Pollution Is Killing Black Americans. African-Americans are 75 percent more likely than others to live near facilities that produce hazardous waste.

Excerpt, NYT July 28, 2020 – Read how communities are fighting back!

Environmental racism is/was a term coined by the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, a leader of the protest in North Carolina. The following year, the U.S. General Accounting Office examined hazardous-waste-landfill placement and found that Black residents made up a majority in three of the four communities with hazardous-waste landfills in the eight Southern states that make up E.P.A. Region IV.

In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, then headed by Chavis, issued a report, “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States,” that was the first to examine race, class and the environment on a national level. The study revealed that three out of five Black and Hispanic-Americans, or more than 23 million people, resided in communities blighted by toxic-waste sites and found that while socioeconomic status was an important correlation, race was the most significant factor.

Bullard continued his research after the Whispering Pines lawsuit in Houston, finding the same correlation. In his 1990 book, “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality,” using case studies including Sumter County, Ala., the site of the nation’s largest hazardous-waste landfill, Bullard argued that pollution from solid-waste facilities, hazardous-waste landfills, toxic-waste dumps and chemical emissions from industrial facilities was exacting a heavy toll on Black communities across the country. His book became a bible for the nascent environmental-justice movement.

In 2007, the United Church of Christ updated its research, this time with Bullard as a principal author, in “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007,” finding that racial disparities in the location of toxic-waste facilities were “greater than previously reported.” People of color made up a majority of the population in communities within 1.8 miles of a polluting facility, and race — not income or property values — was the most significant predictor. The following year, a study by two University of Colorado social scientists published in the journal Sociological Perspectives found that African-American families with incomes of $50,000 to $60,000 were more likely to live in environmentally polluted neighborhoods than white households with incomes below $10,000.

As more research established such disparities, frustration grew with the mainstream 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.


Alexa Ross, co-founder of Philly Thrive, a local environmental-justice organization.
Credit…Hannah Price for The New York Times

The federal government was shamed into action. Early in 1990, the Congressional Black Caucus met with E.P.A. officials to discuss the polluting of communities of color and why the government agency was not addressing the needs of their constituents. In November 1992, the E.P.A. created the Office of Environmental Equity (later changed to Environmental Justice). In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order to address adverse health and environmental conditions in minority and low-income populations. The government also established a multimillion-dollar grant program to support grass-roots organizations working on environmental-justice issues. A local nonprofit in Spartanburg, S.C., leveraged an initial grant of $20,000 in 1997 into $270 million to clean up and revitalize three neighborhoods near an operating chemical-fertilizer manufacturing plant, two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites.

The changes at the E.P.A. dovetailed with the growing environmental-justice movement on the ground. Mustafa Ali, then a young Black staff member in the Office of Environmental Justice, had a foot in both worlds. “It was an exciting time, because there was so much energy,” Ali recalls. “It was a paradigm shift, but it was also tough back then. There were still folks in senior positions in the Environmental Protection Agency and other places who believed that the impacts that were happening in these communities weren’t real, that these folks had to be making this stuff up. They were also uncomfortable using the federal space to honor the voices and the innovation coming out of the communities.”

In 2008, Ali was named the associate director of the Office of Environmental Justice and senior adviser to the E.P.A. administrator on environmental-justice issues. The E.P.A. was criticized during this time for not doing enough to combat environmental disparities in communities of color and the Flint water catastrophe unfolded as well, but Ali and his colleagues also assisted 1,500 communities with small grants to address local environmental issues.

When Donald Trump’s administration arrived in 2017, his new E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, was a climate-change denier and an ally of the fossil-fuel industry who, as Oklahoma’s attorney general, sued the E.P.A. several times. Pruitt proposed gutting the agency’s budget by 25 percent, to just under $6 billion from $8 billion. As reported in The Oregonian newspaper, an internal memo called for dismantling the Office of Environmental Justice and reducing related funding by 79 percent, to $1.5 million from $6.7 million. Most painful for Ali, the proposed budget eliminated the small-grants program. “When I saw them talking about the elimination of certain air and clean-power-plant programs and cutting dollars to deal with lead, I knew how it would play out in our communities,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t be a part of what was happening.”

