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In the shadow of refineries, a Southern California community endures a long history of pollution

In the shadow of refineries, a Southern California community endures a long history of pollution

Picture of Adam Mahoney
Flames rise in a burn-off of toxic gases at an oil refinery in Wilmington in 2005.
Flames rise in a burn-off of toxic gases at an oil refinery in Wilmington in 2005.
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

How is a community expected to survive when it has as many refineries as it does parks? 

That’s the reality for residents of Wilmington, California, which is located smack dab in the middle of the West Coast’s oil country. The Los Angeles Times calls it “an island in a sea of petroleum,” but since I was 6 years old, I’ve just called it home.

With a population that is 97% people of color, Wilmington houses five local refineries — the largest concentration in all of California — and is home to the nation’s largest trading port, its third-largest oil field, and hundreds of active oil wells. My first introduction that I can remember to the dangers of living next to these polluting industries came at 7 years old. Frightened and captivated for hours, I sat on the bottom of the bunk bed I shared with my brother watching bright orange flames shoot into the air. The refinery, which was roughly one mile away, was spewing hundreds of pounds of toxic cancer-causing chemicals into the air. 

That day, while traumatizing for me, is a normal occurrence for the 50,000 residents in the South Los Angeles community of Wilmington. According to the state office of Environmental Health Hazards, no place in California is exposed to more particulate matter air pollution. With that reality comes one of the highest cancer rates in Southern California and some of the state’s highest rates of asthma. 

Across the entire Southern Californian basin, more people die every year from air pollution than from traffic accidents and crime-related deaths combined, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). Yet, as the pandemic broadly offered the world a reprieve from air pollution from fossil fuels, Wilmington’s air only got dirtier. Through public records, I have found that the Los Angeles Phillips 66 refinery, located in Wilmington since 1917, emitted more toxins in 2020 than in 2019.

This is underscored by a recently settled lawsuit that required the refinery to pay $45,000, lower emissions, and replace at least 150 leaking valves. Most notably, the facility is now under a federal consent decree for lying about its rate of emissions of deadly toxins, namely the carcinogen benzene, between 2016 and 2019. That practice had potentially been going on for much longer: A 2015 study found that benzene emissions from all five refineries in the area were undercounted by factors ranging from 3.2 to 202, with the Phillips 66 refinery being the biggest culprit. Though the company reported releasing 508 pounds of benzene at the refinery in 2018, a local community group found that it had actually emitted more than 100,000 pounds. 

As a result, for the last 12 enforcement periods since 2018, the refinery has been dubbed a “high priority” violator by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. And based on preliminary data from 2020 and 2021, I believe it has only gotten worse, despite the lawsuit. 

With support from the 2021 Data Fellowship, I’ll attempt to answer two big questions about public health and pollution enforcement in the community: First, how effective are pollution regulations in Southern California, given that the refineries’ ongoing and publicly documented violations? Second, how does a community like Wilmington regain access to an environment in which residents can breathe healthy air and thrive? 

I hope to use data and records to illuminate how widespread unchecked emissions are in the area, and to supplement this reporting with dozens of community interviews to find out what the emissions mean for people who live and work there. The story will hit on two major themes that I have developed on my environmental justice beat: the transition beyond a dependence on fossil fuels, and the racialized violence and economic dependence created by situating polluting industries in communities of color.

To answer questions related to public health in the community, I plan to use the California Public Records Act to compare air quality and flaring records with public health records. Then, I will try to create a detailed data visualization of Wilmington’s cancer and asthma risk. To answer the question of how the community experiences their environment, I will complete door-to-door canvassing and interviews at Banning Park and Wilmington Waterfront Park, as well as interviews at local schools, including my alma mater Harbor Prep. Although the refinery is highly contentious, given its economic impact on the community, I will explore what the community envisions for the future beyond fossil fuels.

All things considered, I want to use this fellowship and the story I produce to answer the many questions I had that night as a 7-year-old — questions I believe are shared by residents across the city. The project will offer an opportunity to create a tool for the community to better understand the built and natural environment around them and how it dictates their daily lives. 

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You are doing amazing and important work, Adam! Thank you!!

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