As much of the current health news is focused on COVID-19, the July 28 story of The New York Times Magazine devoted pages to a crisis that has been unfolding in the Grays Ferry section of Philadelphia, targeting its largely Black population.

Pollution Is Killing Black Americans. This Community Fought Back, written by Linda Villarosa, looks at one community’s fight to stop an oil refinery, Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES), whose toxic outputs has caused asthma and cancer rates in the neighborhood to skyrocket. Of the many residents in the area, the article follows cancer survivor Kilynn Johnson. Yet her struggle is not unique, as the article explains:

Black communities like Grays Ferry shoulder a disproportionate burden of the nation’s pollution — from foul water in Flint, Mich., to dangerous chemicals that have poisoned a corridor of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley — which scientists and policymakers have known for decades. A 2017 report from the N.A.A.C.P. and the Clean Air Task Force provided more evidence. It showed that African-Americans are 75 percent more likely than other Americans to live in so-called fence-line communities, defined as areas situated near facilities that produce hazardous waste.

A study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Center for Environmental Assessment and published in 2018 in the American Journal of Public Health examined facilities emitting air pollution along with the racial and economic profiles of surrounding communities. It found that Black Americans are subjected to higher levels of air pollution than white Americans — regardless of their income level. Black Americans are exposed to 1.5 times as much of the sooty pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels as the population at large. This dirty air is associated with lung disease, including asthma, as well as heart disease, premature death and now Covid-19.

It is not only the Grays Ferry neighborhood but all of Philadelphia—which is 44 percent Black—that is at danger for the toxic emissions released by the refinery, including carcinogen benzene.

“The refinery has a very long history of environmental regulation problems and really old technology,” Peter DeCarlo, a former professor at Drexel University who is now an associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University, said in an interview. “It sits very close to a densely populated area. If a refinery were trying to get a permit to operate where it is currently, today, right now, it would never be given.”

In 2019, the American Lung Association stated, “If you live in Philadelphia County, the air you breathe may put your health at risk.” The article continued:

The urgency of this environmental crisis has been hastened by climate change and has now gathered speed and attention as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the current racial-justice movement. The racial disparities that have exposed Black Americans to a disproportionate share of air pollution have risen to the surface to lethal effect during the current pandemic. A study of more than 3,000 U.S. counties released in April but not yet published shows a statistical connection between death rates from Covid-19 and long-term exposure to air pollution. The researchers, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, noted that even a small increase in particulate matter — tiny airborne particles emitted from power plants, industrial facilities and vehicles — corresponded to a significant increase in Covid-19 mortality. Each increased microgram of this kind of pollution per cubic meter of air is associated with an 8 percent increase in death from Covid-19.

“You can’t understand environmental racism without understanding the legacy and the history of residential segregation, which created the disinvestment that has happened in communities in Philadelphia like Grays Ferry for decades,” Sharrelle Barber, an assistant research professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health in Philadelphia, told The Times in an interview.

In January, a grassroots environmental group called Philly Thrive, comprised of many Black Grays Ferry residents including Johnson, decided it was time to take action and block construction of a new $60 million plant on city-owned land close to P.E.S.:

Many of those who attended that January meeting may not have realized that they were joining a long tradition of on-the-ground environmental activism. The first stirrings of the Black-led environmental-justice movement began in the late 1970s as a convergence of a growing interest in environmental issues and the civil rights and Black-power movements. Alarmed and angry community members began raising concerns about the placement of facilities that contaminate the air, water and soil — including incinerators, oil refineries, smelters, sewage-treatment plants, landfills and chemical plants — near communities of color and, as in the case of Grays Ferry, placing housing that would be mainly occupied by Black citizens close to such facilities.

Villarosa goes on to place the actions of the Grays Ferry community into the larger environmental racism moving, detailing its origins and how it directly confronted the shortcomings of the overall environmental movement:

In March 1990, more than 100 grass-roots activists, almost all of them people of color, signed an accusatory letter to 10 of the most prominent environmental groups. “Racism is a root cause of your inaction around addressing environmental problems in our communities,” they wrote, demanding that the organizations increase staffing of people of color to 35 to 40 percent (the demand was not met). The following year, more than 500 people gathered in Washington, D.C., for the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, dispelling the assumption that Black and brown people are not interested in or involved with environmental issues.

Despite the efforts and protests of Philly Thrive, the city council voted in favor of building the new gas plant in June 2019. One week later, at the P.E.S. refinery, “a corroded pipe fitting appeared to have given way, triggering a series of explosions that set off a three-alarm inferno that would burn for more than a full day.” By the end of the month, it was announced that the plant would close as a result of the explosion and fire:

In January 2020, an investigation by the environmental and energy-reporting organization E&E News, NBC and American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop revealed that even before the June explosion, P.E.S. had released the cancer-causing chemical benzene into the air at 21 times the federal limit, though the city failed to let the public know. The report said: “The fenceline benzene emission data, which E.P.A. began posting early last year, shows the refinery exceeded the benzene emissions limit for all but 12 weeks from the end of January 2018 to late September 2019 — an 86-week span. That may have exposed thousands of Philadelphians to troubling levels of benzene, including children like those who often play in the streets of Grays Ferry.”

The site of the now-demolished refinery is intended to become a mixed-use industrial park.

Read the full article here.