Just Breathe: Industry, Politics, and Neglect in Louisiana’s Most Polluted Communities

By Camilla Stapleton

Just up the river from New Orleans is St. James Parish, a community of about 20,000 people, part of the New Orleans metropolitan area. Driving along the Mississippi, the thick smell of chemicals hangs in the air while a seemingly never-ending corridor of petrochemical plants, refineries, and factories lines the river’s banks. Large cylindrical buildings emit huge plumes of white smoke, lights flash, and graphical shadows map the ground below. The Parishes of Iberville, Ascension, St. John, and St. James all lie on what environmental scientists and critics have deemed Cancer Alley, a 130-mile long stretch along the Mississippi ––home to over 200 industrial facilities–– where residents suffer some of the highest cancer rates in the country. 

The state has long been a safe haven for oil and gas companies that consistently neglect the safety and well-being of the public in favor of private sector returns. The famous Huey P. Long, and his well-known brother, Earl, ushered in decades of private sector kickbacks for political support and incentives in return, despite their public reproach of the growing oil and gas industries in the state. In one of many instances of political corruption, Earl Long was caught in a ‘hot oil’ scheme that funded his purchase of the Long propaganda newspaper, the Louisiana Progress. Their absolute reliance on oil production for economic and job growth created favorable relations between these industries and the legislature, a relationship formed at the expense of the social and environmental consequences its residents would face. Since the Long days, oil companies have flocked to the state, eager to tap into its vast reserves of crude oil and natural gas. Companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and BP have established a strong presence in Louisiana, operating offshore drilling platforms and onshore refineries that have historically contributed significantly to the state’s economy. Though residents and lawmakers alike were grossly unaware of the health consequences of these industries in the past, little has changed in light of correlative studies that have begun to link high concentrations of toxic emissions to cancer and other serious health issues in surrounding areas. 

Despite the growing public backlash against the industry, politicians in Louisiana continue to follow the money; “how [a politician] feels about an issue may not be directly correlated to how they vote, but instead is linked to the amount of contributions [they] get,” said Rosalind Cook, a professor of Political Science at Tulane University who specializes in Louisiana history and has worked in Communications for various Louisiana politicians. “It’s discouraging if you are working or trying to get things done from the outside because these big industries and PAC’s work with the legislators on drafting bills and making sure they get out of committee,” Cook continues, “That’s why it is very important for individuals to let their positions be known.” Very important indeed, especially when faced with the gargantuan lobbying effort of oil and petrochemical corporations. 

Aside from the national trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, statewide lobbying and special interest groups have been formed across Louisiana. The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA), a trade association formed in Baton Rouge, is one of the most influential, bringing together businesses, individuals, and legislatures with a special interest in the industry. To make civic action accessible for its supporters, LOGA has a webpage detailing the local and state representatives they are endorsing in upcoming political races as well as the three PACs they promote. “LOGA has three priorities: Governmental affairs, public relations, and networking. We represent Exxon and Chevron as much as we represent the mom and pop oil and gas shops,” said a former LOGA employee. “We try our best to advocate for policies that help the industry in general, but at times there isn’t 100% unanimous agreement on legislative priorities.” LOGA makes it possible for small businesses to access the lobbying behemoth of the oil and gas industry, advocating for policies to help them thrive though mega-corporations may disagree. 

Through interest groups and organizations like LOGA, the economic and legislative interests of Big Oil have permeated Louisiana’s social and cultural landscape with empty promises and unfounded beliefs about the modern economic development of Louisiana, placing oil and gas at the helm despite their decreasing share of Louisiana’s GDP. Even so, industry insiders know the game is changing. “We have a possibility for Louisiana and the Gulf to be the biggest energy producers in the world. A gradual move to renewables is undeniable, and a big part of that is going to be Big Oil and their investment in new infrastructure and the workforce,” said the same former employee. This idea of job creation has long been proliferated throughout the industry to encourage support and lenient regulations and will clearly continue to be the buzzword in keeping these companies relevant as incentives for clean energy production materialize. 

The proliferation of oil, gas, and petrochemical plants along the Mississippi has since accumulated into what is now known as Cancer Alley. These plants have been popping up at a consistent rate across the state, with the highest concentration located along the lower Mississippi and near the Gulf, yet this is hardly the only area where plants have engulfed local communities. The transportation of these goods, whether it be by rail, river, or pipeline, introduces a breadth of new environmental consequences, primarily wetland destruction. Cancer Alley is one of the most polluted areas in the United States, yet, despite warnings from local communities and the EPA, new plants continue to be built and approved in areas where polluting chemicals are already in high concentrations. In St. Gabriel, emissions from the Shintech plant such as ethylene dichloride, dioxin, and vinyl chloride– known carcinogens– total three million tons per year. It has received permits from the state for a $1.3 billion expansion. Excluding new permits, existing plants also emit their own pollutants, with the nearby BCP Ingredients plant ranked among the top 10 air-polluting plants in the country. With shocking retribution, Louisiana has allowed permits for at least seven new facilities since 2015, knowing they will be massive polluters in threatened areas and raise the already high levels of cancer-causing toxins; one in Iberville, three in Ascension, one in St. James, and two in St. Charles. Additionally, 5 more facilities are being considered for permits in these areas.

