Counties with more socially vulnerable populations face a greater risk of water and air pollution
An analysis by researchers at North Carolina State University found that counties with more socially vulnerable populations had a higher density of gas pipelines overall.
The results suggest that the most socially vulnerable counties are also at greater risk of facing water and air pollution, public health and safety issues, and other negative impacts associated with pipelines. .
We know that the network, in its current form, is already distributed in such a way that any negative impact disproportionately affects vulnerable communities. Right now, when regulators assess the social impacts of these projects, they are treated in isolation and not as part of a large network that affects more than 70% of all counties in the United States. “
Ryan Emanuel, senior study author and professor, forest and environmental resources, NC State University
In the analysis, the researchers used a social vulnerability measure created in 2018 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess 3,142 U.S. counties. The index combines information on household composition, age, disability status, race or ethnicity, language and other factors to quantify a county’s ability to bounce back from a disaster .
Then, using data from the US Energy Information Administration, the researchers assessed how the roughly 229,000 miles of pipeline system in the United States were mapped over counties, stratified based on their scores of social vulnerability.
“We looked at gas gathering and transport pipelines, which are really large, high pressure pipelines intended to transport natural gas across regions or across the country,” said Emanuel. “We know that every year there are explosions on the transmission pipelines, and we have records for these accidents above a certain size. There are also impacts on the air quality in the compressor stations that feed them, and environmental damage that occurs during construction.
For the 2,261 counties containing pipelines – about 72% of US counties – the researchers found a correlation between counties with higher social vulnerability scores and the density of pipeline infrastructure.
“In general, the denser the pipeline network, the higher the social vulnerability score,” said study co-author Louie Rivers III, associate professor of forest and environmental resources at NC State. “The indication is that the most vulnerable populations are also vulnerable to exploitation in terms of what people do with the land close to them.”
To plan the way for future projects, the researchers say more nuance is needed in the regulatory process to assess communities. While population density is used as a factor used by regulators to assess the severity of negative impacts from pipelines, density alone could overlook ways in which rural communities may be more vulnerable.
“When you assess the pipeline project for a rural area, you can’t just assume that a rural community’s concerns will just be low-density versions of urban concerns,” Emanuel said. “Rural problems are not less intense versions of urban problems. We also know in the past that these projects can have a destabilizing influence on rural communities.
The researchers also highlighted the impacts of pipeline infrastructure on Indigenous communities in the United States. This raises concerns for communities not only about pollution or health risks, but also about cultural damage to places of religious, historical or cultural significance.
The researchers highlighted the need to improve environmental assessments of potential pipeline infrastructure on vulnerable populations in order to prevent these networks from having a disproportionate impact on socially vulnerable people. They also called for better integration of community perspectives in decision making.
“We need the same level of rigor applied to the issue of environmental justice in environmental impact statements that we see for other sections, such as water and air quality,” said Rivers said.
And while the existing infrastructure may have been built before federal policies were enacted to fight environmental justice and anti-discrimination, the researchers said federal regulators must specifically assess the location of the networks. infrastructure as a whole in future planning to avoid strengthening historical oppressive practices.
They also suggested assessing the cumulative impacts of all nearby infrastructure on factors such as air quality, noise and explosion risks.
“We need a holistic approach to environmental justice analyzes that considers the largest network of infrastructure in which individual projects exist,” said Emanuel.