When home is next to an oil refinery

All I knew about Wilmington, California, was poverty, so I long hid my connection to it.


One of several oil refineries in Wilmington, California, is seen in close proximity to residential homes.

One evening more than a decade ago, I was 7 years old, lying on the floor, tossing my Nerf football up in the air, when I saw bright flames through our apartment window. The light came from a fiery plume, expanding from about a mile away from our home in Wilmington, California, painting the sky a burnt orange.

My mom bolted through our home, on edge and frightened. She thought the community college, where my older brother was sitting in an evening class, was on fire. We turned on the local news, finding nothing. In a panic, we left for his school. As my mom drove, I tried to calm myself down by rubbing at the stain of a melted crayon in the backseat of her old Honda.

As we got closer, we were relieved to see the flames weren’t coming from his school’s makeshift campus — modular trailers set up on old tennis courts. Days later, we learned that the local ConocoPhillips refinery had undertaken a major flaring event to dispose of excess gas. Though we lived less than a mile from the refinery, we were never warned about the flaring. Only later did we learn that dangerous amounts of dozens of chemicals were being released into our air.

I grew up in a community defined by bright neon signs and strings of palm trees stretching out toward smokestacks. Fifteen minutes south of my family home, multi-million dollar homes sprawled along the Pacific Ocean. My rich neighbors got private beaches; I got the toxic Port of Los Angeles, which has continuously failed to meet water-quality standards.

Young children and adults here die of lung and throat cancer at a rate up to three times higher than the surrounding areas.

Wilmington doesn’t have a single five-star resort, but my city, with a population that is 97% people of color, has five local refineries, the largest concentration in all of California. These refineries — owned by BP, ConocoPhillips, Tesoro and Valero — have helped turn my home into “Cancer Alley.” Young children and adults here die of lung and throat cancer at a rate up to three times higher than the surrounding areas, according to a report by Communities for a Better Environment. Wilmington is also home to the nation’s third-largest oil field and hundreds of active oil wells — all wedged in by three freeways and the nation’s largest trading hub.

For most of my life, I was embarrassed to say I lived here. All I knew about my home was poverty, so I concealed my connection to it. My mother enrolled me in school in Carson, about 5 miles from Wilmington, because she felt more comfortable with me there. In my sixth grade gym class, I remember hiding my paper as I filled in my address on a contact form. Throughout high school, I was reluctant to claim my home, because of the reaction I received. During October of my senior year, Amherst College in Massachusetts flew me out to entice me to attend, and only then was I finally able to understand the slow, often invisible, violence committed against my community — to see that it was more than just embarrassing; it was physically and intellectually damaging. During the four-day trip, some of my peers from across the country said they thought I was lying to fit the stereotypical traumatic narrative for people of color when I described my experiences: the mice crawling into teachers’ bags during class, having a nurse on campus only once a week — how, one Halloween, the refinery above our campus painted its 3.3 million-gallon oil tank to resemble a jack-o’-lantern. By the time I left, I understood myself as a young adult navigating an academic world defined by wealth and privilege.

My hometown has helped me understand the state-sanctioned environmental racism directed at folks who look like me. And, in turn, its problems alienated me from my home, pushing me to hide my connection to it and eventually leave. I can’t help but think that this was deliberate — that my community was chosen to be a chemical waste ground, partly so I’d feel ashamed to stay there. Wilmington, by design, expels opportunities. I was always encouraged to leave, because escape signified success.

Now, however, I wonder exactly who was defining these markers. Now that I have begun my career in Chicago, I feel guilty not being in Wilmington. My home still lacks the resources people need in order to live without the constant threat of a slow, painful death — where children can breathe easily and play sports without developing asthma, bronchitis, respiratory infections or lung damage — where people can live free of suffocating violence without healing.

I don’t know when — or if — I’ll go back to Wilmington. But I know that in my hometown, and too many places like it, environmental racism is never a thing of the past: It’s happening now, every day, as I live and breathe.

Adam Mahoney is a journalist from Wilmington, California. He is currently based in Chicago, where he reports on prisons and policing for the Chicago Reporter and the Chicago Sun-Times. He tweets @AdamLMahoney. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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