In a segregated community outside of an Alabama oil refinery, chronic illness tells a story of racial inequality, poverty and disease as U.S. deaths from COVID-19 surpass 300,000.
by Sean Reilly, E&E News
Wednesday, December 16, 2020
This is the fifth in the “Toxic Zones” series.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Over a lifetime on the industrial side of this university town, Antonia Brand has become accustomed to breathing bad air.
This story is part of Toxic Zones, an occasional series about communities near refineries. The project is a collaboration among IRW, NBC News and E&E News.
“It’s awful,” she said on a cool day, referencing the fumes coming from the train yard.
To Brand, 40, who has asthma, there are no simple answers to her concerns about the health effects of living close to the refinery and the 80-year-old industrial hub.
This year, tragedy struck Brand’s family. COVID-19 claimed the life of her uncle, and two cousins were hospitalized with the disease. Her family’s heartbreak thrust Brand into a national reckoning over racial inequality, poverty and disease, which today is bound up in a pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 Americans and disproportionately affected Black communities and people with increased exposure to polluted air.
“At least help me with my medical expenses,” Brand said, calling out local, state and federal agencies responsible for monitoring public health. “Because I know that they know that a lot of this is due to the factories.”
Brand’s likely exposure to air pollutants that are connected to chronic illnesses is characteristic of “fence line communities” across America, where people live in neighborhoods just outside the perimeters of heavily polluting oil refineries and chemical plants. Outside the Hunt refinery in Tuscaloosa, people live with elevated rates of high blood pressure; cancer; asthma; strokes; and heart, lung and kidney diseases, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.
E&E News interviewed residents of the city’s West End neighborhood over the long arc of 2020 — just before COVID-19 hit hard in the early spring, and in recent weeks, as a third wave of infections gripped the South and much of the nation.
Brand, who was interviewed earlier this year, moved to a new house this month that is farther from the train yard. People of all ages said they felt there’s no avoiding the tons of emissions spewing from nearby plants. Some were unconcerned, but others said they were left in the dark about hidden health risks posed by heavy industry, even as refinery pollution is linked to a range of health problems, including lung conditions that researchers say have put people at far greater risk of dying from COVID-19.
City, state and federal officials don’t bring science to their doorsteps, West End residents say, and that’s come to be expected. The information gap is at the heart of a system that often fails, by malign neglect, the people who are most at risk.
‘How you keep them safe’
COVID-19 hospitalization rates in Tuscaloosa and across the state hit highs in late November, turning a new page in Alabama’s struggle to get the virus under control. Rural areas and Black communities in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana were hit particularly hard over the summer.
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to make environmental justice for communities of color a priority. And for the first time in recent memory, the health and well-being of people living in the shadows of smokestacks and oil tankers pushed their way through America’s political chasm to arrive at center stage during the Oct. 22 presidential debate.
“President Trump, people of color are much more likely to live near oil refineries and chemical plants,” said debate moderator Kristen Welker. “In Texas, there are families who worry the plants near them are making them sick.”
Welker cited environmental rollbacks during Trump’s term in office. Among them were EPA’s decision in March to temporarily ease industry compliance requirements, including refinery rules for fence-line air monitoring and regular reporting of emissions of benzene, a chemical linked to cancer.
“Why should these families give you another four years in office?” she asked.
Trump responded: “The families that we’re talking about are employed heavily,” said the president, “and they’re making a lot of money, more money than they’ve ever made.”
Biden hit a different note.
“Those people live on what they call fence lines. He doesn’t understand this,” Biden said of Trump. “They live near chemical plants that in fact pollute — chemical plants and oil plants and refineries that pollute.”
“It matters how you keep them safe,” Biden said.
For the 12,000 people in this part of Tuscaloosa, neglect is felt in other ways. Despite city revitalization plans, requests for more sidewalks and better garbage pickup have gone unanswered. Drainage is still a problem. Abandoned houses and empty lots blot parts of the neighborhood.
Road signs approaching Tuscaloosa’s West End encourage passersby to “share the vision” in a place to “work, live and enjoy.” The area sits only 4 miles from the antebellum heart of the University of Alabama, the state’s flagship institution of higher learning, perhaps best known as a perennial football powerhouse.
Many of its residents are retirees from nearby industries. It’s a friendly, if overlooked, place, they say, where more than 30% live below the poverty line, according to census data.
The Rev. Tyshawn Gardner, a Tuscaloosa pastor who also runs a community advocacy group, said people are used to polluting industries operating near homes and schools.
“You grow up with them. You think they’re supposed to be there,” he said.
How are they affecting people’s everyday lives? “You don’t know,” Gardner said. “Maybe the health issues.”
