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Continuing Consequences of Redlining

The Weaver fertilizer plant fire in Winston-Salem last month was a big national news story for days, and for good reason. It involved severe risk of death and the less dramatic but serious public health risks from hazardous air pollution. 

The danger unfolded in real time as the news cameras rolled on a major industrial fire. We learned the tonnage of explosive ammonium nitrate stored onsite had the potential to create extensive devastation. Winston-Salem’s experienced fire chief was chilled when he learned that his crews were fighting a fire in a facility with “enough ammonium nitrate on hand for this to be one of the worst explosions in U.S. history” — more than twice the material which had exploded in a notorious recent fertilizer plant fire in Texas.

The city evacuated homes and businesses within a mile radius of the plant, which included more than 6,000 residents. Fire crews were pulled out of the peak danger zone, forced to let the fire burn itself down until they could confirm most of the fertilizer storage had been consumed and that a rail car with even more was not in immediate jeopardy of catching fire. 

In the meantime, a huge smoke plume carried dangerous levels of air pollution in whichever direction shifting winds took it. Hundreds of thousands of people were potentially affected, with many warned to stay inside until the ruins stopped smoking. Minor Barnette, the director of the Forsyth County Office of Environmental Assistance and Protection, recently told the state Environmental Management Commission, “I had a panic attack” when he first saw the air pollution readings near the plant. “I had never seen numbers like that.”

The Weaver fire was quickly recognized as a classic case of environmental injustice at work. The nearby community is predominantly lower-income people of color. In the three U.S. Census tracts that touch the plant property, people of color make up between 81% and 85% of the population, with 70.6% to 90.6% considered low-income, according to local experts. 

The plant had originally been built during the post-World War II era, in what was then a scarcely populated rural area. As Winston-Salem grew outward, the plant area became home to residents who were shut out of more desirable building locations by discriminatory housing and lending policies of the time. 

One of the most exclusionary of these policies was known as redlining. Its explicitly racist origins were found in government-subsidized federal housing loan programs. “The federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) marked areas across the United States as unworthy of loans because of an ‘infiltration of foreign-born, Negro, or lower grade population,’ and shaded them in red starting in the 1930s. This made it harder for home buyers of color to get mortgages; the corporation awarded A grades for solidly White areas and D’s for largely non-White areas that lenders were advised to shun.”

That quote is from a Washington Post article last week about a study detailing air pollution’s still far higher impacts in the historically redlined areas of the United States than in other neighborhoods. The New York Times also covered this study. People of color were forced by the government and private banks to live in close proximity to industrial development, dooming generations to toxic air exposure and the ill health effects it causes. In other words, racist housing policy caused racist environmental impacts which persist today. Case in point, the Weaver fire.

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