Excerpt: Crude, Slick and Deadly by Justin Williams
Big Oil’s Environmental Discrimination
Oil and gas workers are not the only victims of the petroleum industry's profit-seeking neglect. Innocent bystanders—families and businesses surrounding industrial facilities and drilling operations—are also suffering. And these victims are not chosen at random.
In 2001, R&B Falcon commissioned Hyundai Heavy Industries to construct a semi-submersible offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. BP leased the rig with big hopes. By the fall of 2009, it had drilled the deepest oil well in history– 35,050 feet down in 4,130 feet of water. In 2010, the mobile rig moved from its spot 250 miles southeast of Houston to a new spot 41 miles off the Louisiana coast and started up a new drilling project. On April 20, Deepwater Horizon exploded, sank, and gushed 4 million oil barrels into the Gulf.
Oil coated 1,300 miles of coastline. Grand Bayou marine life and waterways were destroyed. The Atakapa-Ishak people and other indigenous tribes were forced to evacuate their native land. And while BP, Halliburton, and Transocean agreed to pay billions in damages, members of these tribal communities are unlikely to see a dime. After all, the tribal communities reside in a “Sacrifice Zone.”
Sacrifice Zones are geographic regions that are continually exposed to environmental hazards or economic hardship—areas our nation “sacrifices” in the name of progress, or “the greater good.” U.S. and global corporations have targeted low-income and minority communities across the nation for decades, taking advantage of their inability to politically and financially defend themselves and their property. Corporate America uses these communities as dispensable resources, who not only suffer damage to their health and land value, but also to their culture, trades, and quality of life.
The term “Sacrifice Zones” is thought to have originated in the mid '70s when The National Academy of Sciences-National Academy of Engineering Study Committee examined the potential for rehabilitating western U.S. lands surface mined for coal. Their report described some surface mined lands as “national sacrifice areas.” The innocent use of this phrase quickly angered communities across the U.S. who felt the wording indicated they were considered dispensable.
In his 2010 book, Sacrifice Zones, Steve Lerner studied and interviewed residents from 12 of the most polluted communities in the U.S. and found that most of these areas were “fence-line communities” of low-income minorities living in dangerous proximity to industrial pollution— revealing a pattern of “environmental racism.” Lerner argues that regulatory efforts in environmental protection need an overhaul to focus on prevention and equal protection.
But the U.S. oil and gas industry has yet to pick up on the message. Big Oil has quietly designated countless communities throughout our great nation as Sacrifice Zones. Low-income and minority-dominated communities living in and around major shale plays and offshore drilling sites certainly experience high levels of environmental and economic discrimination—including communities along the Gulf Coast between Texas and Louisiana, in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and the California Coast.
Powerful petroleum companies establish Sacrifice Zones in locations where money and political power drown out the voices of the communities they poison (poor African American communities, native American tribal lands, disadvantaged Cajun families). By funding and controlling local elections, the industry is able to thwart environmental regulatory efforts and freely dump its nastiest stuff in or near communities of people too poor to voice effective opposition.
Research conducted by Dr. Graham Pickren, Assistant Professor of Sustainability Studies at Roosevelt University, asks whether the costs of the U.S. energy boom include “communities that have long been the sacrificial lambs of the growth machine.” Specifically focused on communities in the Calumet region along the coastline of Lake Michigan from Southern Illinois to Northwestern Indiana, Pickren measured the relationship between environmental indicators and population characteristics. He found that "communities within a 5-mile radius of the BP refinery in Whiting are disproportionately minority and low-income, and also face disproportionate exposure/risk/proximity to facilities than the state, regional, and national averages."
Interestingly, 44 percent of refinery workers that made $1,250 per month or less lived within 10 miles of the facility, compared to only 26 percent of workers who made over $3,333 per month. In other words, the lowest income earners at the BP refinery were the most likely to live in an area with higher than average environmental hazards.
“Even when BP is creating jobs in the Calumet region, the poorest workers suffer disproportionately in terms of exposure to health hazards,” Pickren wrote. “These are neighborhoods that are not prospering, despite being located near some of the most important petroleum, steel, and auto industries in the Great Lakes.”
Currently, residents of Chesapeake, Virginia, and surrounding counties are battling a $346 million natural gas infrastructure project proposed by Virginia Natural Gas, which plans to construct pipelines, compressor stations, and gas plants complete with risks of ground and surface water contamination, methane leaks, dangerous explosions, and other health and environmental hazards. One part of Virginia Natural Gas’ proposed project is to construct a compressor station in Chesapeake, within a one-mile radius of 6,500 residents. Thirty-one percent of them are low-income. Sixty-five percent are people of color.
