REPORT: Oil Refineries Increase Health Risks for Millions of African Americans

By Ayana Byrd Nov 16, 2017

Oil refineries are often located in or near communities that lack the economic or sociopolitical power to fight back against these potentially toxic facilities. And a new study released on Tuesday (November 14) details what this means for Black neighborhoods across the United States.

Fumes Across the Fence-Line” is a joint effort of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Clean Air Task Force and National Medical Association. It examines the health impact on African-American communities as a result of air pollution from gas and oil facilities. It also studies what happens when there is a concentration of these refineries near residential neighborhoods.

The authors report that the air Black Americans breathe is nearly 40 percent more polluted than their White counterparts. And they are 75 percent more likely to live in "fence-line communities," which border oil and natural gas refineries. From the report:

The life-threatening burdens placed on communities of color near oil and gas facilities are the result of systemic oppression perpetuated by the traditional energy industry, which exposes communities to health, economic and social hazards. Communities impacted by oil and gas facility operations remain affected due to energy companies’ heavy polluting, low wages for dangerous work and government lobbying against local interests. The nature of the vulnerability of African-American and other person of color fence-line communities is intersectional—subject to connected systems of discrimination based on social categorizations such as race, gender, class, etc.


The air in many African-American communities violates air quality standards for ozone smog. Rates of asthma are relatively high in African-American communities. And, as a result of ozone increases due to natural gas emissions during the summer ozone season, African-American children are burdened by 138,000 asthma attacks and 101,000 lost school days each year.

Per the study, more than 6.7 million African Americans live in the 91 U.S. counties with oil refineries, and nearly one million of them live within half a mile of a site. The report includes detailed analysis of various communities, including South Philadelphia and Port Arthur, Texas.

This proximity to refineries has led to a variety of serious, potentially fatal, health problems, and many of these communities experience higher levels of poverty, exacerbating the difficulty of dealing effectively with health issues.

“The effects of oil and gas pollution are disproportionately afflicting African Americans, particularly cancer and respiratory issues, and the trend is only increasing,” Doris Browne, a physician and president of National Medical Association, told Grist. “It is our goal to fight to reverse this dangerous trend.”

The report ends with several recommendations for reforming the energy and industrial sectors to make them cleaner, more sustainable and in better sync with the communities where they are located.

Read the entire report here.