In March 2017, Ali resigned, just short of 25 years at the agency, forfeiting his full government pension, and now serves as vice president for environmental justice, climate and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation. His three-page resignation letter to Pruitt pleaded for the E.P.A. not to turn its back on marginalized communities. “Communities have shared with me over the past two decades how important the enforcement work at the Agency is in protecting their often forgotten and overlooked communities,” he wrote. “By ensuring that there is equal protection and enforcement in these communities, E.P.A. plays a significant role in addressing unintended impacts and improving some of the public health disparities that often exist from exposure to pollution.”

On June 1, 2019, about 60 Philly Thrive members gathered in front of P.E.S. as tanker trucks passed in and out of the facility’s gates. For the past four months, the group had attended planning meetings, spoken at City Hall and circulated petitions opposing the proposed South Philadelphia gas plant. Kilynn Johnson joined Alexa Ross, Sylvia Bennett, Carol White and others to distribute hundreds of fliers throughout Grays Ferry for the protest they organized for that day, two weeks before the City Council vote.

Holding a sign with her mother’s name on it, Johnson stepped forward to the front of the assembly. Like the others, she wore Philly Thrive’s signature T-shirt, bright yellow with two sunflowers bursting with kaleidoscopic colors. Since attending that first Thrive meeting in January, she had gone to more environmental-justice gatherings, participated in a public-speaking workshop and finally got up her nerve to address those assembled at the rally — her first time ever speaking before a crowd. She looked over at Bennett, wearing sunglasses and holding a sign with her daughter Wanda’s name on it, who nodded. “Many of you may not know about the dangers of the oil refinery, with so many illnesses caused by air pollution,” Johnson began, reading haltingly from a sheath of papers that she held before her face. “I was nonchalant about the refinery, but then Alexa was mentioning things like asthma. And I’m like, ‘Check.’ And cancer, and I’m like, ‘Check,’” she continued. “That made me more aware of how the refinery is making our people not just sick — but killing our communities all over a dollar.”

She asked the crowd to join her in a chant: “We’re fired up! Can’t take it no more!” As the sun got hotter and some of the older folks began to wilt, the protesters marched behind a banner that read “Philly Thrive Right to Breathe” as the refinery’s security guards eyed them. There was little coverage of the protest. “Where were the TV crews?” Bennett asked after the rally. “What do we have to do to get anybody to pay attention? Why doesn’t anybody care?”

In mid-June, the Philadelphia City Council voted 13 to 4 in favor of developing the gas plant. But even as Johnson, Bennett and the other Philly Thrivers nursed their defeat in the days afterward and feared for the future, a more imminent danger was at hand.

Just one week later, on June 21, Johnson was startled awake when she felt her bed move. She bolted upright, wrestled herself from a snarl of sheets, reached for her glasses and tried to figure out what was going on. It wasn’t just her bed shaking, but her entire house. Johnson grabbed hold of the edge of her mattress, dropped her head, closed her eyes and prayed. “Father, Lord, God,” she said out loud. “Protect my family, watch over my neighbors. Please help us.”


Irene Russell, the president of the nonprofit group Friends of Stinger Square. She tapes up memorials for deceased residents.
Credit…Hannah Price for The New York Times

Johnson’s prayers were interrupted by the phone. On the other end of the line, she heard the panicked voice of her daughter Michelle, who lived about a mile and a half away in Southwest Philly. Her house was shaking, too, and she had lost power and was sitting in the dark holding tight to her two young children. “Mommy, turn on the news,” she said, her voice trembling. “It’s the refinery.”

Johnson would later learn that at 4 that morning, 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. A smaller fire erupted 11 days earlier at the refinery, but the heat this time was so intense that the National Weather Service was able to capture it on satellite from space, using infrared imagery. Large chunks of debris tumbled through the air, landing heavily on city streets as sirens sounded throughout Grays Ferry and the city’s emergency-management department issued a shelter-in-place order for residents living near the refinery.

By 7 a.m., even with the refinery still engulfed in flames and clouds of smoke belching into the atmosphere, the shelter-in-place order was lifted. A few hours later, James Garrow, a spokesman from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, released a statement assuring local residents that the fire posed no “immediate danger.” Johnson, with that asthma diagnosis 40 years earlier, felt skeptical. She made certain all of her windows were closed to block out the rank odor that would hang in the air for weeks. And then, as Johnson traded calls with family and neighbors, watched the news and checked Facebook for updates, her breathing became more labored. By early afternoon she was lightheaded and struggling to catch her breath.