Gardner acknowledged that factors other than industrial pollution have an impact. “But again, that’s part of the discrimination,” he said. “Those communities don’t know what really affects their health.”
Alabama is roughly in the middle among states by size and population. Yet it ranked seventh out of 55 states and territories in 2018 for hazardous air releases per square mile, according to EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory. Those statewide releases rose about 6% over 2017.
Watchdog groups have long criticized state officials for setting low expectations for environmental enforcement action by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). The agency is perpetually under-resourced, they say. And critics point to a persistent regulatory mentality across the Deep South that results in light-handed enforcement of environmental regulations, even with the backing of EPA.
Ron Gore is the state’s top air quality regulator. As head of ADEM’s air division, Gore said he can’t afford to do much beyond what the federal government already requires. “The only statement we can make is that we follow EPA’s rules and guidance that say that the air is safe to breathe,” he said.
Preliminary research suggests exposure to air pollutants put out by refinery smokestacks increases susceptibility to the disease caused by the coronavirus, which typically attacks the respiratory system. In one paper, researchers at American University found much higher death rates in counties that had six or more industrial plants included in the Toxics Release Inventory, or TRI. The Tuscaloosa metro area has more than two dozen, according to the 2019 TRI data.
While a loosely enforced statewide mask mandate is in effect, Alabama leaders had previously vacillated about imposing measures to slow the pandemic’s spread. Nearly 285,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the state, and more than 4,000 have died.
Air toxics and oil
The Hunt refinery, relatively small by industry standards, is a grimy centerpiece of the industry complex that hugs the banks of the Black Warrior River. It dates back to H.L. Hunt’s 1944 discovery of oil in what was known as the Gilbertown Field in southwestern Alabama. Two years later, Hunt opened the Tuscaloosa refinery, which could then process 3,500 barrels per day.
Today, Hunt’s daily oil processing capacity is up to 72,000 barrels, with much of its crude coming from Canada and regional suppliers, according to the company. The refinery turns it into gasoline, diesel and asphalt. It’s not the only source of air toxics in the area. The Michelin facility nearby is a major tire producer. There are construction yards and makers of roofing tile and asphalt in the industrial park.
But the refinery, which reported almost 19 tons of hazardous releases last year, is the largest polluter, according to the air toxics data.
The refinery is in compliance with its state air permits, according to ADEM records. But, as with its counterparts across the country, the plant in the past has wrestled with meeting federal requirements.
In 2007, Hunt was snared in a national enforcement dragnet under the George W. Bush administration. Pollution control agreements pursued by the Bush EPA and Justice Department netted sizable civil penalties. They required refinery operators to invest in technology that would bring them into compliance with federal air standards.
Hunt admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to pay a $400,000 fine and spend more than $48 million for new and upgraded pollution controls at the Tuscaloosa plant and two other refineries in Mississippi.
Cumulatively, those upgrades were meant to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides by more than 1,200 tons annually. Air toxics like toluene, which can trigger nervous system problems, would also come down. According to TRI data, hazardous air releases plunged by more than 60% between 2008 and 2009. Since then, however, no sustained drops have followed; last year, they actually rose by about 6% in comparison with 2018.
Hunt, whose website touts a record of social and environmental responsibility, declined E&E News’ request for an interview with a person responsible for the plant’s environmental compliance. In response to written questions, company spokesperson Jeanne Phillips attributed last year’s added emissions mainly to higher production, adding that the increase was still well within permit limits.
“We are committed to protecting and maintaining the health and safety of our employees and our neighbors,” she said, “and we are proud of our efforts in meeting and exceeding the standards set by the industry and by state and federal regulations.”
Phillips also noted the plant’s permit compliance when asked whether Hunt has ever studied the health effects of refinery emissions on the West End community.
Oil refinery pollution has long been a target of national environmental groups. And local efforts have grown out of health and safety concerns around refineries in and around Philadelphia, Houston and California’s major urban areas. But such groups and other supporters of cleanup measures have almost no presence in Alabama.
Air toxics are a designated class of pollutants under the federal Clean Air Act. They include benzene, mercury, lead and more than 180 other chemicals and metals tied to cancer, nervous system damage and other serious health effects.
Monitoring for specific pollutants at multiple locations in and around a refinery is the exception, not the rule. While emissions data collected through the TRI can give residents some idea of what they’re exposed to, government agencies do little to promote awareness on a local level.
“How many people know to go on an EPA site and look at a map?” said Peggy Shepard, executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a New York-based advocacy group. “That’s why you need a different level of engagement.”
At the federal level, EPA proposed more fence-line monitoring at refineries in 2019 as part of an update to another set of air toxics regulations. But the agency dropped that proposal from the final rule published in July. The Sierra Club and two other groups represented by attorneys at Earthjustice are now pressing EPA to reconsider.
