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Smoked out

Tulsa air pollution spurs community action

Roughly 80 percent of survey respondents living near the Holly Frontier Oil Refinery reported air quality issues.


It might smell like money to some, but it’s burning the throats of an entire neighborhood of Tulsa residents. Roughly 80 percent of survey respondents living near the Holly Frontier Oil Refinery along the Arkansas River reported having a problem with air quality, according to the findings of a community survey.

“It’s Tulsa’s most egregious air and water polluter. The air nearby stinks,” Nancy Moran said. A passion for public health and social justice led the local nurse and activist to embark on the in-depth study of air quality in neighborhoods surrounding the refinery.

She recalls a conversation with a stock broker when she first moved to Tulsa in 1981. “He told me that when he saw the smoke, he saw money,” she said. “But if you are breathing in noxious air, it may actually cost you money in additional healthcare costs and hurt your quality of life and lead to premature death.”         

Moran said she’s been shocked by the results of her door-to-door survey of nearby residents. “Of the 79 percent that reported a problem with air quality, 62 percent said they were concerned about their health or the health of their family, and 44 percent said they limit outdoor activities for themselves and their children,” she said. “Thirty-one percent said they have difficulty breathing or that the air triggers asthma attacks, and 44 percent said it causes irritation to their eyes, nose and throat.”

Now Moran is helping launch a local chapter of a bold national campaign for renewable energy. Co-organizer Gary Allison calls Ready for 100 Tulsa “perhaps the most significant community organizational project of the last 25 years.” The purpose of the campaign is to move the City of Tulsa toward clean, renewable sources of electricity by 2035 with a complete energy overhaul by 2050.

Referencing Florence Nightingale’s environmental nursing theory, Moran said the first tenant of health is clean air and clean water. “More and more we’re learning that hardly any part of the body escapes the effects of air pollution,” she said. “It’s linked to heart attacks, asthma, heart disease, learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s, mental illness, low birth rates, diabetes. It’s a chronic inflammatory state that affects people differently.”

While air pollution has devastating health effects, she said it’s about more than that. It’s about equity and justice. “There are people in our community whose voices haven’t been heard who are being harmed today by dirty fossil fuels. If we value each other, if we value our health, if we value this beautiful earth home that we have, we’re going to have to start doing things differently,” Moran said. “It’s a matter of justice. We have to talk about who is being harmed … marginalized communities who don’t have economic power, don’t have political clout, and very often are people of color.”

Polluting industries acrossthe United States are more likely to be located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. “If you look at who is producing the pollution it’s disproportionately white people,” Moran said. “The same people who are being hurt most by pollution and climate change aren’t necessarily the cause of it. You can’t really address climate change or pollution without talking about justice,” Moran said.

“You can’t be just an environmentalist anymore. You have to see how the abuse of the planet is intricately connected to the abuse of people. When you trash the planet, when you pollute the air, when you pollute the water, people are harmed and ecosystems are harmed,” she said. “We can’t treat our earth like it’s just a grab bag to get what we want and like a sewer where we continually deposit our waste and make more trash and create more pollution. It’s not feasible.”

For many, Moran says the issue is literally a matter of life and death. “We have made such gains in improving our air quality since the Clean Air Act but in the last two years, air pollution has increased by 5 percent. What that translates into is 10,000 lives have been lost [in the U.S. during 2018]. Those people are missed. And that’s just not right,” Moran said.

The statistics are grim, but Moran is energized by the prospect of making deep change through the Ready for 100 campaign. The chapter is currently recruiting volunteers, hoping to break through despair with action. “We need people interested in helping, learning, canvassing in each district. We will be approaching candidates for city council to get them on board because we’re going to need their support,” Moran said. “This is doable, desirable, and inevitable.” 

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