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Black, Latino communities have a higher level of oil drilling and pollution

Thousands of drilling operations are within 100 meters of redlined communities, according to a new study

An oil pump jack operates in the Inglewood Oil Field in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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Majority Black and Latino communities that received the worst grades under a racially discriminatory federal housing program known as redlining have nearly twice as many oil drilling wells as mostly White communities, a new study says.

The study by scientists at the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University in New York joined a large body of research showing how communities of color are disproportionately exposed to pollution and the resulting poor health outcomes.

It comes on the heels of a report last month that said 45 million Americans are breathing dirtier air because of racial redlining. The March study found that, compared with White people, Black and Latino Americans live with more smog and fine particulate matter from cars, trucks, buses, coal plants and other nearby industrial sources in areas that were redlined.

Gordon Plaza was sold as a dream for Black home buyers. It was a toxic nightmare.

Today, Black people are nearly four times as likely to die from exposure to pollution than White people. According to “Fumes Across the Fence-Line,” a study by the Clean Air Task Force, African Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than White Americans, and they are 75 percent more likely to live in communities that border a plant or factory.

“I think this is more evidence that this legacy of structural racism created through redlining boundaries has implications for health today,” said Joan Casey, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and the lead author of the study.

“Living near oil and gas wells is associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease, impaired lung function, anxiety, depression, preterm birth and impaired fetal growth,” the study said. “In several studies, risk was heightened among racially and socioeconomically marginalized people, and in several U.S. regions these same groups have disproportionately high exposure to wells and natural gas flaring.”

Starting in the late 1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corp. (HOLC) marked areas across the United States as unworthy of loans because of an “infiltration of foreign-born, Negro, or lower grade population” and bordered them in red. This made it harder for home buyers of color to get mortgages; the corporation awarded A grades for solidly White areas and D’s for largely non-White areas that lenders were advised to shun.

The study, published Wednesday in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, says that oil drilling is a more significant source of the pollution in communities that received the lowest grade, D, and a scarlet shade of red from the HOLC.

Using digitized HOLC maps provided by the Mapping Inequality Project at the University of Richmond and data it obtained from Enverus DrillingInfo, the researchers determined that more than 12,000 wells were sited in 33 cities across the United States between 1898 and 2021. More than 10,000 were within maps drawn by HOLC.

Neighborhoods that received D grades because of the presence of Black people and immigrants were within 100 meters of 6,288 drilling sites. “Declining” areas with C grades were near 5,051 sites. Neighborhoods with A grades, because they were mostly White, were about the same distance from 647 sites. Areas with B grades, 2,581 wells.

The total number of drilling sites, 14,567, is greater than the 12,000 wells in the data because those that bordered two communities were counted more than once, said David J.X. Gonzalez, a postdoctoral fellow at Cal Berkeley and a co-author of the study. There was a far higher density of wells in areas with the lowest grades.

Redlining means 45 million Americans are breathing dirtier air, 50 years after it ended

Throughout redlining’s history, local zoning officials worked with businesses to place polluting operations such as industrial plants, major roadways and shipping ports in and around neighborhoods that the federal government marginalized.

Gonzalez and his fellow researchers were not surprised that Los Angeles had the most oil drilling sites, 6,618, in and near maps drawn by HOLC. They were surprised by their sweep in urban areas — Tulsa, Kansas City, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Lower Westchester County outside New York City.

Analyzing the data, the researchers discovered that HOLC redlined several communities where drilling sites already existed.

Comparing the density of drilling within HOLC communities “makes me comfortable to say because this community was redlined, it was likely to have more wells,” Gonzalez said.

“I think one important thing to know is how public policy can affect health for many many decades to come,” Gonzalez added. “It makes us aware that we need to focus on disparate exposures and health outcomes when we consider new policy. Studies like this can put equity into the equation.”

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