Grist environmental justice and investigations reporter Adam Mahoney grew up in Wilmington, California, in the shadow of massive oil refineries. Their flares terrified his family, and their toxic emissions sickened his friends and neighbors. He closely monitored his hometown’s experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, immersing himself in state public health data, local news reports, and the accounts of his own social networks. He discovered that the 55,000-person community suffered hundreds more deaths than it sees in typical years — and less than half of these could be attributed to COVID.
He found that causes of death exacerbated by pollution accounted for much of the jump, suggesting that pandemic conditions had compounded the chronic ailments he remembered from childhood. A major driver of this trend was a spike in gun violence — Wilmington’s rate of gun homicide is four times that of its neighbors — a spike that Mahoney shows is itself fueled by environmental factors.
To ground this experience in the accounts of those most affected by it, Mahoney conducted dozens of interviews. He spoke to parents who lost children to gun violence on Wilmington’s streets, residents battling cancer, longtime community organizers attempting to break the cycle, and young residents who hope to transform the landscape by running for political office. He also knocked on hundreds of doors in Wilmington, distributing a public health survey to collect original data, gather personal testimonials, and broadcast the aims and findings of his project.