An Ill Wind Blowing: Exploring Environmental Justice Issues Affecting North Tulsa

by Contributing Writer Nancy Moran MS, RN

In 1971, Marvin Gaye expressed melancholy and loss concerning the damage inflicted on the planet by humans in his #1 R&B hit,  “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology).”  At that time, there wasn’t yet a psychological term to describe his feelings. Today, The American Psychological Association (APA) might say that Gaye was suffering from eco-anxiety, a “chronic fear of environmental doom” characterized by a variety of emotions, including anger, fear, despair, exhaustion, and a feeling of powerlessness.

Much of today’s eco-anxiety is being fueled by climate change. Given the record-breaking heat waves, droughts, destructive hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and melting glaciers in the news, the problem is getting harder to ignore in the minds of people around the planet, including in the USA. According to a December 2018 Yale survey, 70% of Americans are “worried” about climate change, 29% are “very worried” and 51% feel “helpless.” A 2018 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 57% of Tulsa County residents are concerned too.

Environmental Racism and Injustice

The face of climate change is a human one and is more likely to belong to someone who is brown, black, female, young, and living in developing nations or low-income communities. These communities are more likely to suffer from pre-existing health conditions, lack of access to health insurance and clinical services, live in areas vulnerable to climate change and toxic exposures (i.e coastal areas), be unable to understand emergency warnings issued in English, and have less ability to relocate or rebuild after a disaster. Yet, long before the existential threat of climate change entered the collective consciousness of the American people, there was already a double jeopardy taking place in these communities. After all, as news commentator and author Van Jones said, “In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people.” 

Not only are these communities more susceptible to climate change-related disasters and illnesses, they are also are more likely to live, work, play and go to school in areas with coal-powered plants, oil refineries, trash incinerators, landfills, and other hazardous waste-producing industries located nearby. These same facilities are coincidentally driving climate change. Robert Bullard Ph.D., who has been called the “Father of Environmental Justice,” has written about this phenomenon  in his book on environmental racism. It is aptly named, The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How Government Response to Disasters Endangers African American Communities.

Increasingly, environmental and conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, which have historically fought for clean air, water, and the protection of wildlife and natural habitats, are beginning to focus on environmental justice (EJ). The Environmental Protection Agency defines EJ as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Fair treatment, according to the EPA, “means that no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies.” Given this claimed interest in “fair treatment,” it is not enough to only advocate for more protective environmental laws and reducing heat-trapping greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide. The connections between the abuse of the environment and the oppression of people with the least power, including those classified as low-income, immigrants, women, and people of color should be acknowledged, analyzed, and corrected.

It instructs all federal agencies to “collect, maintain and analyze information assessing and comparing environmental and human health risks borne by populations identified by race, national origin or income.” In keeping with these environmental justice principles calling for the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people,” The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy recommends that cities design programs that reach low-income and multifamily households. To avoid burdening low-income communities and communities of color with energy cost increases, public engagement strategies to develop and administer energy-savings plans must be put into place. This is important because research has shown that people of color are less represented in climate policy decisions, and have less access to jobs and benefits from clean energy than white people. 

According to an EPA National Center for Environmental Assessment analysis, communities of color and those living in poverty are more likely to be exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution from refineries, automobiles, and factories compared to their white counterparts in 46 out of the 50 states. A paper published in the American Journal of Public Health focused on pollutants that measure less than 2.5 microns across (known as PM 2.5)—that’s roughly 30 times smaller than the diameter of a strand of human hair. Because they are so small, when these pollutants are inhaled, they are able to travel deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Chronic exposure to these tiny particles are associated with higher rates of asthma, heart attacks, and premature death. 

According to a New York Times article, despite the EPA’s findings that African Americans are exposed to 1.5 times more pollutants than whites, Hispanics 1.2 times that of non-Hispanic whites, and people in poverty 1.3 times the exposure of those not in poverty, the EPA is in the process of rolling back 83 different environmental rules and regulations.  The New York Times reported that an EPA plan designed to weaken a 25 year-old rule which allowed communities a say in deciding how much pollution can be released by nearby power plants and factories had been drafted.

