In this 2020 photo, U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District, tours Horsham Air Guard Station in Willow Grove, Pa. (Office of U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean).
By Jonathan Sharp
As a worldwide phenomenon, environmental racism occurs when low-income communities of color are disproportionately exposed to pollution because of the areas they are forced to inhabit.
Factors such as the unavailability of affordable land, historical racism, and lack of political power to fight corporations are major contributors to environmental racism across the U.S. In the past, authorities would choose racially segregated neighborhoods as the sites for pollution hotspots such as industrial facilities, landfills, and truck routes.
As a consequence, nowadays, the Black population inhales 56% more toxic air than it produces, whereas white people breathe in 17% less pollution than they release.
Pennsylvania is no stranger to environmental racism. Located in the affluent, mostly white Delaware County, the small city of Chester is home to a low-income Black community.
However, it also hosts the nation’s largest trash incinerator, a sewage treatment plant receiving the entire county’s sewage, and many other waste processing plants, oil refineries, and industrial facilities.
Environmental racism has been acknowledged since 1993, yet Chester residents still face serious health risks due to the city’s unimaginable number of active polluters. Covanta Holding Corporation operates the waste-to-energy incinerator, which also burns trash from New York, Maryland, and New Jersey. This incinerator has the fewest pollution controls enforced of any of the six in the state.
While Covanta is one of the worst polluters in the region for nitrogen oxides, mercury, lead, dioxins, and other toxins contributing to cancer, asthma, birth defects, and learning disabilities, there are two more obscure environmental racism contributors nearby – Horsham Air Guard Station and Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove.
People who live close to these military bases, most of whom belong to disadvantaged communities, are constantly exposed to perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS, from groundwater. The source of these hazardous chemicals on military installations nationwide is the aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, a fire suppressant used since 1967.
The residents of Montgomery and Delaware counties are exposed to numerous toxic agents
Established in 1928, Horsham Air Guard Station is a military base located in the township with the same name. Today, it is known as Biddle Air National Guard Base.
The groundwater at the military facility became severely contaminated with PFAS as a consequence of firefighters’ activity. Out of this group of chemicals, PFOS and PFOA are currently known to be the most dangerous, as they have a strong association with cancer. The highest level of these contaminants ever measured in the groundwater at Horsham Air Guard Station was roughly 4,424 times over the safe exposure limit.
As a result of the military’s activity at the base, the town’s tap water also became contaminated with 37 substances, out of which 20 exceed the health guidelines.
These include PFOS and PFOA. While the level of the former is 209 times over the newly proposed safe limit, the concentration of the latter eclipses it by 8,590 times. Another military base with a grim legacy of toxic contamination is Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove.
The greatest PFOS and PFOA level measured in the groundwater at the installation eclipsed the safe exposure limit by nearly 16 times. Still, it is important to note that many other chemicals from the PFAS group were found lurking in the military base’s water source, which might also pose a serious health threat to the nearby communities.
When it comes to PFAS contamination, the infamous case of Camp Lejeune mirrors that of the Horsham Air Guard Station. At the North Carolina military base, the highest PFOS and PFOA level ever measured in groundwater exceeded the safe exposure limit by 2,562 times.
Furthermore, numerous industrial solvents, such as benzene, trichloroethylene, and vinyl chloride, had been polluting two of the eight water supplies for nearly four decades.
Combating environmental injustice
Communities of color who experience the impact of environmental racism firsthand are often let down by public law, as corporations releasing pollution in their neighborhoods usually receive lower fines for violating environmental laws. Moreover, authorities rarely take measures to fight this deadly phenomenon, and when they do, it generally takes years, if not decades, for a new law to become effective.
For instance, while the awful health effects Chester residents struggle with due to the presence of Covanta’s incinerator were acknowledged decades ago, nothing has yet been done to tackle the issue.
Therefore, perhaps a more impactful solution to achieving environmental justice is a combination of grassroots activism and collaboration with private law firms.
While filing a class action lawsuit against a major corporation may seem like a daunting endeavor, it is possible for the affected individuals to recover financial compensation. Not only can taking legal action help people of color whose health was compromised due to pollution obtain money for treatment, but it can also deter the responsible corporations from releasing toxic agents among these vulnerable communities in the future.
Jonathan Sharp is the chief financial officer at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. in Birmingham, Ala. The law firm specializes in toxic exposure, assisting communities and individuals affected by environmental racism. Sharp is responsible for case evaluation, management of firm assets, and financial analysis.
[This article was updated at 12:35 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023 to correct the type of water containing PFAS chemicals to “groundwater.”]
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