News

Tulsans call racial disparities in environmental health ‘staggering’ at Community listening session

20191022_181418

Greg Robinson, MetCares Director 


Published 10/23/2019 | Reading Time 2 min 50 sec 

By Deon Osborne, Senior Writer

TULSA, Okla. — MetCares hosted an environmental justice-oriented forum at the Rudisill Library Tuesday evening, where participants learned about problems and proposed solutions to Tulsa’s environmental health gaps across race and zip code. 

The forum offered participants a PowerPoint and walk through-through tour highlighting disparities in asthma mortality rates, lead paint indicators, proximity to industrial pollutants and more between South Tulsa and primarily black North Tulsa.

The environmental justice forum was one of several Resilience U sessions that MetCares director of organizing Greg Robinson says is part of a mission to identify problems in the North Tulsa community and compare them to Tulsa’s Equality Indicators report.

“Environmental justice is one of those silent killers,” Robinson said. “So, for us, this is probably the one that carries the least amount of understanding. Not just within the community, but with folks fighting for justice.”

Tulsa’s 2019 Equality Indicators Report found no statistical change from the previous year’s report, which indicated North Tulsans have a life expectancy 11 years shorter than South Tulsans.

MetCares presented data from the Tulsa Housing Department and the Environmental Protection Agency that showed the infant mortality rate in North Tulsa is twice as high as South Tulsa’s. The North Tulsa neighborhood around McLain High School is in proximity to twice as many toxic Superfund cites as the neighborhood near 101st and South Sheridan.

The amount of homes that contain lead paint is twice as high in North Tulsa, and black Tulsans are four times more likely to die from asthma than white Tulsans.

Perhaps due to Tulsa’s unique history as an oil and gas hub, all Tulsans breathe more harmful air than the national average, on top of local racial and geographic disparities.

Tulsa Ready for 100 is part of a national campaign focused on moving cities to 100 percent renewable energy and demanding marginalized communities be the first to benefit from renewable energy infrastructure and jobs. 

Screen-Shot-2019-07-27-at-2.15.04-PM

Co-chair Nancy Moran presented data indicating Oklahoma contains a higher percentage of black residents that live within a half-mile radius of an oil and gas facility than any other state. And Tulsa is the 37th most challenging place to live with asthma, according to the PowerPoint.

Moran said Tulsa’s top polluters are the East and West Holly Refineries, as well as the trash incinerator.

“Those who are most harmed by climate change are not necessarily contributing to it,” Moran said. “Maybe because they’ve always had to save, turn the lights off. And yet they’re the ones being harmed the most.”

Following the PowerPoint, participants broke off into groups to propose questions for city council.

Karina Chung is a resident and teacher in North Tulsa who found out about the event through Facebook.

“The stats that we learned about are really staggering,” Chung said. “I wouldn’t say it’s surprising, but it was a good reminder for me to be confronted with the numbers and how the racial disparities are really drastic.”

Chung said the forum made her feel responsible for who she votes for and what education she realizes is necessary to inspire her students to be their own advocates. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Chung said.

Midtown resident Carolyn Ekenstam learned about the forum through volunteering with ACTION Tulsa.

“What surprised me the most was the difference in race between asthma mortality rates,” Ekenstam said. “I realized there were disparities, but when you see it in black and white it has a greater impact.”

Ekenstam said research is the first step. She said she knew about the difference in life expectancy but didn’t know about some of the racially-linked environmental causes.

“We can’t start here tonight, then leap to the end,” Ekenstam said. “We’re gonna have to work.”

Nancy Moran said she wants the Tulsa Ready for 100 campaign to push city council to renegotiate their contract with energy utility PSO toward using more renewable energy sources when the city’s 25-year agreement comes up for renewal in 2022. In the meantime, she hopes informing the community will lead to action. A sentiment echoed by MetCares director Greg Robinson. 

“We feel like if we can make those connections, then we can start to move toward those community-informed solutions that can get us a little bit closer to a healthy lifestyle.”


Deon OsborneDeon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has written for OU’s student newspaper the OU Daily as well as OKC-based Red Dirt Report. He now lives in Tulsa, where he works at a local youth shelter. He is also a former intern at Oklahoma Policy Institute.