Louisiana is in a unique position. On one end, their commitment to protecting the oil, petrochemical, and plastic industries puts its residents at risk. On the other, Louisiana’s legislature and regulatory agencies maintain that it is reliant on these sectors for economic growth and employment. A 2019 study by the American Petroleum Institute found that 12.6% of Louisiana’s employment opportunities came from the oil industry, and their revenues contributed to 23% of the state’s GDP, ranking 5th in the nation in labor income impact and value-added to the GDP. With these numbers, politicians in Louisiana keen on promoting economic growth and job creation have argued that the industry provides much-needed employment opportunities and tax revenues that are crucial for the state’s economy. They cite the 12.5% severance tax levied on oil and gas extraction and tax redistribution to conservation funds, such as the Coastal Protection and Restoration Fund, as their commitment to equitable accountability for these industries. On the state legislature level, representatives propose bills to label Louisiana a “sanctuary state” for fossil fuel and petrochemical operations, banning the enforcement of some federal regulations that have the potential to hurt industries’ bottom line. 

Unfortunately for industry buffs, these numbers hardly express the reality of industry operations in Louisiana. Despite the high severance tax for oil, the severance tax for liquid natural gas is a mere 4%. For horizontal LNG drilling, companies are 100% exempt for the first two years of operations, which cuts the amount of potential severance taxes received by the state in half. The jobs promised by industry and state officials never materialized, much like plants proposed in majority white districts; full-time industry jobs were not held by locals desperately seeking higher-paid employment. In a 1995 survey of St. Gabriel residents, less than 9% of residents held industry jobs; industry and state officials claimed that they weren’t qualified. “The oil and gas industry does not make up the amount of jobs to equal the influence they have in the legislature, and it does not match the amount they’re contributing to our economy,” said Sara Sneath, a freelance climate reporter with roots in Louisiana. “The idea that if we were to produce fewer fossil fuels, then Louisiana would be broke? We’re already broke because oil and gas companies haven’t been paying their taxes, and we’ve been letting these huge chemical facilities off the hook.”

Whether or not these jobs are going to locals, they’re still far from safe. “The way that workers are treated as disposable is hurtful. You hear these fossil fuel companies saying, ‘but the jobs, but the jobs’; I know people with those jobs and they’re getting injured and killed and we’re afraid that they’re not gonna be able to come home,” Sneath continued. 

While the industry glorifies negligible job creation and economic growth for residents, issues with the industry go far beyond its inability to fulfill its promises of financial stability. Those living in so-called ‘sacrifice zones’, populated areas in close proximity to polluting industrial facilities where cancer and rare illnesses become common, are unconvinced by the notion that risking their health is worth unrealized economic mobility. “They put this facade in front of you, ‘we’re gonna create jobs and give you all of this tax money’, but they’re getting tax breaks at the same time, and all the money that they’re receiving, they’re sending it to other countries. We have communities right here in southwest Louisiana who don’t even have access to fresh produce and healthcare and banking systems, things that are from the late 1800’s that people don’t have access to,” said Roishetta Ozane, founder of the Vessel Project of Southwest Louisiana, in a permit hearing. Ms. Ozane, a single mother of six, was displaced from her home during Hurricane Laura. Forced into a FEMA trailer, where she and her children have lived since the hurricane, Ms. Ozane has become a strong advocate of environmental justice and works with Healthy Gulf Louisiana. She, and many others, continue to wonder: why us?

Some say the issue is geographic. Historically, communities and cities relied almost entirely on waterways for the trade and transportation of massive amounts of goods, and the ‘Mighty Mississippi’ was certainly not an exception. As slavery encroached upon the South, Louisiana’s position on the Gulf, and the Mississippi, gave them a unique advantage in transporting goods produced by enslaved people, leading to the growth and development of plantations and towns along the river. After emancipation, many formerly enslaved people remained in the same areas in order to find contracted work, ultimately creating a number of settlements and communities in which they comprised a majority of the population. As oil refineries and petrochemical plants moved in, they took advantage of these communities just as plantation owners realized the value of their geographical position. “Oftentimes, there’s no choice. You have to take a particular job, and it’s been lucrative. Louisiana is a very poor state, and sometimes people don’t have options,” said Rosalind Cook. 