An hour later, as she sat on an examining table at Penn’s University Hospital with a breathing mask strapped to her face, she thought of the thick black smoke that city officials insisted was safe to inhale and remembered the noxious odor that had singed her nostrils and irritated her airways. With oxygen filling her lungs through a machine, she thought about how often she had been in hospital rooms like these, suffering from asthma throughout her childhood and the rare cancer that was diagnosed three and a half years earlier. “I was tired of them saying that the refinery didn’t affect people,” Johnson says, “that it was doing no harm.”

Four days after the explosion, some 100 Thrivers gathered at a small playground a few blocks from P.E.S. This time, the media was out in full force, jostling to get comments from members of Philly Thrive about the blast and fire. “The chemicals that they use, it’s, like, really killing us,” Johnson told a reporter from a local radio station. “It’s killing us slowly. That’s what it’s doing.”

As the Thrivers marched toward the refinery, they were met by a dozen police officers lined up in front of 17 police cars parked before the gates of P.E.S., where hard-hatted employees watched behind the metal fence as the protesters advanced. Chanting “What do we want? Clean air!” the Thrivers held up traffic for a half mile in either direction. Behind them, a large billboard sponsored by the local chapter of the United Steelworkers, the union representing the plant workers, rising over the highway, reminding drivers and neighbors that “Healthy communities need good jobs!”

After months attending Philly Thrive meetings and learning about the environmental dangers created by the refinery, after the explosion and her emergency trip to the hospital, Johnson had changed. The painful death of her first cousin Sharon, a longtime Grays Ferry resident, in late spring from pancreatic cancer was the final blow. This time Johnson, a yellow flower entwined in her braids, didn’t speak from the edge of the crowd, but stepped straight into the middle. “I was born in South Philadelphia, a few blocks over,” she said firmly. “The pollution and chemicals, they have been here 150 years. I have been here for a half century. I don’t know how long asthma has been in my system, but in 2016 the doctor didn’t even know if I was going to make it or not. They told my family to pray.”

Turning in a circle to face all sides of the crowd, she continued, her voice rising: “P.E.S. must go. They are taking our people away. By droves. By droves!” Johnson seemed to have shed any hint of the social anxiety that had been with her all her life. “I used to be a real quiet person, until I ran into Philly Thrive. Guess what? My voice will carry for the person down the street, for the person up the street. For the baby that cannot speak, for the senior citizen who cannot speak. My voice will travel. They will know my name and they will know my voice.” As she spoke, the crowd snapped their fingers, clapped and showered her with amens.

In late June, the chief executive of P.E.S., Mark Smith, announced that the explosion and fire made it impossible to keep the plant open. A month later, P.E.S. filed for bankruptcy. The company would receive an advance of up to $65 million in bankruptcy financing in order to wind down current operations and potentially access $1.25 billion in insurance coverage. The goal, according to a statement from P.E.S., was to rebuild the refinery’s fire-damaged infrastructure in order to position it for a sale and restart in the oil-refining business. (Representatives for the company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) The city of Philadelphia formed an advisory group of environmental experts, business leaders, city officials, organized labor and community members who would hold six meetings to address the fallout from the P.E.S. fire, collect information about the future of the company and the site and hear public comments.

After the refinery closed, some 1,000 employees were dismissed without severance pay or extended health benefits; P.E.S. executives received $4.5 million in retention bonuses. At the third meeting of the city’s advisory group in late August, convened to address labor issues, Philly Thrive members found themselves outnumbered by recently laid-off P.E.S. workers, mainly white men, some in tears, pleading for P.E.S. to remain in business. At the meeting, it was clear the distressed and angry former refinery employees didn’t know the mostly Black Thrivers though they had coexisted in the same corner of the city, breathing the same dirty air at work and at home, for years and years. When Sylvia Bennett stood at the microphone and told the advisory panel about her daughter Wanda, who was now in so much pain from cancer treatments that she could no longer walk, one worker shouted, “If you don’t like the refinery, then move!”


