High Country News
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High Country News

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 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.

Peter Bennett/Citizen of the Planet

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

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.

See the rest of the essay by Adam Mahoney: https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.10/south-pollution-when-home-is-next-to-an-oil-refinery

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.

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High Country News

High Country News

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.

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