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Fighting for Racial Justice Through Polluting Communities of Color


I was struck in yesterday’s race and policing thread by the number of commenters who said that corporate words about fighting racism (blackwashing perhaps?) actually had meaning. They don’t. The thing about corporations saying they are going to act on issues of racial justice is that capitalism is predicated on oppressing people of color, or whoever is poorest in a society. You place the pollution wherever you can and hope that the local communities don’t know enough to do anything about it. That’s what leads to the quarterly reports that get the CEO and other leaders a fat raise. So Suncor decided to speak out about racial justice. If this really meant anything to them, maybe they hired a few more people of color. But said statements fly right in the face that they are poisoning impoverished Latinos in Denver.

Lucy Molina taught her teenage kids how to drive so if there’s an emergency they can bring her to the hospital. That’s one of the precautions her family must take due to living within a mile of Colorado’s only major oil refinery, which in recent years has released illegally high levels of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter, according to state health authorities.

Researchers have determined that particulate matter is one of the largest environmental causes of premature death in the U.S., and even thresholds currently deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency could still be deadly, a Harvard team found last year. In 2012, the Suncor Commerce City refinery had to pay a $2.2 million fine for too-high releases of benzene, a cancer-causing compound for which the World Health Organization says there is no safe level of exposure.

Since moving to the Adams Heights neighborhood of Commerce City seven years ago, which is part of an area in greater Denver with high numbers of Latino people and incomes lower than the state average, Molina said her children have experienced nosebleeds and headaches so bad it’s sometimes difficult for them to go to school. Molina herself developed vertigo and migraines.

A doctor she saw about those problems informed her that the refinery could be a factor, and told her to read a Physicians for Social Responsibility report that said health impacts linked to exposure to oil and gas infrastructure can “include cancers, asthma, respiratory distress, rashes, heart problems, and mental health problems.” A study last year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that Americans living within five to 10 miles of an oil refinery are at higher risk of getting multiple cancers.

“We’ve invested over $1.3 billion in the refinery in upgrades, technologies, and systems that improve the reliability of our operations,” a spokesperson wrote to VICE News. “As Colorado’s only refinery and as a part of the community, we’re working to meet the energy needs of Coloradans, do our part to support the local economy, and continuing to reduce the environmental impacts of our operations.”

But Suncor not only wants to be seen as a good neighbor in Colorado. The company, which is the largest producer of tar sands oil in Canada, is also portraying itself as a fighter for racial justice. Its President and CEO Mark Little published a statement last summer in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery resulted in “a time of deep reflection for us.”

Suncor has had “three company-wide conversations about racism and discrimination” since then. The company says that the first step towards fixing racial disparities is to admit that they exist. “We need to acknowledge racism because we cannot address what we are not willing to face,” Suncor’s manager of Inclusion & Diversity, Charlene Waugh, said in March

Colorado activists say that’s rich language coming from a company that pollutes a low-income community of color. “What they need to face isn’t ‘racism’ in the abstract; it’s the real children who don’t have clean air to breathe because of Suncor,” said Kate Merlin, a climate and energy attorney with the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, which is suing Colorado air and health authorities to enforce stricter limits on the refinery’s pollution.

Instead, Suncor is seeking permission to pollute even more. It has asked state air pollution control officials to increase the amount of hydrogen cyanide it’s able to release each year from the refinery from 12.8 tons to 19.9 tons. Exposure to this byproduct of processing crude oil can cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, and weakness, and at high-enough levels it can be fatal. “The state health department and the Environmental Protection Agency say Suncor’s current permitted level of hydrogen-cyanide emissions is safe, though no direct measuring or exposure studies have been done,” the air monitoring group Cultivando notes.

Isn’t true diversity measured by the number of different cancers you create inside people’s bodies?

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