Making matters worse is the unfortunate truth that wealthier and whiter members of our society are better positioned to mobilize, hire lawyers, and raise the money needed to fight against the presence of noxious industries in their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the presence of dirty industries cast a long shadow over pollution-burdened communities, not only damaging residents’ health, but also creating barriers to economic opportunity, depressing housing prices, and blocking the path to middle-class security.  

Children are especially susceptible to the detrimental effects of air pollution because their bodies are still maturing and toxins accumulate over time. Breathing in dirty air is associated with asthma and the effects of air pollution on brain development, including learning disabilities, ADHD and autism, are well established. When students miss school due to asthma or suffer from learning disabilities because the air that they breathe and the water they drink is not clean, healthy, and safe, it is hard for them to thrive. The cleanliness of our water and air is one of many overlapping social and physical determinants of health that explain why one’s zip code is still the most potent predictor of an individual’s health and well-being. 

Environmental Justice Screening Tool

In 2015, the EPA released its online Environmental Justice (EJ) Screening Tool. 11 environmental indicators  and 6 demographic indicators are combined mathematically to calculate a community’s EJ Index score, which is expressed in percentiles.  The EJ Index score allows users to compare their exposure/risk/ proximity to environmental hazards and their community’s demographic indicators to those of the state, EPA region, and other populations.  

For example, the EJ Indexes associated with air pollution exposure and respiratory/cancer risk in the one-mile radius surrounding Hawthorne Elementary School, located at 1105 E. 33rd St. N., Tulsa, OK 74106, are presented below. 

Selected VariableState PercentileEPA Region]PercentileUSA Percentile
EJ Index for PM 2.5978188
EJ Index for Ozone968389
EJ Index for NATA* Diesel PM968183
EJ Index for NATA* Air Toxics Cancer Risk988892
EJ Index for NATA* Respiratory Hazard Index979091
EJ Index for Traffic Proximity and Volume866473

Compare those percentiles with those found in the one-mile radius surrounding Eliot Elementary School, located six miles south at 1442 E 36th St, Tulsa, OK 74105. 

Selected VariableState PercentileEPA RegionPercentileUSA Percentile
EJ Index for PM 2.5302638
EJ Index for Ozone332639
EJ Index for NATA* Diesel PM232437
EJ Index for NATA* Air Toxics Cancer Risk242126
EJ Index for NATA* Respiratory Hazard Index221925
EJ Index for Traffic Proximity and Volume101626

Demographics in terms of “minority” and low-income status differ vastly in these two communities. Ninety-one percent of those living near Hawthorne Elementary School are categorized as “minority” and 64% are categorized as low-income compared to 14% of “minority’ members and 20% of residents classified as low income living near Eliot Elementary School. This comparison reveals that race, income, and the neighborhood in which one lives interact to increase one’s vulnerability to the adverse health effects of air pollution in Tulsa.

Holly Refinery: Tulsa’s Top Air Polluter

Winds in Tulsa generally blow from the south to the north, bringing with them pollution from downtown and industrial areas on Tulsa’s west side. Some of those winds blowing into North Tulsa come from the direction of Holly Frontier, which operates 2 oil refineries in West Tulsa. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst Political Economy Research Institute ranked Holly Frontier number 100 on their US Toxic 100 Air Polluters Index , 78 on the Toxic 100 Water list, and 131 in the greenhouse gas emissions on their Combined Toxic / Greenhouse 100 Lists. Scores are based on the quantity of toxins released, how the chemical spreads from the point of release to the surrounding area, and how many people live in the affected area. 42% of Holly Frontier’s air Toxic Score (quantity x exposure x toxicity x population) is attributed to their two refineries located in West Tulsa. According to their EJ: Poor Share and EJ: Minority Share results, 44% of people exposed to these toxic emissions are identified as Hispanic or nonwhite and 22-24% live below the poverty line.


