Friday Jun 02, 2023

How Black Communities Become “Sacrifice Zones” for Industrial Air Pollution – ProPublica


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This story was co-published with Mountain State Spotlight, a nonprofit newsroom covering West Virginia.

Every time Pam Nixon drives along Interstate 64, she sees the Union Carbide plant. Wedged between a green hillside and the Kanawha River, the sprawling facility has helped define West Virginia’s “Chemical Valley” for the better part of a century, its smokestacks belching gray plumes and fishy odors into the town of Institute, population 1,400. To many West Virginians, the plant is a source of pride — it was a key maker of synthetic rubber in World War II — and a source of hundreds of jobs. But to Nixon and others in Institute’s largely Black community, it has meant something else: pollution. The plant reminds Nixon of leaks, fires, explosions — dangers she’s dedicated most of her adult life to trying to stop.

Now, on a warm September evening, the 69-year-old retiree was at it again.

Surrounded by files, documents and reports in her cluttered home office, she turned on her computer around 6 p.m. and logged on to Zoom. On the screen were U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials from Washington, D.C., and state regulators from the capital, Charleston. She had spent weeks calling and emailing residents to convince people to attend. Her goal: show officials that her community was watching them. “You have to be persistent,” she said. Nixon watched approvingly as the audience grew to nearly 300.

Pam Nixon stands outside her home in South Charleston, West Virginia. Nixon got sick after being exposed to a leak from the Institute plant in 1985, and that spurred her to become an activist. She spent 15 years working as the environmental advocate for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica

The threat this time: ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing chemical that facilities like the Union Carbide plant, now owned by Dow Chemical, make and that helps produce a huge variety of products, including antifreeze, pesticides and sterilizing agents for medical tools. The regulators, their Zoom backgrounds set to photos of pristine pine forests and green fields, shared a map of the area, a short drive west from Charleston. Institute, one of just two majority-Black communities in the state, is home to West Virginia State University, a historically Black college whose alumni include Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician made famous by the film “Hidden Figures,” and Earl Lloyd, the first Black player in the NBA. Blocks on the map were shaded green, yellow or red, from lowest to highest cancer risk. Much of Institute was bright red.

Institute is representative of Black communities across the country that bear a disproportionate health burden from industrial pollution. On average, the level of cancer risk from industrial air pollution in majority-Black census tracts is more than double that of majority-white tracts, according to an analysis by ProPublica, which examined five years of emissions data. That finding builds on decades of evidence demonstrating that pollution is segregated, with residents of so-called fence-line communities — neighborhoods that border industrial plants — breathing dirtier air than people in more affluent communities farther away from facilities.

The disparity, …….


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