Yet, the proximity to a major trade route is not the only, nor the most important, factor of why these facilities are built so close to residents. As the oil industry began to boom, closely followed by petrochemical and similar industries, wealthier white residents in these areas simply refused to allow their construction in primarily white districts. Through majority-white city councils and local regulatory boards, plants and refineries were subjugated to majority-black districts that had little say in executive decision-making. Additionally, for many families, these towns and cities are tied to their ancestry, their family, and their communities. “When you’re looking at options and you want to just move away completely, you won’t have that support from your family. When you’re trying to have kids and raise a family, you won’t have the support of grandparents and siblings that watch the kids, make the food, and simply help you out with childcare. It’s a big step to decide to move away completely,” said Rosalind Cook. These refineries are also typically located in lower-income areas, piling on questions about the non-realization of strengthened employment opportunities and the greater health burdens placed on these communities despite a lack of available care. The development of refineries and plants in these areas placed the burden of care and proof on the citizens, not the private, sometimes international, companies who chose to build their businesses there. 

Considering all of these historical and institutional variables, Black Americans have quite obviously borne the brunt of the suffering from the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. Environmental racism, the practice of centering polluting industries and waste containment sites in communities primarily consisting of people of color, has run rampant and unchecked in Louisiana for decades, despite protests and lawsuits from highly affected communities. As a result, more than one million Black Americans live in counties where natural gas toxins in the air are significantly higher than the EPA’s level of concern. In Louisiana, 20 of St James Parish’s 24 petrochemical facilities are located in the majority Black districts of the Parish, while the construction of new facilities has not been permitted in majority White areas for the last 46 years. “You’re begging somebody to permit you to have your basic human rights, of clean air and safe water to drink, and a clear, beautiful skyline so that we can see the sunrise and the sunset,” said Ms. Ozane. 

The result is the intersectional, systemic oppression of communities of color by the energy industry, lawmakers, and corporate lobbying efforts. These companies, and the legislatures that permit them, have knowingly exposed communities to health and socioeconomic burdens which they take no accountability for, citing a lack of concrete evidence or health outcomes that distinctly link health issues to industrial air pollution. It has become increasingly clear that, despite industry promises, fence-line communities have not experienced the economic mobility they were promised. Construction jobs are being replaced in favor of modular building– the construction of major structures elsewhere, which are then transported to the facility– and long-term, full-time jobs are few and far between, even with the appropriate qualifications. In addition to being exposed to higher rates of polluting toxins, the dismantling of critical infrastructure such as grocery store access, healthcare access, and recreational activities in favor of industrial development has deeply hurt these communities and their ability to source employment outside of industrial or manufacturing jobs, occupations which greatly increase an individual’s daily exposure to toxins. In a study performed by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, researchers found a direct correlation between impoverished neighborhoods and higher levels of cancer incidence. Additionally, higher rates of cancer were also correlated with race, with Black Americans bearing the brunt of both issues: Majority Black, impoverished neighborhoods had the highest levels of air pollution, which were associated with higher cancer rates. 

A number of collective action and community groups focused on environmental regulations and environmental racism have taken root in Louisiana, such as the Sierra Club and Healthy Gulf. These groups continue to fight for the transition from extractive energy production towards regenerative and equitable ones that benefit us all, not just the corporations that implement them. Recently, some groups have been successful in hampering the further profusion of plants and refineries. In St. James Parish, community groups like Rise St. James filed a lawsuit against the newest proposed plant, a $9.4 billion Formosa plastics manufacturing plant. The lawsuit claims that the permits allowed to Formosa, owned by a Chinese parent company, would disproportionately affect Black communities in St. James and expel an additional 7,300 tons of pollutants, 800 of which are considered toxic, while the other 6,500 are known to cause ground-level ozone and health issues. The initial approval of the permits was based on Formosa’s internal air pollution projections, resulting in a typical lack of consideration for the community and the disproportionate health impacts they face from preexisting plants. 

Despite this win, sustainability and environmental preservation are low on the list of legislative priorities. Though industry members and the federal government understand the significance of clean energy and reducing carbon emissions, lawmakers and Parish officials remain wary about introducing a new, competitive energy industry. Louisiana is a state loyal to its industry and its history, slow to innovate and sluggish to change. In a blow to environmentalists and environmental justice activists, the St. James Parish council voted almost unanimously to block the construction of solar panel farms in the Parish. These farms, publicly backed and argued for by Entergy Louisiana’s top executive, would have been located in Vacherie, where white residents and Parish officials expressed their concerns over land use rules. Realistically, most of their concerns followed a script as old as time: We aren’t against the project, but we don’t want it in our backyard. They also cited flying debris during hurricanes.

Others argued that Black communities have had petrochemical and oil refineries forcibly put in their backyard, and only one of these energy projects is giving people cancer. Despite the moratorium, the Parish has not completely taken the idea of constructing solar panels off the table. But how long can the residents of St. James, Cancer Alley, and Louisiana afford to wait?

They can’t, and won’t, according to Roishetta Ozane, “We’re constantly fighting and we’re tired of this fight. We are not a climate sacrifice, we are not going to be, and we are not going to sit idly by and allow these things to continue to happen.”


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