Irene Russell maintains a repository of memorial programs from the funeral services of local residents, including many, like her brother, who died prematurely of cancer.
Credit…Hannah Price for The New York Times

Bennett was hurt deeply by the hostility, but she also recognized that P.E.S. had caused harm to its workers, too. “We are not against workers or against workers having a job to support their families,” she said. “What we want is the air cleaned up so we can all breathe.”

The community of Grays Ferry, still more Southern than Northern, is full of people bound together by history, memories, struggle, dreams, blood, love and death. These residents may have landed there because of options limited by the structural discrimination created by redlining. But even as they pray for the sick and count their dead, they have stayed. The homes that their parents bought or that they bought, and the families they raised in them, all this is their legacy.

That legacy also remains in their bodies.

In a report last October, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board noted that the P.E.S. explosion released more than 5,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid. Ingesting even a thimbleful can prove deadly, and when discharged into the air in gas form, the chemical can irritate the eyes, nose and respiratory tract at low concentrations and cause irregular heartbeat and lung complications at higher levels.

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.”

In February, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court approved the sale of P.E.S. to Chicago-based Hilco Redevelopment Partners for $252 million (the final sale was for $225.5 million). The Trump administration made one last lobbying effort to restart P.E.S.’s oil-refining business. “Look, these are great jobs for Philly,” Peter Navarro, the president’s director of the office of trade and manufacturing policy, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in January. “This is a way to advance the energy-policy agenda, the economic-policy agenda and the national-security agenda. So we’d love to see that remain as a refinery.”

The community was concerned. But Hilco announced plans to demolish the refinery, clean up the site and rebuild the property as a mixed-use industrial park. “This will be welcome environmental progress for neighborhoods that have suffered from the effects of the refinery,” said Roberto Perez, the chief executive of Hilco Redevelopment Partners, “and an exciting new chapter for Philadelphia.” The news, however welcome, could not erase 150 years of pollution or the fears of the toxins that remain.

The death of P.E.S. cannot bring back Grays Ferry’s dead, not those from cancer and not the 54 residents who lived in Grays Ferry’s ZIP codes who have died of Covid-19, a virus known to prey on those exposed to long-term air pollution.

Irene Russell, 68, who has lived in Grays Ferry all her life, helps the community remember. She was raised on South 32nd Street and now lives a few blocks away on South Napa Street in a rowhouse she bought in 1980. On 50 white boards, Russell, the president of the nonprofit group Friends of Stinger Square, has taped memorial programs from the community’s funeral services, six or seven per board. If she doesn’t have a program, she attaches a photograph. Deceased residents, sometimes their younger selves, smile from the yellowed programs, encircled in roses or floating in a sea of blue sky and fluffy clouds. They wear military uniforms, towering hats, graduation caps and gowns or simple Sunday best.

This spring, Russell rested a lime green fingernail on the face of George Scott, who died in 2010 at age 57. “That’s my brother,” she said softly. “He died of liver cancer; left behind eight kids.” Russell’s sister Sandy also died of cancer, at age 42. Her son George, named after her brother, developed lymphoma in his late 20s and survived. Russell shuffled through the boards until she found Sharon, Kilynn Johnson’s cousin, whose program she taped to a board a few months earlier. Next to the words “it is with deep sorrow, that we regret to inform you of the passing of our beloved Sharon E. Johnson” superimposed over a rose, Sharon looked off to the side, her lips pursed as if she were whistling a song.

Russell found out she had uterine cancer in 2018 and had a hysterectomy in January 2019. Last September her doctor discovered cancer in her lungs. She tried hard to keep the boards, stored in plastic garbage bags in her Stinger Square office, up to date, but the pile of memorials stacked on top of her computer, waiting to be attached, has grown larger since the coronavirus struck in February. “Between the cancer and the Covid, the loss is crazy,” Russell, who recently finished chemotherapy treatments for her lung cancer, said in June. “It’s just a lot of people who have died. It’s been kind of devastating, but all we can do is just keep living. And keep remembering.”

Linda Villarosa is a contributing writer for the magazine, focusing on race and health. She teaches journalism and Black studies at the City College of New York in Harlem. She last wrote about racial disparities revealed by Covid-19.

A version of this article appears in print on

Aug. 2, 2020

, Page 28 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: The Refinery Next Door . Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s