Pollution, poverty and pandemic: A community on edge

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Over a lifetime on the industrial side of this university town, Antonia Brand has become accustomed to breathing bad air.

The mother of two stood on her doorstep just east of Stillman College, a historically Black college and an anchor in the community. Her home is minutes from an industrial park along the Black Warrior River, where an oil refinery owned by Hunt Refining Co. is flanked by a Michelin tire plant. A train yard crowded with oil cars is a short walk from Brand's home.

"It's awful," she said on a cool day, referencing the fumes coming from the train yard.


Giveaways created a poverty sinkhole. Then the virus hit

SHREVEPORT, La. — Property tax giveaways to oil companies and entrenched poverty around Louisiana refineries help tell the story of race and disease in an American energy hub.

COVID-19 spiked for weeks in the summer of 2020 in western Shreveport. In this declining city, where Jim Crow violence and redlining played out, local organizers and health experts say this century’s pandemic tells another story: a pattern of sustained community disinvestment.



Years of toxic leaks raise cancer risk in refinery town

ARTESIA, N.M. — When the new pastor arrived at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church a few years back, he was struck by the sight and smell of the towering refinery a block east of his chapel.

Pollution is a risk factor in the era of COVID-19. But the refinery in this small New Mexico town on the edge of the Permian oil basin posed a heightened threat to residents: It had some the nation's highest annual emissions of cancer-causing benzene after a decade of slack government oversight.


E&E News in partnership with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University set out in 2020 to examine the health of people living in the shadows of U.S. oil refineries.

Nearly 6 million people live within 1 mile of a refinery and, in most cases, those populations have higher rates of lung, heart and kidney diseases. These communities are often poorer and have higher percentages of Black Americans and Hispanics.

The coronavirus pandemic that killed more than 340,000 Americans in 2020 inflicted the most pain and suffering on places where disease was already prevalent. The unremitting grief in communities of color once again threw into sharp relief core environmental injustices and failures of the public health system.

In the five-part series "Toxic Zones," reporters interviewed residents living near refineries in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Shreveport, La.; Bakersfield, Calif.; Artesia, N.M.; and Philadelphia. For many, the pandemic that raged around the oil hubs in the spring and bit down again as winter approached was another chapter in the story of race, poverty and disease in America. The sickness and the joblessness levied a new form of violence in these communities.

"COVID is one more thing that shows how dangerous our patterns of both segregation and pollution are," said Gwen Ottinger, an associate professor at Drexel University who studies the cultural dynamics of environmental and health inequities.

An analysis of population and health data in the communities that surround U.S. refineries formed the foundation for the series. The toll on these fence-line communities has been the subject of decades of academic research and reports by public advocacy groups. But comprehensive national studies have been hampered by the lack of data about the air around facilities and the health outcomes of the residents who live there.

Data remains at the heart of our struggle to understand the effect of industrial pollution on specific communities. A Reuters report in December found that air monitors are inaccurate or nonexistent in some communities: "About 120 million Americans live in counties that have no EPA pollution monitors at all for small particle pollution." The number of monitors has declined over the past five years, Reuters found.


Data journalists at IRW spent months creating digital footprints for every U.S. refinery. From there, they aggregated census and health data for 1-, 3- and 5-mile zones around each facility and compared those zones to the surrounding counties.

Neighborhoods near the Hunt Refining facility in Tuscaloosa, for example, had nearly double the rate of kidney disease and strokes as the surrounding county.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data in 2016 designed to help communities better understand health outcomes. The data included census tract-level estimates on diseases and behaviors for the nation's 500 largest cities. IRW used the 2017 release of the "500 Cities" data in its analysis.

What has been missing from the data became more important as COVID-19 ravaged poor and minority communities. Fifty-eight of the roughly 130 U.S. refineries are in communities not covered by the 500 Cities data. And in other places, the data covers only a portion of the communities potentially affected by facilities.

The nation's oldest continuously operating refinery is in Bradford, Pa. But the town of 8,200 was too small to be included in the 500 Cities data. Also too small was Artesia, where the HollyFrontier Corp. Navajo refinery released enough benzene to cause acute harm to human health for at least 50 weeks since 2018.

New health data could help smaller communities. The CDC's "PLACES" project tracks health measures for every census tract in the country. The data is generated from model-based estimates using the 2017 and 2018 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2010 Census population estimates and five-year estimates from the American Community Survey.


CORBIN HIAR covers environmental health and EPA. His reporting for E&E News has been honored by the Society of Environmental Journalists, the National Press Club and the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

JEREMY P. JACOBS covers Western water, weather and legal issues for Greenwire, where he has worked since February 2010. He's written about the Supreme Court and a range of issues including the Clean Air Act, Superfund and chemical policy.

SEAN REILLY writes about air quality policy and regulations. His work has been honored by the National Press Club and Washington Press Club Foundation. He also contributed a chapter to "Turning Carolina Red," an eBook published by E&E in 2014.

HEATHER RICHARDS covers offshore energy — oil, natural gas and wind — and drilling on public lands for E&E. She previously covered energy and the environment for The Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming.

This series was a collaboration of E&E News, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, and NBC News.
Editors: Joel Kirkland, E&E News enterprise editor; Jennifer LaFleur, IRW data editor; Lynne Perri, IRW managing editor
Contributing reporter: Lisa Riordan Seville for NBC News