Trading Health for Profit
A recent study by the Colorado School of Public Health determined that people who reside within 500 feet of an oil and gas extraction site have a cancer risk eight times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) maximum lifetime risk. Residents of towns located in the vicinity of fracking wells and other oil and gas facilities may develop cancer at rates above the ones observed for the general population.
Another recent study by the University of Missouri and the University of Massachusetts analyzed the effect of prenatal exposure to the chemicals used in fracking, on mice. The females who had been exposed before birth showed an increased risk of developing breast cancer as adults. The study concluded that “the mammary gland is sensitive to mixtures of chemicals used in UOG [unconventional oil and gas] production at exposure levels that are environmentally relevant.”
A study by the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University analyzed hospitalization rates near fracking sites around Pennsylvania between 2007 and 2011. Researchers found that residents living closest to fracking wells experienced 27 percent more hospitalizations connected with heart conditions, and significantly higher hospitalization rates for cancer and neurological conditions than people living in non-fracking areas.
University of Texas-Austin researcher Rachael Rawlins recently linked air pollution from Barnett Shale developments to high cancer rates. Specifically, Rawlins studied the cancer cluster around the city of Flower Mound, Texas. Of course, the state of Texas has denied the existence of a cancer cluster, but Rawlins found a link between the surge of childhood leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cases in the area between 1997 and 2009, and fracking developments.
Maria Morandi, a professor at the University of Montana, co-authored the UT-Austin analysis. The research team looked more closely at data about carcinogenic emissions that had been previously analyzed by the state of Texas. While the state-sponsored analysis didn’t confirm a link between fracking and childhood leukemia, it did establish, with a 99 percent certainty, that Flower Mound showed higher than average rates of breast cancer.
For Morandi and Montana, there is only a 5 percent certainty that the high cancer rate in Flower Mound is completely random and not linked to the extended fracking operations around the area. Rawlins has told reporters that while the industry and the government tend to dismiss the concept of a link between cancer and fracking, “we are confident that we know what are safe levels of toxins and that we have identified chemicals of concern.”
A recent report that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine states, “Gas compressor stations emit toxic and carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene…and formaldehyde. Wells, pipelines and compressor stations are disproportionately located in low-income, minority, and marginalized communities, where they may leak gas, generate noise, endanger health, and contribute to environmental injustice while producing no local benefit.”
Communities Fighting Back
Communities have been fighting against environmental discrimination for over 40 years. In the 1979 case of Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc., Houston communities used civil rights laws to argue environmental discrimination. Plans were in place to install a municipal landfill near their Northwood Manor neighborhood. Rarely would officials chunk a municipal waste disposal facility in the middle of a suburban, middle-class residential area. But this neighborhood was over 82 percent black.
This case demonstrated that poverty is not the only common variable associated with Sacrifice Zones. Race is also a factor. Numerous studies have confirmed that race—specifically African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Alaska Natives—plays an undeniable role in the selection of Sacrifice Zones.
In the early 2000s, despite being home to one of the largest oil refineries in California, the small, minority-dominated Richmond was sinking in pollution and poverty. The city of 100,000 was a mix of African American, Asian, and Latino communities. Energy giant Chevron provided Richmond’s main source of income, yet the unemployment rate was double the national average.
Instead of paying taxes to the city, Chevron opted to fund local politicians and community organizations who supported its efforts with the Chevron Richmond Refinery—a 3,000-acre petroleum refinery situated on San Francisco Bay. Capable of producing 240,000 barrels of crude oil per day, the Richmond Refinery has had its share of environmental problems. Numerous explosions have littered the air with toxic fumes, injuring hundreds of residents and workers over the years.
Chevron boasted of the jobs it brought the city, though in 2012 only 5 percent of its employees were Richmond residents. Citizens argued that Chevron should help fund the local hospitals who continually treated patients for illnesses resulting from chemical spills and pollution.
In 2003, large numbers of concerned citizens got together to protest plans for a new, oil-burning municipal power plant. They succeeded and the plans were quashed. They called themselves the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and continued to hold public assemblies focused on enforcing environmental regulations and taxing Chevron at higher rates.
