For 20 years, even before the movement had a name, Hilton Kelley was fighting for environmental justice in his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas.
The Gulf Coast city of 55,000 is home to a disproportionately high number of industrial polluters in relation to its population, as well as to the largest oil refinery in the country. When combined with its neighboring town of Beaumont, the region hosts one of the highest concentrations across Texas of facilities that emit chemicals toxic enough that they must be reported to the Environmental Protection Agency, according to agency data. The city is also inhabited predominantly by people of color, with a third of the population African American.
“Apparently we are being looked upon as a sacrifice zone for the nation and the rest of the world to have sulfur free gasoline,” Kelley said, referring to the way refining removes sulfur from crude oil.
The heavy presence of industry—a common theme among poor and mostly black and brown communities across the country—may be one reason residents of Port Arthur, in a region once dubbed “the cancer belt,” have higher rates of cancer, asthma and cardiovascular disease when compared to state averages, according to a 2016 report from Southeast Nonprofit Development Center. It’s also why Kelley, who for decades has watched his family, friends and neighbors die from invisible culprits, is now sounding the alarm over coronavirus.
Jefferson County, which includes Port Arthur, has seen a spike in Covid-19 infections since mid-March, the number increasing from 1 to at least 100 by mid-April. But what worries Kelley most is that he and his neighbors, based on a recent study that links higher coronavirus death rates to past exposure to air pollution, are at particularly high risk to the virus.
And Kelley’s neighborhood isn’t the only one. Already, preliminary data from several cities and states across the country show low-income and black communities disproportionately facing higher rates of infection and death from the new coronavirus.
In Michigan, black people make up 41 percent of the state’s total Covid-19 deaths, despite making up just 14 percent of the state population. Illinois’ black residents also make up 41 percent of the state’s coronavirus deaths, when they account for just 14.6 percent of the total population. And in Louisiana, nearly 60 percent of the people who died of coronavirus in the state are black, while the group is just a third of the state’s population.
These statistics come as no surprise to public health experts, many of whom have long pointed to persistent health and socioeconomic disparities in the country that continually put low-income communities and communities of color at greater risk of what they call “high fatality events,” such as natural disasters.
A 2018 federal report concluded that low-income communities already have higher rates of myriad health conditions, are more exposed to environmental hazards and take longer to bounce back from natural disasters, such as hurricanes, flooding and wildfires.
It’s now clear that the frontline communities most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are the same communities most at risk of contracting and dying from Covid-19, said Sabrina McCormick, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
To McCormick, the pandemic has simply highlighted something public health officials have declared for decades: Directly or indirectly, burning fossil fuels is harmful to human health. Globally, “eight million people die annually because of air pollution-related diseases,” she said. “Those are just the facts.”
Environmental, Economic Factors Compound Virus Risk
It’s not just air pollution that’s putting low-income communities and communities of color at a higher risk to Covid-19. Other environmental factors like hurricanes or flooding can force unlucky families out of their homes, placing them at higher risk of catching the disease. And experts say black Americans disproportionately hold jobs that require them to leave their homes.
In Michigan, a looming spring flood season is forcing state officials and major aid agencies to reconsider how to manage flood recovery efforts this year, amidst a novel pandemic that threatens to turn shelters into potential hotspots for the virus to spread.
Already the state’s coronavirus cases have skyrocketed to some of the highest numbers in the country. And in cities like Detroit, where nearly 80 percent of the population is black, this year’s spring flood season could bring a loss of heat or power in the midst of the pandemic. Storms this week have already left some in West Michigan without power.
For particularly flood-prone parts of Detroit, that leaves few good options, said Sandra Turner-Handy, an activist who has been fighting to reduce pollution in the city for years. Last week, Turner-Handy’s East Detroit home was flooded with a foot of water after a thunderstorm swept through the city, forcing her to leave her home to buy materials to fix it. “I put on my gloves, I put on my mask, I went to Home Depot and got me a pump,” she said.
In Louisiana, another state highly affected by Covid-19, water levels in parts of the Mississippi River have hovered around flood stage for the last month, posing similar threats to those living along its heavily industrialized banks.
Those risks will only multiply come hurricane season, said Sharon Lavigne, a former high-school special needs teacher who began a campaign to stop more polluting industries from coming to her hometown of St. James Parish, Louisiana, after she was diagnosed in 2016 with auto-immune hepatitis. Research has shown autoimmune diseases can be exacerbated by exposure to air pollution.
St. James Parish, which belongs to an area known to locals as “cancer alley,” has one of the highest rates of cancer-causing pollution in the nation, making its residents especially vulnerable to Covid-19. The parish also ranks 17th in the United States among counties with the highest coronavirus death rates.
“When the hurricanes come, we’re going to be impacted triple,” Lavigne said, “with the hurricane, with the coronavirus and with the industry.”
Environmental Rollbacks ‘A Death Sentence’ to Some
The Trump administration’s move to suspend enforcement of U.S. environmental laws could also be playing a deadly role as vulnerable communities attempt to navigate the era of coronavirus.
By allowing polluting facilities to report their own emissions to the federal government and potentially exceed their emissions limits without recourse, the administration is putting many African American communities at higher risk of infection and death, said Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
African Americans are three times more likely to die from asthma than white Americans, Hollis said, and they also have the highest rate of deaths from heart disease—all of which compounds the group’s susceptibility to coronavirus.
“By him [Trump] relaxing these laws and regulations, it’s a sure nail in the coffin for a lot of folks here in the Jefferson County area," said Port Arthur’s Kelley. “It is a death sentence is what it is. We are already dying.”
It’s not the only recent action the administration has taken that is likely to harm communities most vulnerable to both Covid-19 and climate change. In 2018, the Trump administration proposed a rule that would place limits on the science used in decision-making by the Environmental Protection Agency, including studies that could hold clues to Covid-19.
And this week, the administration ignored the advice from government scientists to strengthen the national air quality standard for fine soot, despite recent research linking exposure to the particles with higher coronavirus death rates.
“In the last four years, the actions engineered by this administration to put profits over people have been especially detrimental to environmental justice communities, which include people of color, poor people and our indigenous brothers and sisters,” Hollis said in a statement.