Increased vulnerability to COVID-19 connected to oil and gas development

Communities located next to industrial operations bear burden

The Suncor oil refinery, located just north of Denver city limits, is one of the region's largest sources of toxic air pollution. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Imagine living near an oil and gas refinery which emits more than 800,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants, a company made to pay a $9 million settlement in 2020 for state and federal air pollution violations. Your son and your mother have asthma and it’s often not safe for them to go outdoors. In this neighborhood, increasing ventilation in school buildings to reduce the spread of COVID isn’t possible, because it would increase the amount of harmful volatile organic compounds given off by the refinery entering the building. That is the plight of family nurse practitioner Darci Martinez who lives in Commerce City.

Coloradans have long been aware of this disproportionate and noxious environmental contamination for some time, most often affecting communities of color and low-income neighborhoods and have voted to implement some of the most healthful rules in the nation for dealing with polluting industries. A new report just released by the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, which includes the experiences of Martinez, not only validates why we must do this but moreover unmasks how the disparate health burdens borne by communities located next to oil and gas fields, refineries, and other polluting industries amplifies the risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.

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It’s widely known that chronic exposure to air pollution is related to various health impacts, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and heart disease. Research from the 2003 SARS epidemic in China found a relationship between chronic exposure to air pollution, such as ozone and atmospheric particulate matter that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5), and the risk of death from SARS. Evidence now suggests a similar relationship between air quality and COVID-19. Several studies show that the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads more quickly in areas with more air pollution because it induces inflammation in lung cells which then increases the susceptibility and severity of COVID-19 patient symptoms. A robust analysis in the United States utilizing COVID-19 data through June 18, 2020, reveals that for every microgram per cubic meter increase of average long-term PM2.5 exposure there was an 11% increase in a county’s COVID-19 mortality rate.

It is also widely known that the extraction and refining of fossil fuels is a major cause of the ozone and particle pollution that makes us sick and that oil and gas development most significantly impacts the health of the people living close to the operations. Proximity to oil and gas development is a health concern for many Americans; in 2012 in Colorado alone, 378,000 people lived within one mile of an active oil and gas well.

In this age of pandemic, there are important and necessary steps we can take to improve the air we breathe and mitigate the risk of COVID cases that can be worsened by the harmful pollutants generated by oil and gas development.

In Colorado alone, 378,000 people lived within one mile of an active oil and gas well.

We can prioritize areas with historical elevated air pollution exposure, especially PM2.5, in our COVID-19 responses; we can stand up for the Clean Air Act and improve existing air quality standards supported by science; we can place limits on methane pollution on new and existing sources from the oil and gas industry and enact policies that reduce carbon emissions and other air pollutants from power plants and other fossil fuel sources. Ultimately, for our wellbeing, we must halt new fossil fuel infrastructure completely, phase out remaining infrastructure, and transition to clean and renewable forms of energy.

Thankfully, we are in the midst of instituting new rules in Colorado that require more than 2,000 feet between new wells and schools and homes, and better monitoring of emissions from well sites, and that give local governments more control. On a national level, the Biden administration has just issued an executive order to halt new leases and drilling on federal public lands so that the system can be carefully reviewed before more damage is done.

Colorado is strewn with areas of dense exposure to injurious pollution from oil and gas operations that provide energy for the nation, but also place a severe burden on the communities nearby. The advent of COVID-19 has more fully unmasked the health burden for people living in these communities, and hopefully spurred us even more to dismantle policies that sicken people in Colorado living near industry operations that pollute the air and contaminate our water supply.

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