One member, Gayle McLaughlin, was elected to city council in 2004. She then served as Mayor of Richmond from 2006 to 2014 even with extreme resistance from Chevron. Her election made Richmond the largest U.S. city to have a Green Party mayor. McLaughlin succeeded in achieving higher tax rates from Chevron for the city of Richmond.
After her second term as Mayor ended, McLaughlin didn't stop fighting to restrict Chevron’s municipal influence and reshape its environmental responsibilities. Meanwhile, Chevron was ready to regain power in the city. The company spent $3.1 million on the 2014 campaign for mayor of Richmond, backing city councilman Nat Bates. It ran nasty smear campaigns against his opponent, RPA-supported democrat Tom Butts. But with the help of McLaughlin's college friend Bernie Sanders, the RPA raised sufficient funds for the campaign. Butts won and numerous other anti-Chevron candidates joined the city council.
Another inspiring story of communities coming together against problematic oil and gas projects resulted in the cancellation of a massive pipeline plan. With decades of mountain coal production and ever-increasing fossil fuel production coming from the Marcellus and Utica shale plays, West Virginia communities have experienced their share of exposure to the energy industry. Loss of land viability, water and air pollution, and black lung disease are prevalent in the region.
The story began in September 2013, when the Obama administration granted Dominion Energy’s request to export natural gas to India and Japan. A joint venture between Dominion and Duke Energy, Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC, proposed a 600-mile pipeline capable of moving 1.5 trillion cubic feet of gas per day from Clarksburg, West Virginia, to Robeson County, North Carolina. Interestingly, instead of running through higher-income areas with higher home and land values, lower poverty rates, and lower minority rates like Albemarle, Fluvanna, and Cumberland County, Dominion planned to run the pipeline a few counties south—along from Harrison through Lewis, Randolph, Upshur, and Pocahontas Counties—where African-American populations and poverty rates are higher, while median household incomes and home values are lower.
Communities that lay on the path of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline were worried. Landowners in its proposed path protested and raised funds to run advertising campaigns opposing the project. Community groups hired engineers and environmental experts to gather evidence demonstrating the project’s technical impracticalities and impropriety.
Around 30,000 Native Americans lived within one mile of the proposed pipeline pathway. Researchers asserted that regulators and developers had failed to properly identify disproportionate impacts and consult with tribal governments as required under Executive Order 12898.
On July 5, 2020, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy announced that they were canceling the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project due to delays and costs uncertainties.
In June 2020, a Pennsylvania grand jury proposed stricter oversight for hydraulic fracturing following a series of investigations into industry practices ordered by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. The investigations revealed a number of disturbing findings, including residents’ evidence of rust-colored drinking water, dead livestock, and frequent headaches and nausea.
Residential well water turned cloudy and eventually ran completely dry. One resident filmed a waterway change colors near a drilling facility. Parents complained of children suffering from frequent, severe nosebleeds. Heavy truck traffic filled the air and coated outdoor surfaces with a film of dust and particulates, preventing families from opening windows or going outdoors. Yet when residents brought their numerous concerns to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), they were turned away with allegations of filing “false reports.”
They fought in court, and a grand jury eventually made a number of recommendations regarding fracking oversight, stating, “We heard clear and convincing evidence that leads us to conclude that industry operations in Pennsylvania have made our children sick.” The grand jury's recommendations to the industry included:
- Give Attorney General’s office “original criminal jurisdiction over unconventional oil and gas companies”
- Increase the required distance between oil and gas wells and buildings from 500 to 2,500 feet - more than 2,500 feet for schools and hospitals.
- Limit legislators’ and state employees’ ability to leave public service for jobs in the industry
- Publicly report chemicals used in operations
- Regulate gathering pipelines based on risk instead of size
- Strengthen air pollution regulations around fracking sites
Deadly gas leaks, catastrophic oil spills, and devastating explosions have become an integral part of the picture for the industry. But many of these disastrous events are entirely avoidable. Compliance with safety regulations, regular and thorough inspections, proper equipment maintenance, and reliable staff training can have a great impact on accident and pollution prevention. Regardless of what Big Oil thinks, people are incredibly powerful. Independent of their race, background, culture, or class, people have influence and the innate ability to inspire change.
As an advocate for individuals and families harmed by the neglectful acts and misconduct of petroleum companies, I am constantly inspired by these stories of success and regulatory change in the fight against Sacrifice Zones. Affected groups must continue to educate their communities, support electoral candidates and government officials who will act to enforce environmental and economic improvements, and persist in using groundbreaking legal strategies to win these battles for future generations.