One resident Brady Heights resident, who asked to remain anonymous, stated “Our neighborhood is terrible when the wind blows from the south. I think because we are on a hill, we are at the same level as the smokestacks.” Two years ago, they organized neighbors to report the odors coming from the Holly Refinery to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality complaint hotline.When representatives from the refinery came to the neighborhood, the Brady Heights resident  reports that “they were so insulting. They said we should be more worried about the shootings in our neighborhood than the refinery gases.”

Air Pollution and Asthma 

Air pollution reduces lung function and triggers more asthma attacks, which, in extreme cases, can lead to death. According to the Office of Minority Health (U.S. Department of Human Health and Services), African Americans have a higher rate of asthma than people of other races and ethnicities and are almost three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than White Americans. According to figures provided by the Tulsa County Health Department, the disparity is even greater in our city. Between 2015 and 2017, the age-adjusted mortality rate for asthma was almost 5 times higher for African American residents than their white counterparts. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America ranks Tulsa as the 37th most challenging city in the nation to live if you have asthma. Poverty and lack of health insurance play a major role in developing and managing asthma. According to the Tulsa Community Health Needs Index (CHNI), close to 30% of North Tulsa residents live below the poverty line and almost 50% lack health insurance. 

Avoiding Environmental Gentrification

ACEEE recommends that all new urban development projects include feasibility studies for community solar programs, which benefit low-income households and renters by removing the cost barriers related to private solar installations and lowering their energy costs.  Studies indicate that low-income households routinely have far higher utility cost burdens than moderate and high-income households. With Tulsa’s current eviction rate ranking number 11 in the nation, according to Eviction Lab, reducing energy costs and improving energy efficiency for Tulsa’s low-income households could help remedy this situation

With community input, care would have to be taken to avoid the harmful effects of environmental gentrification, which were outlined in the EPA study Unintended Impacts of Redevelopment and Revitalization Efforts in Five Environmental Justice Communities. When residents of historically disenfranchised neighborhoods begin to see green spaces, bike lanes, permeable pavement, sustainable buildings, and other environmentally-friendly infrastructure put into place, displacement and rising housing costs will no longer be a looming threat. Kolby Webster, a local advocate for more equitable people-oriented design, says “Tulsa’s greatest legacy thus far has been mistreating minorities by how it chooses to build this city. Even as communities rebuilt after racially motivated tragedies, urban renewal has created parking lots where thriving businesses and homes once were. If we do not address this neglect for the natural and built environment, there is little chance of any real reconciliation as we approach the centennial of these catalytic events [Tulsa Race Massacre] that spurred the systemic issues we as a city continue to deal with.”

Addressing Pollution Inequity in Tulsa

According to the Tulsa Equality Indicators report, justice is an “absolute necessity for the betterment of society, fairness, and the building of a more equitable Tulsa.” Further, it states that “public health in Tulsa is inextricably linked to socioeconomic status and social determinants of health.” The health injustice created by air pollution and climate change and the disproportionate risk to some Tulsa residents over others, as indicated by the EPA’s EJ mapping tool, should be considered during the creation of a more just and equitable Tulsa. According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 80% of Tulsa County residents favor more research on renewable energy and close to 70% favor regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Over half also want local officials to take action on global warming and 65% say that environmental protection is more important than economic growth.  

It’s time for elected officials to listen and ensure that the City of Tulsa does indeed live up to the goals established in its comprehensive plan to become a leader in sustainability and carbon neutrality. Tulsa must begin an inclusive and transparent planning process for the managed decline of existing fossil fuel jobs and infrastructure. Given the urgency of the climate crisis and the disproportionate exposure to pollution for low-income communities and communities of color in our city, action is needed now.

To learn more about how to use the EPA’s Environmental Justice Mapping Tool, you may visit EJSCREEN Videos page.


To sign the Tulsa Ready for 100 petition asking Mayor GT Bynum to commit to a just and equitable transition to clean renewable energy for the City of  Tulsa by 2050, go to https://www.sierraclub.org/oklahoma/green-country/tulsa-ready-for-100.

Photo credit: KJRH Tulsa