Proponents of tougher refinery standards are also looking for better ways to regulate. They argue that the government’s use of negotiated settlements to drag individual facilities into compliance with emissions limits isn’t the best approach to reducing public health hazards. They’d like to see more requirements for fence-line monitoring and real-time reporting that apply to every refinery in the country.
The exception is benzene. Years of advocacy resulted in an EPA rule in 2015 that required refineries to conduct fence-line air monitoring of the dangerous carcinogen.
The hitch: The data is hard to access and hard to untangle.
‘We cannot go back to normal’
A decade after passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Alabama remains one of a dozen states that have not accepted federal money to expand the Medicaid program for low-income people.
For public health advocates, that’s inseparable from issues of race.
Alabama’s 1.3 million Black residents make up about one-quarter of the state’s population. The group overall has a lower life expectancy than white residents and lags in other health indicators. Black people in Alabama account for about 35% of the deaths from COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Poverty rates are higher in neighborhoods closest to many of the nation’s 130 refineries. U.S. refineries are often fixtures in areas that have grown racially and economically segregated from the city and county around them.
Sustained disinvestment, in some cases, dates to early in the 20th century, when banks and federal mortgage programs divided up city blocks along racial lines. In recent decades, neglect has been self-perpetuating as the U.S. economy has lurched from one collapse to another. Near a refinery in Shreveport, La., for example, incomes and job opportunities have been flat or gone down on an annual basis since the U.S. economic collapse in 2008.
In the West End, Black people aren’t concerned about which refinery, which factory, which train lot is polluting the air, said Brand, the resident who lost her uncle to COVID-19.
“They have other problems,” she said.
Earlier this year, outrage fueled by the May death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police swelled into a call to combat racial inequality of all kinds. But in Alabama, a state that was once a fortress of Jim Crow segregation, there is no sign that an exhortation by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) that the pandemic is a call to action across the spectrum of health and environmental inequities is being heard.
“We know that this is a moral moment,” Booker told an online forum on environmental justice in September. “We cannot go back to normal.”
Fifty-seven years ago, then-Gov. George Wallace (D) infamously stood before “the schoolhouse door” in a symbolic show of opposition to the University of Alabama’s integration. Today, racial divisions persist among Tuscaloosa’s approximately 100,000 residents.
“There’s been a lot of promises of investment in our community, but I haven’t seen anything, and I’ve lived here almost all of my life,” said Kenya Goodson, an educator and environmental engineer who also lives in the West End.
The Hunt refinery helped spur development in the area decades ago, said the Rev. Bobby Howard, a former Tuscaloosa city councilman who moved to the West End in 1979. The neighborhood, he recalled, transitioned “sort of naturally from white, to mixed, to Black.”
That transition wasn’t always easy for Black residents. Mary Rice, a longtime resident of the West End, recalled white children throwing raw eggs at her family’s car. Rice echoed others in the neighborhood when it came to environmental concerns: She said she realizes hazardous pollutants are pouring out of the refinery less than a mile from her comfortable home, but conveyed stoic resignation about the prospect of changing that.
“You can see the fire. It’s burning from the stack,” said Rice, the widow of a tire plant worker. “Does that not release chemicals?”
For Rice and others, the tons of pollutants released from the refinery in 2019 are a warily accepted fact of life. The refinery’s largest releases were of hexane, a pollutant linked to peripheral nerve damage, muscle weakness and fatigue in the case of long-term exposure, according to EPA. They also included xylene, which in the short term can cause eye irritation and memory impairment, along with hydrogen sulfide, tied to respiratory problems for asthmatics and headaches.
But industrial plants are a source of jobs, often reasonably well-paying by Alabama standards. Rice recalled that her late husband’s skin was so permeated with a sooty tire-making substance known as carbon black that she stopped buying white bedsheets.
Mekeba Britten, who was visiting her grandmother in the West End, is a medical assistant who later underwent a three-week bout with COVID-19. As far as she can tell, Britten said, air quality has improved and refineries “are more modern.”
As Lafonda Payton, of Cleveland, and her mother, Bessi Hudson, cooked breakfast in Hudson’s green cinderblock home, they weren’t sure where to pin responsibility for odors that they say have since diminished. And they weren’t ready to connect the neighborhood’s dismal health statistics to exposure to industrial pollution.
Hudson had a stroke last year, but she wasn’t sure where to place the blame.
“Most of our neighbors died of old age,” she said.
The “Toxic Zones” series explores life in the communities around America’s oil refineries. The project has been a collaboration among IRW, E&E News and NBC News. The stories have taken readers to Philadelphia, Artesia, New Mexico, California’s Central Valley and Shreveport, Louisiana.