Unequal burden when systems fail

by W. Roger Randolph III
Posted 4/7/23

Last week’s Trinseo chemical spill showed how environmental disasters can potentially impact everyone in a community.

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Unequal burden when systems fail


Last week’s Trinseo chemical spill placed us in the midst of an environmental public health scare. Across the region, store shelves sat bare, completely sold out of water. The Philadelphia Water Department — after taking two days to notify residents — published a number of electronic alerts which created more confusion than resolution and sent Philadelphians into a frenzy. While the department’s statements assured that Chestnut Hill and other Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood’s water was safe due to being drawn from the Schuylkill River, last week’s events show how environmental disasters can potentially impact everyone in a community.

The community nearest to the Trinseo facility, Bristol, is predominantly white, but many communities in close proximity to hazardous facilities are primarily Black. The NAACP and Clean Air Task Force published a 2017 study focused on these “fence-line communities:” those which are directly adjacent to industrial facilities and are “directly affected in some way by the facility’s operation (e.g. noise, odor, traffic, and chemical emissions).” Their study demonstrated that Black Americans “are 75 percent more likely to live in fence-line communities than the average American.” As a result, Black Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than their white counterparts. 

Black South Philadelphia neighborhoods bordering the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery served as one of many case studies in this report. The refinery closed after a 2019 explosion, but its impact will be felt for decades as local residents continue to develop cancer and other serious illnesses due to increased exposure to pollutants. Recently other industrial facilities have been built in Philadelphia’s Black communities, like the SEPTA natural gas power plant located in Nicetown.

Black communities nationally are exposed to significantly greater airborne pollutants than their white counterparts. This is true even in communities without industrial facilities due to exposure from construction, vehicles, residential sources, and more. These disproportionate rates of exposure were observed across income levels. As a result, “children living within the 19140 zip code [had] some of the highest rates of asthma hospitalization in Philadelphia" even before the construction of the SEPTA power plant.

While there have been victories on this front, like local organization POWER Interfaith successfully lobbying the EPA to investigate the local approval of the SEPTA power plant on civil rights grounds, or the city establishing an Environmental Justice Advisory Commission to address issues of race and racism directly, more work can and should be done.

As a student at United Lutheran Seminary in Mt. Airy, I have been encouraged to view the world and my actions through the lens of my Christian faith. I often view the world through Matthew, chapter 25, where Jesus famously says to his disciples, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” When questioned, Jesus tells them that "just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”

This passage from scripture has prompted me to self-reflect, asking “who are ‘the least of these’—those being ignored or left behind—in my community?” While this week’s water crisis impacted all Philadelphians and should attract scrutiny and concern, the more specific issue of environmental racism in the city has historically been ignored. This event can draw more attention to environmental health issues which have been longstanding, but dismissed nonetheless. Anger about the Trinseo chemical spill is justified, as is sustained action for the near-constant exposure to pollutants Black communities face locally and nationally.

W. Roger Randolph III is in his final semester at United Lutheran Seminary pursuing a Master of Divinity with a Black Church Concentration.