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Fossil fuels’ human rights toll exposed

Fossil fuel-related toxic pollution from the petrochemical industry is devastating lives in Texas and Louisiana
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Aerial view of oil refinery in Houston, Texas, USA

Main image: Aerial view of oil refinery in Houston, Texas, USA

Amnesty International has released The Cost of Doing Business? The Petrochemical Industry’s Toxic Pollution in the USA, which details the devastating harms related to toxic pollution from hundreds of fossil fuel and petrochemical plants along the Houston Ship Channel in Texas.

The report scrutinises the emissions and safety records of four plants owned by multinational corporations.

Human Rights Watch has issued ‘We’re Dying Here’: The Fight For Life in a Louisiana Fossil Fuel Sacrifice Zone, which documents a human health crisis in Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’.

The crisis has resulted from government neglect and environmental pollution, which has exposed residents to elevated risks of cancer, respiratory ailments and harm to maternal, reproductive and newborn health.

‘People’s lives and the environment are being devastated at the hands of big business. Affected communities are disproportionately low-income and racialised, often lack access to the healthcare they need, and face almost insurmountable barriers to justice. It is environmental racism,.’

Amnesty International’s researcher on business and human rights

Petrochemicals and health

Many interviewees told Amnesty International how they, or a close relative, had been diagnosed with a respiratory disease, including lung cancer and asthma, or frequently experienced breathing difficulties.

This is consistent with academic research exploring the health impacts of proximity to the petrochemicals industry.

Average life expectancy in communities along the Houston Ship Channel is up to 20 years lower than in majority white neighborhoods just 15 miles away.
‘It pretty much affects me and my family every single day. There’s always smells in the air, every time you step outside for a little while’, said community member Alondra Torres.

Escaping fines

In Texas, companies can escape regulatory fines if they say a leak was ‘unplanned and unavoidable’ and money from any fines imposed is sometimes channeled into pro-industry schemes.

The state regulator can legally ignore pollution complaints from community members who have previously reported being affected by pollution.

The large concentration of facilities makes it difficult to pinpoint which plant is the source of a leak, or the cause of an illness.

‘Regulations are often unenforced, and many of the companies involved appear to treat any fines from regulators, if they are imposed at all, as just another cost of doing business. Some plants have repeatedly exposed local communities to dangerous chemicals with little or inadequate warning.
‘There is no effective regulatory deterrent to prevent these firms harming people, which they are doing with near impunity. The current system is stacked in favour of the companies and against the people they harm. The human rights abuses related to the petrochemical industry worldwide are often staggeringly harmful. This must and can change.’

Amnesty International’s researcher on business and human rights

Remedies for harms

A worst-case toxic release disaster could harm tens of thousands of people, but despite major fires and chemical leaks in recent years, there is no effective emergency alert system in place to warn residents.
The report calls for much improved pollution monitoring at fence lines, more regulatory inspections and enforcement action and for the federal Environment Protection Agency to more frequently exercise its powers to enforce national laws in Texas, and punish polluters.

Local communities must have access to redress and remedies for the harms they are suffering, including funding for healthcare.

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