As COVID Spikes Again in Alabama, Environmental Injustice Prompts a “Moral Moment”

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Ashira Morris, ODP Contributing Writer

In Tuscaloosa’s predominantly Black West End neighborhood, an oil refinery, a Michelin tire plant, and a train yard full of oil cars pollute the air with toxins. People in the area face a higher risk of a litany of health issues: high blood pressure, cancer, asthma, strokes. As E&E reports in an in-depth piece on Tuscaloosa, chronic illness and exposure to air pollution are exacerbating the spiking COVID rates and increasing the risks for people living in neighborhoods just outside the boundaries of industrial plants and refineries across the country. Race is often a compounding factor, and the pandemic this year continues to highlight the intersection of environmental policy, public health, and systemic racism.  Senator Cory Booker said that the pandemic is a call to action across the spectrum of health and environmental inequities, calling it “a moral moment” in this country.

Why this Matters: Clean air should be a right, not a privilege. Across the country, communities of color face disproportionate local air pollution and higher COVID rates.  That tragedy is playing out continually during this “dark” winter as the number of infections rises and deaths now exceed 300,000. According to the American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report, people of color are 1.5 times more likely to live somewhere with poor air quality than white people, exposing communities to the pollution and health risks that come with it.  No one should have to breathe the pollutants from the refineries like the one in Tuscaloosa, which can cause peripheral nerve damage, respiratory problems, and memory problems. 

Air Pollution Goes Under-reported

The Clean Air Act, currently celebrating its 50th birthday, is meant to regulate emissions and protect people from the poor air Tuscaloosa residents and other Americans breathe every day. But the Environmental Protection Agency’s underfunded monitoring network frequently doesn’t capture dangerous air quality events, leaving people with poor data and higher risk. A special investigations report from Reuters earlier this year found that the network didn’t identify a single one of the 10 largest refinery explosions in the past decade, including the one that rocked Philadelphia in 2019.

And even as climate change decreases air quality, the EPA has scaled back its government air quality monitors over the past five years, leaving community groups to fill in the gaps. The federal monitors provide the data that informs the Air Quality Index — that AQI number you see on your phone’s weather report. For people with respiratory issues, the number determines if it’s safe for them to be outdoors.  “The public’s desire for pollution data is exploding, but the government has less resources,” Lyle Chinkin, an environmental scientist who has testified in Clean Air Act lawsuits, told Reuters.

To Go Deeper:  Read the full E&E reporting on Tuscaloosa’s West End and the health, environmental and COVID problems its impoverished Black residents face.

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