Environmental Justice Issues Still Plague Louisiana with Disproportionate Impact along Race and Class Lines
By Anitra D. Brown
The absurd impact of environmental injustice in Louisiana is evident in an unsuccessful effort to ensure that school-age children aren’t exposed to toxins where they learn.
During the 2015 state legislative session, state Rep. Joe Bouie (D-New Orleans), authored a bill to completely prohibit the new construction of public schools for pre-K-12 students on former hazardous or old toxic waste dump or storage sites. It seemed sane and simple enough—a sort of no-duh, who wants to build schools on toxic dump sites, anyway? Well, the bill was unanimously passed by the House, but failed to make it out of a Senate committee because opponents there contended that it was too “broad” and did not consider that sites could be successfully mitigated. Attempts to narrow the bill’s scope were offered, but to no avail.
The argument made by at least one state senator from Metairie was that the bill would create an impractical situation, essentially preventing new schools from ever being built in some communities because in those places it would be very difficult, maybe even impossible, to find available land never tainted by toxins.
If this argument is factually-based (or even the real reason the bill failed), it is a distressing irony and a perverse reality. It means legislation to stop schools from being built on land where toxic waste and hazardous material have been dumped or stored is not feasible because in some locales—some of the poorest urban areas or the most rural communities in this state—there would be no other places to build a new school.
So, in the state of Louisiana it is still perfectly acceptable to build public schools on former toxic dump sites despite the fact that children must spend at least 167 days of the year there in order to advance to the next grade level and ultimately graduate. That is the equivalent of about six years in the life of a child with the misfortune of attending a school on such a site for 13 years, from kindergarten to 12th grade. Meanwhile in New Orleans, plans to build a school on the former site of Booker T. Washington High School where toxic metals antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc were found in levels higher than standards set by both the state and federal governments, continue. Bouie’s bill was aimed at stopping construction at the old Booker T. Washington site, but those pushing for the construction argued that the site could be mitigated. Those on the other end of the issue contend that mitigation efforts are only as effective as compliance is strict and further question whether there is really any way to sufficiently lessen or eliminate the harmful impacts of exposure to hazardous waste and toxins.
The bill was reintroduced during the current legislative session, but appears headed for a similar fate. As of May 12, it was still “pending” the House Education Committee. The session ends on June 6.
No doubt, this is the sort of baffling reality that has sociologist and director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice Dr. Beverly Wright teeming with disdain over the politics of pollution in Louisiana.
“You have architects and planners making money on this,” Dr. Wright says. “And they are the ones contributing to political campaigns. But we’re talking about Black kids in New Orleans—not White kids in East Baton Rouge Parish or in Metairie.”
The Politics of Pollution
Dr. Wright, who along with Dr. Robert Bullard of the Mickey Leland Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability at Texas Southern University in Houston, is the co-author of The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities, calls Louisiana’s relationship with the petrochemical industry as one complicated by the fact that Louisiana’s economy is tied to the industry and that many politicians have traded what’s best for Louisianans for their own interests.
“It has caused unbelievable wealth for some,” she says. “But it has caused unbelievable devastation to the environment and to the health of people. Maybe it’s been good for the economy, but an examination of the real impact—the real costs in health-related problems, the destruction of the environment—outweigh any good. The state has basically been used and given little back compared to the damage done.”
What troubles Wright even more is that while the poorest and most disenfranchised residents bear the brunt of the chemical industry’s harmful impacts, they benefit relatively little in the way of the economic bounty these industries create. Instead, “crooked politicians”, lobbyists, design, engineering and construction firms/consultants that land big contracts and, of course, the CEOs and top executives of the chemical corporations reap the real financial benefits.
“Louisiana is one of the poorest states in the nation, when we should be one of the richest. We have as much oil as Texas and more natural gas.”
HB 371 is just one example of what appears to be an utter unwillingness on the part of state government to protect its citizens from and address the harmful impact of pollutants being emitted in the air, soil and water across the state by major corporations.
A recent blog on huffingtonpost.com included HB 371 in a list of five bills in all that pointed to the “backwards” nature of Louisiana lawmakers when it comes to dealing with environmental issues. In addition to HB 371, the blog’s writer also mentioned SB 426, which did not make it out of committee, and the now withdrawn HB 11, both of which would have prohibited open pit burning of hazardous military equipment, which is exactly what is happening in Colfax, despite the fact that burning of this equipment is illegal under federal law established by the Clean Air Act. Colfax is a tiny town of about 1700 residents, almost 68 percent of whom are African-American. And the Massachusetts-based company, Clean Harbors, that is burning the hazardous military equipment, releasing arsenic, lead, cadmium, strontium and other toxins into the environment, gets to do so thanks to an exemption from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality even though alternative methods of disposing of the material are available.
Another bill, HB 469, would require pollution monitoring at industrial plants that border communities, which would be helpful for residents along the corridor between the Mississippi-Louisiana state border stretches through New Orleans and on to Baton Rouge known as “Cancer Alley” where 150 or so petrochemical plants, a half dozen refineries and several other toxin-causing industries such as steel plants and grain elevator towers exist and have been wreaking havoc on the lives and health of the poor. Like HB 371 last year, HB 469 managed to get out of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment. It was scheduled for debate on the House Floor on May 10, but has been rescheduled for May 17. With the session ending June 6, such delays are not promising.
