Environmentalism is about more than protecting trees and polar bears — it’s key to saving the most vulnerable human lives. The NAACP recently released “Fumes Across The Fence-Line,” a report that explores the ways in which airborne pollutants from oil and gas facilities disproportionately impact minority and low-income communities. The report shows that while air itself cannot discriminate, African-Americans are 75 percent more likely than the average American to live in “fence-line” communities near oil and gas facilities.
Kathy Egland, NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Committee board chair, said the problem is rooted in history.
“It is claimed that in most cases, the potentially toxic facilities were built first and communities knowingly developed around them. However, studies of such areas show that industrial polluting facilities and sites have frequently been built in transitional neighborhoods, where the demographics have shifted from wealthier white residents to lower-income people of color,” Egland said in a press release.
Currently, more than one million African-Americans live within a half-mile of existing gas facilities, and the number continues to grow each year. Nearby residents face an increased cancer risk, higher rates of asthma and other health concerns.
“Fumes Across The Fence-Line” lists 10 states where the most African-Americans live within a half-mile of oil and gas facilities. While Indiana was not included among the 10, Denise Abdul-Rahman, environmental and climate justice chair with the Indiana NAACP, said Indiana is greatly impacted by the problem due to the high number of petroleum, oil and natural gas facilities located throughout our state.
One local example is East Chicago, Indiana, a community that has suffered decades of environmental injustice due to lead contamination. Even after the Indiana Department of Environmental Management found toxic levels of lead and arsenic in the soil in 1985, there have continued to be hundreds of air pollution standards violations at nearby Indiana Harbor Coke Co., located just 5 miles from the city’s population. The majority of East Chicago’s residents are Black or Latino.
“Air pollution is a major concern across Indiana. Recently, in 2016, the Indianapolis utility company for electricity stopped burning coal, which helped to reduce the carbon pollution, but natural gas has its own health concerns. The power plant in Indianapolis is within a 3-mile radius of communities of color. When it blows downwind, it especially impacts the communities in Indianapolis,” said Abdul-Rahman.
Beyond air pollution, Indiana also has 19 coal ash pits across the state that are emitting toxic chemicals into water. Coal ash contains heavy metals and contaminants including lead, cadmium and arsenic that can cause cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and more.
Another source of pollution that Abdul-Rahman aims to shed light on is vehicle emissions. Abdul-Rahman says protecting current Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency clean car standards is essential to curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
“Cars are a major source of air pollution exposure to urban communities. We tend to live within 300 feet of a major road. I, myself, live less than 300 feet from a highway and a major roadway, Lafayette Road. People in Martindale-Brightwood tried to advocate to have trees put up to offset highway admissions. It is all over Marion County,” said Abdul-Rahman.
When it comes to seeking solutions, she encourages the public to get involved by voicing their concerns to lawmakers.
“It will save lives, particularly the lives of people of color and people living in vulnerable communities,” said Abdul-Rahman.
To read the full “Fumes Across The Fence-Line” report, visit naacp.org/climate-justice-resources/fumes-across-fence-line.