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)

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.

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