Pollution injustice plagues the South. Its deadliness is revealed in new reports

Just a week after President Joe Biden promised to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, a move that he hopes will create more green jobs and alleviate pollution in regions he said have been left behind, a new comprehensive pollution study has revealed the stunning racial inequalities that exist throughout the country and in the South.

In every Southern state, people of color suffer disproportionately from harmful air pollution compared to their white counterparts, according to a new study from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Washington, D.C.,-based non-profit that publishes several highly respected science journals.

The study examined thousands of different sources of the pollution including building construction, large industry and general heavy-duty air pollution, among thousands of others.

Nationally, Black Americans are disproportionately exposed to pollutants from every source examined by the study. People of color, a group that includes African Americans, Hispanics and Asians, are heavily exposed in most categories aside from pollutants coming from coal-fired power plants and the agriculture industry.

White people were more exposed to pollution than people of color in both categories, but far less than Blacks when compared directly.

The findings vary depending on the state and form of pollution. For example, in Alabama Black people suffer the effects of industrial pollution more than any other race. 

In South Carolina, white people are more exposed to agricultural pollution than any other group, whereas in Florida Hispanic people suffer more from pollutants in the construction industry. Asian people, although in low numbers, figure highly in every Southern state when looking at pollutants from commercial cooking, or restaurants.

Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and Arkansas have the largest overall pollution disparities between people of color and whites, the study noted. Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas had the lowest.

Pollution is responsible for between 85,000 and 200,000 deaths per year. It’s also responsible for a number of diseases, including heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and acute lower respiratory infections in children.

The disparities noted in the study were seen nationally, across income levels and the urban-rural divide. In short, people of color were disproportionately affected regardless of income and location.

A separate recently released study showed that nine Southern-based oil refineries give off dangerous levels of benzene, prolonged exposure to which can cause cancer. The Environmental Integrity Project, a group founded by former EPA officials, said that of the 17 refineries studied, 13 recorded dangerous levels of benzene. Most of the refineries are in low-income areas where the residents are predominantly people of color. Most were in Louisiana and Texas. 

The biggest polluter was in Krotz Springs, La, about 50 miles west of Baton Rouge. The refinery is owned by the Tennessee-based Delek. The refinery was 246% over safe benzene levels, according to official 2020 EPA statistics. 

Around 3% of the town’s population is Black and 43% of the total population live under the poverty line.

In response to the report, Delek told Reckon it had already taken measures to make the plant compliant. 

“Delek is focused on serving as a good steward of the environment and supportive member of the communities in which we operate,” the company said in an emailed response. “We implemented a number of effective changes at the Krotz Springs Refinery in September of 2020. Since taking those steps, the refinery’s two week average fence line monitoring results for benzene have been below the 9 micrograms per cubic meter threshold. We anticipate the refinery’s rolling 12 month average will fall below 9 micrograms per cubic meter by this summer.”

Under the 2015 Clean Air Act, all refineries must have air pollution monitors. If the levels are above nine micrograms per cubic meter above background levels over a year, the refinery must investigate and clean up the emissions. Over 2020, Krotz Springs recorded 31.1 micrograms per cubic meter. 

The chemical can cause cancer.

Benzene is not some harmless chemical – it is a known carcinogen,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a non-profit environmental justice group based in New Orleans, to the authors of the study. “We want the new administration at EPA to acknowledge that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is incapable of solving this problem. Year after year, the state has failed to act. We need federal intervention and we need it now. Without an active EPA, schoolchildren will continue to be exposed. It is so wrong.”

The second worst of the Southern refineries was in Saraland, Ala, at a plant about 12 miles north of Mobile and in North America’s second largest delta system – one of the most biodiverse areas in the country. That facility was 126% over minimum levels, according to the study.

In addition to Krotz Springs — located along a stretch of the Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley, home to dozens of petrochemical plants and a large number of reported cancer cases — Alabama’s Black Belt is another area that has suffered disproportionately from pollution. 

One of the most notable examples is Uniontown, where excessive coal ash was moved from Tennessee starting in 2009 and where 84% of residents are Black and 49% live under the poverty level. The spill happened in Roane County, where more than 94% of the population is white. 

Researchers deemed the drinking water unsafe because of the high levels of lead and traces of arsenic. Some people lived no more than 100 feet from the coal ash pond.

In 2018, a federal discrimination lawsuit filed six years earlier by residents was dismissed due to what a judge called “insufficient evidence.”  

And earlier this month, the non-profit clean water advocacy group, American Rivers, named two rivers in the South as endangered. Turkey Creek in south Mississippi was listed because of two major developments that the group says are a risk to flooding and clean water. The other is South River, just south of Atlanta, Georgia, which is at risk from sewage pollution and lax enforcement.

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.