Petroleum, Refineries, and the Future

What is Environmental Racism?

Environmental racism, a term coined by United Church of Christ Director Benjamin Chavis, describes the disproportionate distribution of the negative effects of human activities on to poor people and minorities. In an analysis by University of New Orleans Professor Francis O. Adeola, he laments that, “Unfortunately, the parties most responsible for industrial pollution are the ones with power and privilege, reaping the economic benefits while avoiding environmental burden because their communities are insulated by distance from direct sources of toxins” (Adeola 688). Adding to this, professors Laura Westra and Bill E. Watson state that, “more recently, people have recognized that, in the United States, poor people, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans suffer disproportionate exposure to environmental pollution” (Westra et al. xvii). However, many of the issues surrounding environmental racism and oil refineries continue to persist globally; “for the most part grave problems persist, especially, but not exclusively, outside North America” (xv). In his book Lifeblood, Matthew T. Huber describes the environmental risks associated with oil refineries:

"To say that refineries have an environmental impact is an understatement. The complex process inevitably leads to leaks, spills, and the flaring of greenhouse gases (and other air pollutants not linked to climate change).The process of crude transformation deploys highly flammable materials through intense amounts of heart and pressure, making deadly explosions and fires a necessary evil of operations. The products and wastes of the refinery include known carcinogens such as benzene and arsenic that lead to severe burns, skin irritation, chronic lung disease, psychosis, and elevated cancer risks among workers and nearby communities (68-69).

Environmental Racism in the United States
An example of environmental racism in the United States occurred when, according to Daniel C. Wigley and Kristin Shrader-Frechette, a site for a Uranium Enrichment plant was selected in Claiborne, Parish, Louisiana. The economically depressed area had a high percentage of minority residents. Oil refineries in the United States are located in both white and minority communities, however, researchers Michael Lynch, Paul Stretesky, and Ronald Burns state that, “Previous research on environmental inequity has discovered that Blacks, Hispanics, and low-income persons are more likely to reside near various types of environmental hazards” (Lynch et al. 436). The study conducted by Lynch et al, also concluded that there exists an additional dimension of inequity in which oil refineries located in low-income and minority communities face fewer penalties for violating environmental laws.

Environmental Racism in Africa
On other continents where oil exists in high supplies, such as Africa, environmental racism continues to exist. One example where an ethnic minority was targeted by government and big oil companies occurred in the Niger River Delta region of Nigeria, where the Ogoni people reside. According to activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, “since oil was discovered in the area in 1958, they have been the victims of a deadly ecological war in which no blood is spilled, no bones are broke and no one is maimed. But people die all the time. Men, women and children are at risk; plants, wildlife and fish are destroyed, the air and water are poisoned, and finally the land dies. Today Ogoni has been reduced to a waste land” (Saro-Wiwa 131). The Ogoni make up less than 1 percent of the population in Nigeria, yet they receive much of the consequences of oil production there.

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