Latino communities face an elevated risk of cancer and an increased burden from childhood asthma attacks and lost school days attributed to some of the 9 million tons of methane and toxic pollutants emitted from oil and gas wells each year, according to a new report.
Research compiled by the Clean Air Task Force, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Hispanic Medical Association found more than 1.81 million Latinos live within half a mile of an oil and gas well, putting them at increased risk for cancer. Relatively low rates of health insurance coverage also mean that Latino children have less access to preventive care and as a result are more likely to miss school or visit an emergency room due to an asthma attack.
New Mexico has the highest population of Latino residents of the nation's top 10 oil and gas states. An estimated 45,592 Latinos, or about 5 percent of the state's Latino population, live within a half-mile radius of a well here.
"This report is the scientific version of the lived experience every day of New Mexicans—we are disproportionately impacted by air pollution every day in our communities," says Christopher Ramirez, director of Juntos, a Latino-targeted program from Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund.
Behind the numbers are the stories of individual communities—places like Albuquerque's predominantly Latino South Valley, which has the city's worst air quality, and San Juan County, which the American Lung Association gave an F for air quality, where many Latino families live in a trailer park next to a generating station.
In a survey of Latino families in Albuquerque, air pollution and contamination overwhelmingly took the lead as the number one concern for environmental issues. Half of the Latino families said they knew at least one person with asthma or respiratory problems, and 12 percent reported knowing at least 10 people in that category.
"If we continue to focus on oil and gas as industries in our communities, the health impacts are going to continue to be great, and especially disproportionately affect Latino families," Ramirez says.
"If you are a person of color and person in poverty, you're more than likely going to be exposed to methane pollution or some other type of air contaminant—which we have seen, because of this report, is linked to specific ailments like asthma and cancer," says Luis Torres, director of policy and legislation for the League of United Latin American Citizens. "For us, from a civil rights perspective, the question really is: Is there a role for the community to play in pushing back on where these plants are placed and who gets to make those decisions, given that many times our community bears a disproportionate impact?"
In New Mexico, the Latino population comprises 46 percent of the total population and 32 percent of the population lives within half a mile of a well—so they're disproportionately low in that aspect. In Ohio, a state with a 3 percent Latino population, the areas within half a mile of oil and gas wells are 22 percent Latino, and in Kansas, with an 11 percent Latino population, that radius is 37 percent Latino.
But volatile organic compounds released from oil and gas facilities at the northwestern and southeastern corners of New Mexico have been traced to increasing ozone in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Vegas, according to the Clean Air Task Force. That agency also documented 3,286 asthma attacks just in those three metropolitan areas that they say are linked to ozone increased by oil and gas pollution.
"We can't say exactly, 'This asthma attack was caused by pollution from this region.' We do know that air pollutants, the volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides—those are emitted, and they'll react in the atmosphere to form ozone," says Lesley Fleischman, technical analyst with the Clean Air Task Force.
Sometimes those pollutants can stay in and move through the atmosphere for hundreds of miles before a chemical reaction converts them to ozone.
"The pollutants are clearly traveling and having an impact," she says.
Santa Fe County is generally known for its remarkably clean air, having received A's for air quality from the American Lung Association—until 2016, that is. This year it scored a B. The Clean Air Task Force research counted 461 asthma attacks and 337 lost school days for Latino children just in this county.
The report also studied counties that exceed the US Enivornmental Protection Agency's threshold for cancer risk from oil and gas pollution and are therefore at highest risk, and found 89,000 Latinos in New Mexico in those counties.
"Even when they face the exact same risk, they face a higher burden in most cases," Fleischman adds. "These are health impacts from oil and gas pollution that's happening today, all over the country, and they're from facilities that are currently in operation."
Emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that's 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and volatile organic compounds from existing oil and gas facilities is largely unregulated.
"There are no regulations that require them to control these emissions, and we think that's really important because it has a direct impact on communities all over the country," she says. "So we wanted to highlight the direct impacts and call for federal regulations to limit the impacts and reduce the emissions."
In New Mexico and Texas (where 832,387 Latinos live within half a mile of oil and gas development), state administrations are actively fighting efforts to curtail these well emissions.
"That is why the EPA really needs to regulate existing sources of methane pollution, to protect these populations, because the states aren't doing it, and industry sure isn't doing it," says Alan Septoff, strategic communications director for Earthworks, a nonprofit that focuses on mineral extraction and energy development. The industry did work with the state of Colorado to craft regulations that Septoff says should serve as a nationwide model—though pending regulations in California would be even stiffer.
"This is not a choice between oil and gas development and health. It's just making the oil and gas industry do what it has promised it would do and hasn't," he says. "They've said for years, 'You don't have to make us do this. We'll do it anyway. It's in our financial interest to do it,' and that's all true, but they haven't done it. … With these regulations, it's not a choice between one or the other. It helps everybody."