nearby residents are aware of them. Community residents aren’t fully aware of what dangers they might be subjected to or what to do if something occurs, noted Nieto. Her neighborhood hears alarms “all through the day and night. We don’t know why the alarms are happening. We are not trained to react if there is an emergency,” she pointed out.

The Hennepin County Recovery Center (HERC) was not included in the EJHA report. “A garbage burner or inclinator would not be the type of facility that we featured,” explained EJHA Researcher Paul Orum. “Presumably it does not store large amounts of extremely hazardous substances. But it does have emissions.”

Anhydrous ammonia is listed in the report as among the 10 “dangerous” chemicals. David McNary, who is in charge of the Hennepin County’s solid waste division, told the MSR that anhydrous ammonia was used at HERC but was permanently removed in 2009, the year the Twins ballpark was opened.

“Right now we are not using any type of ammonia system,” reported McNary, who added when asked that the new stadium was partly the reason for ending its use. “Yes, that was part of the development — the condos and the Twins stadium…and the recommendation that it was a dangerous source,” he admitted.

Building HERC on the edge of downtown Minneapolis but just over the bridge from the city’s North Side, which is primarily populated by Blacks, “I don’t believe was by accident,” says Karen Morrison, a local environmental justice advocate. “It’s another injustice on communities of color.”

She recalls during the discussion on the proposed HERC in the early 1980s, “I think they had discussed putting [it] in Northeast. Northeast [residents] organized and they had some political clout [and] they were able not to have it in their back yard.”

The EHJA report recommends that all levels of government and the industries “act aggressively to protect the lives of people living near and working in these facilities” and offered “many safer alternatives” that could be used instead of current practices. Roberts told reporters that presidential orders, such as President Barack Obama’s 2013 Executive Order on Chemical Facility Safety and Security, lack “teeth” to enforce changes without support from Congress.

When asked if HERC is safe, McNary said, “It has been in operation for 25 years and it has been very safe. We believe so.”


Next: A look at local environmental health emergency response plans

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.

To see more stories by Charles Hallman stories click HERE