ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There’s a growing environmental justice movement in communities of color across the country.
What You Need To Know
- Residents in St. Petersburg’s Childs Park neighborhood are calling on environmental justice experts to examine odor concerns in their neighborhood that they have been complaining about for years
- Childs Park is a predominately Black community that’s not only home to thousands of people, but also home to an industrial corridor
- According to Pinellas County records, the county received more odor complaints from the Childs Park neighborhood in 2022 than years past
- BELOW: Download documents that pertain to this part of our 3-part series
- (Part 2) The Right To Clean Air: Is the concerning smell in St. Pete's Childs Park neighborhood a health hazard? Residents want to know
- (Part 3) The Right To Clean Air: Air quality officials discuss odor concerns in St. Pete's Childs Park neighborhood
Places like Flint, Mich. and Jackson, Miss. with water crises and Louisiana with “Cancer Ally” have all made headlines and got the attention of environmental justice experts.
In the Tampa Bay area, residents in St. Petersburg’s Childs Park neighborhood are calling on environmental justice experts to examine odor concerns in their neighborhood that they have been complaining about for years.
Childs Park is a predominately Black community that’s not only home to thousands of people, but also home to an industrial corridor.
A strong odor in the air there is hard to miss, and Spectrum Bay News 9’s Saundra Weathers found that it’s something people in this neighborhood have been raising concerns about for years.
Kayla Benning lives in Childs Park with her three children. Their home sits right across the street from the industrial complex.
“I live by an oil plant and it has a smell of gasoline and it’s very strong. You can smell it in the house,” Benning said.
That odor is concerning for the single mother and nursing student.
“When I started smelling gas, it did (cause concern) because I was worried, like, is something burning? What am I breathing? Is it toxic? Can it affect my health? Can it affect my children’s health? Because they’re still developing,” said Benning.
For Benning, moving isn’t an option. She said she just can’t afford it and when she asked her neighbors about a potential quick solution to the smell, she said they told her it wasn’t likely.
According to Pinellas County records, the county received more odor complaints from the Childs Park neighborhood in 2022 than years past. The complaints ranged from fuel to chemicals and rotten eggs.
“The conversation about the smell is not new. It’s been murmurings and complaints within the neighborhood for years, but it’s basically become one of those things that’s just normalized,” said former Childs Park Neighborhood Association President Brother John Muhummad.
For Brother John, this is personal. He grew up in this community and up until recently, he served as the Childs Park Neighborhood Association President. He credits the increase in odor complaints to a campaign he launched in 2022 called Smell Something, Say Something. The campaign was meant to encourage his neighbors to report odor concerns to the county.
“When we had a neighbor, a few neighbors who said they couldn’t sit on their porches because the smell is so strong at certain points in the day. And then we had one resident who actually left her home because what was actually coming into the vents started to get on her walls,” said Brother John.
Spectrum Bay News 9 checked and in that case, the resident said she got an inspection and eventually moved back into her home.
Reports from the city dating back ten years show people in Childs Park called the fire department dozens of times to report concerns of gas and fuel odors.
Brother John isn’t surprised people called 911 instead of the county.
“You know, the first thing is call the city and then the city says, ‘Well it’s not us, you gotta call the county.’ And then the county says, ‘Well you have to fill out this form,’” he said.
Spectrum Bay News 9 checked and found there are five companies in the industrial complex that have air permits from the county. There’s a concrete plant, a chrome plating company and the city’s water reclamation facility operating as a bio energy company. The other two companies handle oil or gas. Howco Environmental Services recycles used oil and removes hazardous waste, and JKT Petroleum LLC is a fuel storage and transfer company. All are located in the middle of this neighborhood near homes, an elementary school and a YMCA.
“This is going to be a long-term fight. Like, it’s not going to be something that’s gonna happen overnight,” Brother John said.
More than one million African Americans face a “cancer risk above the EPA’s level of concern” due to unclean air, according to a study from the Clean Air Task Force and the NAACP titled Fumes Across the Fence-Line. In that study, researchers found Black people are 75 percent more likely to live near industrial facilities in “fenceline” communities. A fenceline community is a community or neighborhood immediately adjacent to a company, military base, industrial or service center.
The complaints in Childs Park got the attention of environmental justice expert Christian Wells. He explained more about the environmental justice movement and how it started.
“So the environmental justice movement really started in the 1980s when communities across the U.S. started to realize the vast majority of environmental hazards are cited in Black, indigenous, Hispanic and communities with people of color,” Wells said.
Wells is an anthropologist and professor at the University of South Florida. He also serves as the director of the Center for Brownfields Research and Redevelopment, where researchers examine environmental racism and focus on environmental justice.
And while Wells hasn’t worked on the Childs Park case specifically, he is familiar with the area.
“Right now, in the case of Childs Park, it’s really about documenting that there is a problem,” Wells said. “Most of the homes in that part of the community were built in the 40s and 50s, and the industrial area started in the early 1970s. So it’s very clear in this case, there’s not a chicken and egg debate. It’s clear in this case that industry was sited there on purpose.”
That’s his opinion based on this redlining map of St. Petersburg.
”Redlining is that process in the 30s and the early 1940s supported by the federal government. Where the homeowner’s loan corporation would go into major urban areas throughout the U.S. and grade certain neighborhoods from ‘A’ to ‘D.’ ‘A’ being the best you should invest in, and ‘D’ being hazardous or the worst,” Wells said.
He read the description of how Childs Park is described on the redlining map. “It says this area adjoins Negro area ‘D7’ on the west. The eastern portion of ‘D14’ does not contain a particularly high grade of white occupants. It goes on to recommend that properties acquired in this area should be sold and you should not invest in this community,” Wells read.
Redlining was rendered illegal by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, but Wells said the impacts lingered. He has also found that in some cases, he has to look beyond the maps to identify environmental concerns in communities of color.
“Up in the panhandle in Port St. Joe, they’ve had impacts from a paper mill that was there for many years,” he said. “And people don’t want to move. They don’t want to leave. They’ve lived there for many generations. But they feel like in some cases they can’t move because they can’t afford to move.”
Wells said those are just a few of the challenges people in affected neighborhoods may face, and he offers this advice: “I tell my students, there’s a difference between optimism and hope. An optimistic person thinks that things are gonna work out and so they sit back and wait. A hopeful person knows that things aren’t going in their favor, so they roll up their sleeves and do something about it,” he said.
Back in the Childs Park neighborhood, Benning is having a hard time being optimistic. She wants the industrial park gone.
“In my opinion, I think there shouldn’t be any oil plants in a residential community,” she said. “Like, why is there, I don’t know, an oil plant in the middle of where people live at?”
According to experts, not all bad odors are toxic. So, is the air in the neighborhood actually harmful? Is there a potential health risk? And how far could potentially harmful pollutants travel if they are there? Spectrum Bay News 9 explores that and much more in the series Justice for All: The Right To Clean Air.
Download documents that pertain to this part of our 3-part series.