COVID-19 Health
Share this story

The Investigative Reporting Workshop, in partnership with E&E News and NBC News, set out in 2020 to examine the health of people living in the shadows of U.S. oil refineries.

Nearly 6 million people live within 1 mile of a refinery and, in most cases, those populations have higher rates of lung, heart and kidney diseases. These communities are often poorer and have higher percentages of Black Americans and Hispanics.

The coronavirus pandemic that killed more than 340,000 Americans in 2020 inflicted the most pain and suffering on places where disease was already prevalent. The unremitting grief in communities of color once again threw into sharp relief core environmental injustices and failures of the public health system.

In the five-part series “Toxic Zones,” reporters interviewed residents living near refineries in  PhiladelphiaArtesia, New Mexico; California’s Central Valley; Shreveport, Louisiana; and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

For many, the pandemic that raged around the oil hubs in the spring and bit down again as winter approached was another chapter in the story of race, poverty and disease in America. The sickness and the joblessness levied a new form of violence in these communities.

More information about how we did the series is here.

Charles and Tammy Reeves
Charles and Tammy Reeves outside their home in the Grays Ferry section of South Philadelphia. The Reeves, who founded the Tasker-Morris Neighborhood Association, say they believe their community’s health has suffered as a result of living in the shadow of the nearby refinery. (Lisa Riordan Seville / NBC News)

PHILADELPHIA — A catastrophic early-morning explosion rocked the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery on June 21, 2019. It forced the East Coast’s largest oil refinery into bankruptcy. But it also provided a stark illustration of the health and safety risks the refinery has long posed to residents of the Grays Ferry neighborhood nearby, a largely Black area of the city.

Artesia, New Mexico
refinery with smokestacks
HollyFrontier Corp.’s Navajo refinery in Artesia, N.M., sits on a 560-acre site on the east side of this desert town of 12,000.(Corbin Hiar / E&E News)

ARTESIA, N.M. — When the new pastor arrived at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church a few years back, he was struck by the sight and smell of the towering refinery a block east of his chapel. Pollution is a risk factor in the era of COVID-19. But the refinery in this small New Mexico town on the edge of the Permian oil basin posed a heightened threat to residents: It had some the nation’s highest annual emissions of cancer-causing benzene after a decade of slack government oversight.

Jesus Alonso standing in driveway
Jesus Alonso, 29, a community activist in Lamont, Calif., is working with community groups to set up air monitors around oil refineries in the southern San Joaquin Valley. (Jeremy P. Jacobs/E&E News)

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Gas flares rise up from the refinery at the edge of town. To Jesus Alonso, the 85-year-old facility owned by Kern Oil & Refining Co. is a bracing symbol of environmental damage in Kern County, where three-quarters of California’s oil is produced.

Shreveport, Louisiana
Abandoned home near oil refinery
An abandoned home is boarded up on the north side of the Shreveport oil refinery operated by Calumet Specialty Products Partners L.P. (Heather Richards/E&E News)

SHREVEPORT, La. — Property tax giveaways to oil companies and entrenched poverty around Louisiana refineries help tell the story of race and disease in an American energy hub.

COVID-19 spiked for weeks in the summer of 2020 in western Shreveport. In this declining city, where Jim Crow violence and redlining played out, local organizers and health experts say this century’s pandemic tells another story: a pattern of sustained community disinvestment.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Family on couch in small home
Four generations gather in the living room of the one-story, A-frame house in the West End that’s been Odist Rice’s home since the 1960s. From right to left, the adults are Rice, her granddaughter, Mekeba Britten, and Mekeba’s mother, Ossie Billups. (Francis Chung/E&E News)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Over a lifetime on the industrial side of this university town, Antonia Brand has become accustomed to breathing bad air.

The mother of two stood on her doorstep just east of Stillman College, a historically Black college and an anchor in the community. Her home is minutes from an industrial park along the Black Warrior River, where an oil refinery owned by Hunt Refining Co. is flanked by a Michelin tire plant. A train yard crowded with oil cars is a short walk from Brand’s home.

“It’s awful,” she said on a cool day, referencing the fumes coming from the train yard.


Why we did it, how we compiled the data.


Corbin Hiar/E&E News; Lisa Riordan Seville/NBC News; Jeremy P. Jacobs/E&E News; Heather Richards/ E&E News; Sean Reilly/E&E news.


Samuel Northrup, Zane Anthony, Andrew Eversden and Taylor Perse/IRW.


Jennifer LaFleur/IRW; Lynne Perri/IRW; Joel Kirkland/E&E News; Andrew Lehren/NBC News.


The Investigative Reporting Workshop, E&E News, NBC News.