There was also HB 553, a bill to prevent big industry from further depleting the Southern Hills Aquifer by using it as a water supply. The aquifer is a source of clean water that residents in the Baton Rouge area rely on, and proponents of the bill say the water source is nearly depleted because residents have had to share it with the Georgia Pacific and Exxon plants in central Louisiana. They argue that with continued use by large industry, more saltwater will enter the supply as sea levels rise. The bill would have forced corporations like Exxon to use the Mississippi River, preserving the aquifer as a clean water source for the people of Baton Rouge. HB 553 lost in committee by a 10-7 vote.
“We’re in one of the dirtiest states in the country,” Dr. Wright says. “But we cannot get our politicians to vote for our interests.”
Not only that, but corporate giants continue to benefit from billions in tax breaks and incentives from the state of Louisiana.
While some states have reduced the rate of severance taxes on horizontal wells, Louisiana is the only state to offer a complete exemption, which, alone, has cost the state more than $1.1 billion between 2010-2014, according to the Louisiana legislative auditor. And that number doesn’t include hundreds of millions in unpaid royalties and uncollected taxes.
What’s even more disconcerting is that these are the very incentives and tax breaks handed over as corporate welfare that our state legislators failed to eliminate or even scale back during the recent special session to address the state’s budget problems.
Pollution and Prejudice
Dr. Wright began her work in the area of environmental justice in the mid-1980s.
“In 1985, the petrochemical industry was emitting 700 million pounds of carcinogens in the air, water and soil in 1985,” she says. And she also noticed that the majority of the people that lived closest to the chemical plants were Black.
“But it didn’t start out that way,” she says.
One of her early tasks included riding up and down the roads of towns like St. Gabriel and Geismer that surrounded the petrochemical plants. She says she noticed that for as many homes and residents that were still there, there were slabs—abandoned foundations of houses representing families that had moved. She asked the mostly Black residents that remained to explain the deserted lots.
“They would say, ‘well the boss’—those were their exact words—‘the boss came through years ago and bought out the white homeowners. They said they would be coming back to buy us out, but they didn’t.’ ”
The explanation hardly surprised Wright. It was the vestiges of slavery and the plantation system as it morphed into Jim Crow, she says. It spoke to the very essence of how the executives from the chemical plants negotiated to buy land in the state and with whom when they first arrived. Barbara Allen talks about it in her 2006 article titled “Cradle of a Revolution? The Industrial Transformation of Louisiana’s Mississippi River” published in the journal Technology and Culture. She writes:
“After the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau made numerous small land grants to extended family groups of newly freed slaves, often on or near the plantations they had previously worked. But the larger plantations remained in the hands of white planters. The result was a pattern of large, contiguous blocks of open land under single ownership, many along straight sections of the river, separated by communities of freed blacks and poorer whites clustered in adjacent communities. When chemical and petroleum companies arrived in the area, they naturally preferred to deal with the large landowners who could offer the best transportation facilities and the convenience of negotiating with a single seller rather than several sellers, some perhaps without clear title to their property. This history helps explain how predominantly African-American communities and petrochemical facilities came to exist in such close proximity along the river.”
Now, acknowledging that history and accepting that it has directly contributed to mostly Black communities disproportionately suffering from the deadly hazards of the chemical industry that sprang up on what used to be plantations along the Mississippi River after post-World War I industrialization is one thing.
But realizing that the Black residents of these communities are—in 2016—still being ignored and marginalized as the local and state governments give petrochemical industry giants and other pollution-causing industries the green light to open new plants and refineries in Cancer Alley along with millions of dollars in taxpayer’s money through incentives and tax breaks in breathtakingly unconscionable and serve as obvious examples of environmental racism.
While some across the region are heralding the forthcoming methanol plant in St. James Parish as a $1.85 billion project that will bring a reported 2,100 temporary construction jobs and 400 permanent jobs, residents of the largely Black St. James Parish neighborhoods closest to the site of the future plant aren’t at all happy that the only town hall meeting to discuss the opening of the new methanol plant by Yuhuang Chemical, Inc., was held in the summer of 2015 reportedly after the parish council approved the deal that included a $9.5 million incentive package from the state. The groundbreaking for the plant was held last September. It’s expected to be complete in early 2018. But residents in the mostly Black communities that will be most impacted by the methanol plants toxic emissions have said they didn’t learn about it until after it was approved.
“There is a boom in the corridor,” Dr. Wright says. “Somebody made a lot of money off of that deal. But we’re getting nothing but poison and maybe some temporary jobs.”
And it’s not just happening in Cancer Alley. Right here in New Orleans, many residents of the Hollygrove community learned of the New Orleans Rail Gateway Study, which includes a proposed plan to reroute east-west freight train traffic carrying hazardous chemicals from Old Metairie to Hollygrove only after reading a story on the front page of a local daily newspaper in October 2013. Based on that report in a local daily, planners and leaders in neighboring Jefferson Parish appeared well-versed regarding the study and happy with the idea of moving the route from the more affluent, and largely White old Metairie to the poorer and largely Black neighborhood of Hollygrove as if it were practically a done deal. And when the question of whether planners thought the proposal (known as the Middle Belt option) would face opposition from Orleans Parish, Walter Brooks, executive director of the Regional Planning Commission, reportedly replied “I have not seen a lot of opposition in New Orleans at this point. I think the interest in Orleans is to make sure there is adequate mitigation, in the Hollygrove area in particular.”
But Hollygrove residents have come together to express their opposition to the proposal, which is still a part of the study. And the New Orleans City Council in July of last year approved a resolution to oppose rerouting of freight train traffic from Old Metairie to New Orleans, requesting the New Orleans Rail Gateway Program explore alternative options.
The decision has not been made and rests at the federal level with the Federal Railroad Administration.