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May 14th, 2014

Potential of Chemical Disaster for Minorites

WASHINGTON, DC - The Environmental Justice and Health Alliance (EJHA), a national coalition of grassroots groups working on toxic chemical exposures that impact communities of color, released a new report today in collaboration with the Center for Effective Government (CEG) and Coming Clean. The report - "Who’s in Danger? A Demographic Analysis of Chemical Disaster Vulnerability Zones" - uses data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Census to demonstrate an association between lower average housing values, incomes, and education levels, higher rates of poverty, and that many Black, Latino, and low-income populations are living within chemical disaster "vulnerability zones" of 3,433 industrial facilities across the U.S. The risk of danger is much greater for people Black & Latino communities than for the U.S. as a whole - the very definition of an unequal or disproportionate danger.

"How can it be that since 1987, when the issue was first researched and published in Toxic Wastes and Race, and two decades later in 2007 in Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, that people of color today are more, not less, in harm’s way from toxic chemicals and chemical catastrophe 27 years later?" asks Robert Bullard, PhD, Dean at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, Texas Southern University in the Houston area. "This is one of the most urgent human rights and civil rights issues of our times, and this new report documents this tragic fact."

"Our government has allowed these facilities to be disproportionately located in communities of color and has allowed chemical corporations and the officials who are supposed to be protecting us to tragically fail workers and surrounding communities," explains Michele Roberts, a co-author of the report and national Co-coordinator of the EJHA. "Sadly, we have witnessed too many tragic catastrophes such as what happened in West, TX last year, with 15 people killed; or in Elk River, WV, with toxic, contaminated water coming out of people’s faucets in their homes; or Richmond, CA, where 15,000 were sent to hospitals from a Chevron refinery explosion. People of color communities are treated as if they are disposable human beings. This is environmental injustice and racism."

"We examined 3,433 chemical facilities nationwide that operate in several common industries and use or store extremely hazardous chemicals, and then looked at the communities where these facilities are located," notes Paul Orum, the principal researcher and a co-author of the new report. "Using data filed by the facilities with EPA, and then supplementing it with U.S. Census information, we found that the populations near these facilities – who live every day in danger – have lower average housing values and incomes and are much more likely to be Black or Latino than the population of the whole U.S."

"Mossville, Louisiana is our home, and founded by a former slave over a hundred years ago," says Dorothy Felix of Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN). "We used to have clean air and water and a healthy quality of life. Now, with the 15 toxic industrial facilities, we not only live with chronic chemical pollution, but with the fear that at any time, day or night, one or more of those plants could blow up or catch on fire. Recently, the Axial plant caught fire and people just driving by on the Interstate became ill and had to be rushed to the hospital and children were made to shelter in place at school."

"When a chemical facility explodes or catches fire, some of the most toxic substances made by man can be dispersed into a community, and, depending on the chemical, stay in the air, water, and soil for quite some time," says Wilma Subra, PhD, with the Subra Company in Louisiana, a toxicologist who has worked with many communities living near chemical plants. "Some of these chemicals - like chlorine, hydrofluoric acid, vinyl acetate, and many others - are not only immediately harmful to life and health but are linked to respiratory injury, cancer and other chronic health problems."

"If any of the facilities near the Houston Ship Channel exploded like the chemical plant in West, TX did, thousands could be severely injured or die from the chemicals," adds Juan Parras, Executive Director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.). "Even with the West tragedy, the state of Texas has done nothing. This report confirms that large numbers of people of all colors are in terrible danger from lack of protections from chemical and oil plants."

"Here in Richmond, CA, 15,000 people had to go to the hospital when the Chevron Refinery exploded and caught on fire three years ago," said Dr. Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition. "All of the various investigations since then, every single one, has concluded that the community is still not safe from the same thing happening all over again. You better believe they would not have built this refinery in the wealthy white communities near by."

"Last year, President Obama issued an Executive Order for an interagency task force that would gather information and make recommendations to him," explains Richard Moore, executive director of the Los Jardines Institute and national Co-coordinator of the EJHA. "EPA, Homeland Security, and OSHA have been holding "listening sessions" across the country in some of the communities identified in the report, and people are consistently asking for action to prevent more chemical disasters. We know that there are things that can be done. For example, here in Albuquerque, one water treatment facility was able to transition to safer chemicals, so as to avoid storing very dangerous chlorine. Using Inherently Safer Technologies (IST) is something that Vice President Joe Biden and other officials have identified as a priority step for reducing this threat."

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