People of Color Poisoned By Pollution and Prisons

by Panagioti Tsolkas /

According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences published in March, people of color breathe in far more deadly air pollution than they are responsible for making. This news may not come as a surprise to many following the environmental justice movement, perhaps the shock is that the story circulated widely enough to reach into a solitary confinement cell in the prison town of Beeville, Texas, where it found prisoner activists Malik Washington.

Despite the extreme isolation Washington faces in TDCJ’s McConnell Unit (as a result of his advocacy efforts in the state prison system, and his alleged participation in the national prison strikes), the significance of the scientific report resonated with him. He didn’t have to look far to see it play out. The same month the report was released, two environmental disasters occurred just northeast of him, in the Houston area, belching plumes of black smoke into surrounding communities. (The ITC oil refinery burned for four days, two weeks later the KMCO plant also went up in flames.)

refinery disaster pollution over school in Houston 2019
Both pictures here are from the petrochemical fire at Intercontinental Terminals Company which started on March 18, 2019. Deer Park High School closed following the fire that burned for four days. Photo: Elizabeth Conley/ Houston Chronicle

Although Washington has philosophical sympathies with the environmental movement, he also has a unique perspective as a prisoner. For starters, the racial disparities in prison populations seem to mirror the pollution studies.

According to an updated report by the Pew Research Center released last week, “The racial and ethnic makeup of U.S. prisons continues to look substantially different from the demographics of the country as a whole. In 2017, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners. And while Hispanics represented 16% of the adult population, they accounted for 23% of inmates.”

[Note: Neither of these studies looked at economic class, but if you took a wild guess that rich white people see drastically less prison and pollution, I’d place my bets on it.]


But it’s not just prison populations with a long history of vast racial disparity.

Last month Washington Post writer Radley Balko added 21 more reports indicating racial bias in all aspects of the criminal justice system, bringing the total to 141.

“The studies covered nearly every nook and cranny of our carceral system — from police to prosecutors to prisons; from misdemeanor offenses to the death penalty; from sentencing to parole; and from youth offenses to plea bargaining to clemency. The post also included nine studies I could find that suggested racial bias was not a factor in some part of the criminal-justice system” [Note: Yes, 9 out of 141]

Looking at studies such as these side by side, assessing disparities of pollution, policing and prison, is a growing field of research, advocacy and activism, spurring the growth of an eco-abolitionist movement. This intersection of issues is the foundation of the fourth annual Fight Toxic Prisons Convergence, occurring June 14 – 17 in Gainesville, Florida.

Examples of this compounded prison/pollution racial disparity has become apparent in a number of recent, glaring examples. Here are a few:

  1. Extreme heat and arsenic tainted water in Texas prisons that led a federal judge to rule against the state, requiring an alternative water source;
  2. A proposed federal prison in Kentucky, on top of a former coal strip mine, next to a coal sludge impoundment, in an area with reported toxic contamination in the soil and water;
  3. A massive proposed phosphate strip mine in North Florida, which would surround the Lake Butler Medical and Reception Center prison, housing prisoners who already have health problems (and are already next door to a landfill).

We hope you’ll join us in Florida to find out more and get involved.

Excerpt from Malik
Excerpt from TX prisoner Malik Washington’s recent letter to Fight Toxic Prisons

From the Associated Press article that caught Malik’s attention:

Blacks, Hispanics breathe more pollution than they make

by Seth Borenstein

African-Americans and Hispanics breathe in far more deadly air pollution than they are responsible for making, a new study said.

A study looked at who is exposed to fine particle pollution — responsible for about 100,000 American deaths a year — and how much different races are responsible for the pollution based on their buying, driving and living habits.

Scientists calculate that Hispanics on average breathe in 63 percent more of the pollution that leads to heart and breathing deaths than they make. For African-Americans the figure is 56 percent, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

On the other hand, non-Hispanic whites on average are exposed to 17 percent less air pollution than they make.

“Even though minorities are contributing less to the overall problem of air pollution, they are affected by it more,” said study co-author Jason Hill, a biosystems engineering professor at the University of Minnesota who is white. “Is it fair (that) I create more pollution and somebody else is disproportionately affected by it?”

This pollution comes from gases from smokestacks, tailpipes and other places that then solidify into fine invisible particles small enough to pass through lungs and into bloodstreams. These particles, more than 25 times smaller than the width of a human hair, pose the greatest risk to people’s health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.

While other studies have shown minorities living with more pollution, this study is one of the first to combine buying habits and exposure into one calculation of inequity, Hill said.

Hill and colleagues looked at pollution from highways, coal-fired power plants, hog farms and other sources.

They then looked in a large scale at who is driving more, buying more goods and food, spending more on property and using more electricity, then traced those purchases to end users.

“On average whites tend to consume more than minorities. It’s because of wealth,” Hill said. “It’s largely how much you buy, not buying different things.”

Of 103,000 particle pollution deaths a year, 83,000 can be traced to the activities of people in the United States — not government and not goods exported elsewhere, the study said

Several outside experts praised the research.

“These findings confirm what most grassroots environmental justice leaders have known for decades, ‘whites are dumping their pollution on poor people and people of color’,” said Texas Southern University public affairs professor Robert Bullard, who was not part of the research. Bullard, often called the father of environmental justice , is African-American.

Bullard said his and other past research shows that African-Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live where industrial pollution is highest, with people of color overrepresented near Superfund sites and oil refineries.

He said there are far more mostly minority schools within 500 feet of major highways than mostly white schools.

“Being able to quantify the inequity is a key step toward addressing and reducing inequity,” said Christopher Frey, a professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University, who is white and not part of the research.

One bright spot is that in recent decades the air has been getting cleaner in general, Hill said. However, his study stopped in 2015 and EPA data shows an uptick in fine particle pollution in 2017. But even with the cleaner air, it is still inequitable, Hill said.

CFRC and Stanton Coal Plant
Another example of the prison/pollution dilemma: residents of east Orange County (Orlando, FL) filed a class action lawsuit last month indicating that local coal-burning power plants have poisoned their homes and public spaces.

FDOC’s Central FL Reception Center, a complex of prisons warehousing over 3,000 people, specifically including prisoners in the region with medical conditions, is the coal plants’ closest neighbor. As the image below indicates, the prison is about a mile as the wind blows.

From the lawsuit: “The danger of such exposure is borne out by an epidemiologic analysis based on data from the Florida Cancer Disease Registry and a site investigation, which found a higher incidence of, for instance, pediatric brain and blood cancers including two exceedingly rare pediatric brain cancers,” states the lawsuit by Cohen Milstein, a national firm that specializes in cases of environmental threats to communities.

“The only source of these cancer-causing Contaminates is the Stanton Power Plant, which has a unique Contaminate fingerprint.”

Read an article about the class action lawsuit here:,amp.html

Oil refinery in UT 2018
Oil refinery near Salt Lake City, Utah, 2018.
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