The Toxic Reach of Plastic in Louisiana
The communities of St. James, St. John the Baptist, and other Louisiana “river parishes”—those along the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge—are experiencing some of the industry’s worst impacts in the United States. United
While most residents of the country live with a cancer risk of around 6 to 25 in a million, throughout this region cancer risks are significantly higher, reaching 2,000 in a million in one part of the parish. Saint-Jean-Baptiste, where a neoprene factory, Denka Performance Elastomer, emits a constant cocktail of chemicals, including carcinogenic chloroprene gas.
As a result, this area of Louisiana has acquired a sinister reputation as Cancer Alley. In total, it is home to about 150 industrial plants, many of which produce chemicals used to make plastic, spanning 85 miles of rural land, along both banks of the Mississippi. From the most polluted part of the Pacific Ocean, I had traced the destructive path of plastic to a major source, in the most notoriously toxic region of the American petrochemical landscape.
On the way to Welcome from New Orleans, in Norco, St. Charles Parish, I bypassed two huge refineries, one belonging to Valero and the other to Royal Dutch Shell, and passed two chemical plants, on roads narrow streets lined with muddy drainage ditches. drizzle with oil. These complexes surround the several thousand human inhabitants of Norco and their homes, shops, restaurants, post offices, and places of worship.
Norco was named by and for the New Orleans Refining Company (NORCO), the city’s first industrial inhabitant, in 1916, following its purchase of former plantation land. In 1929 Shell acquired the refinery from NORCO, greatly expanding its operations to include the production of chemicals used to make plastic, on farmland that I would later learn had been taken from the descendants of former slaves. African Americans who had established farms in a community called Diamond.
Diamond, which began as a small black neighborhood, was ravaged by two deadly Shell factory explosions in 1973 and 1988. Residents have long suspected that their constant exposure to toxic substances made them sick, although officials have suggested the increased incidence of cancers and other illnesses their community has seen could also be caused by smoking and other lifestyle choices. The white neighborhoods of Norco, located farther from the city’s most dangerous industrial operations, are less exposed.
Citizen Science of Air Pollution
Diamond was once a vibrant African American community. Today, four mostly empty streets remain, running through tidy plots, many barren, a few with houses still occupied. Diamond is a modern ghost town born of necessity, as revealed by investigations and justice efforts led by Margie Eugene-Richard, an African-American woman who grew up just 25 feet from Shell’s Diamond petrochemical plant.
Having witnessed Shell’s many disasters in his own backyard and the pollution from the company that sickened his close friends and family members, Richard led efforts to hold the company accountable. With the help of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the Sierra Club and other nonprofit allies, Richard formed a community group called Concerned Citizens of Norco, which called on residents to take air samples with “buckets”: tools for looking for low-cost do-it-yourselfers typically constructed from five-gallon rigid plastic containers, tubing, valves, and Tedlar bags (which are designed to hold volatile gases). Once collected, the air is sent to laboratories for chemical analysis.
In 1994, personal injury attorney Ed Masry, who worked with Erin Brockovich, fitted residents of Contra Costa County, California with the first iteration of these buckets to collect polluted air in neighborhoods near Unocal Corporation’s Rodeo Refinery. This air sampling effort revealed uncontrolled air pollution that had sickened thousands of people living nearby. Unocal finally settled an $80 million lawsuit paid to some 6,000 residents. Since then, the air sampling kits used by the so-called bucket brigades have helped many communities across the United States monitor their local air pollution levels and hold industries accountable for the violation. emission regulations.
Related: The United States lags behind most countries in the world when it comes to plastic pollution legislation
Diamond residents used their air pollution data, which revealed worrying levels of toxic chemicals, to sue Shell, demanding relocation. Through many frustrating years of litigation, Shell continued to pollute. Finally, in 2000, after Richard went directly to senior Shell officials working in The Hague, the company made its first takeover offer. But that was offensively low: just $26,000 per property. Richard and his allies kept pushing to get a fair price for giving up their homes. Finally, in 2002, Shell offered to buy out the residents of Diamond – providing home improvement loans to the few who chose to stay – and to reduce its emissions, formally acknowledging that living in Diamond was too risky. Most people, including Richard, have left Diamond, although Richard dedicates his life to advocating for other industry-overwhelmed communities in the United States and abroad.
In LaPlace, in the parish of Saint-Jean-Baptiste, a handful of cows wandered languidly over a clump of dead grass by the side of the road at the foot of the smoking and gleaming scaffolding of another chemical complex. The blue and white logo on a large chemical storage tank read “Denka Performance Elastomer”.
When I got out of my car to get a better look at the animals, the pungent smell of industrial emissions stung my sinuses and my temples started throbbing. Almost immediately, I noticed a van equipped with safety mirrors and flashing lights driving towards me. I hastily snapped a few pictures of the cows – and inevitably, the plant – before returning to my car and continuing.
The expanding industrial complex
Near Garyville, approaching St. James Parish, the landscape and everything about it appeared increasingly sepia. The streets, the fences, the houses, the electric wires and the grass that miraculously continued to grow – everything took on a rusty hue that intensified when an industrial complex appeared a few miles away.
This was a hodgepodge of rounded domes, silos and pipes, and chimneys, all covered in a layer of bauxite ore, a red clay substance used in aluminum refining, imported from Jamaica. Bauxite dust, which often contains traces of heavy metals, is considered an occupational hazard for people who work with the ore. For miles, the clay clung to everything, even the air, which was grainy in my mouth. The wind carried the plant’s toxic emissions, sending mercury invisibly into the air and sweeping it across the orange landscape, where it accumulated in the soil, nearby streams and rivers, and the mighty Mississippi.
I kept driving past more toxic tailings ponds, more chemical plants, more piles of industrial waste, until I reached the Sunshine Bridge. After crossing the cantilever bridge, I followed River Road past Mosaic’s fertilizer and ammonia plant and AmSty’s polystyrene plant to finally arrive at Welcome.
When I arrived I climbed the grassy seawall to take a look at the river. I could see a grain barge loading up against a collection of floating storage containers tied together like a giant metal raft near the undeveloped shore – just grass and mud and twisted live oak trees – mostly dead and in ruined.
Upstream, I could see a tangle of thick pipes crossing the levee and over the highway, supplying oil to another chemical plant. The site of the proposed plastics factory, a huge area of overgrown grass, was surrounded only by a tall chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire.
Erica Cirino is a science writer and artist who explores the intersection of human and non-human worlds. His photographic and written work has appeared in Scientific American, The Guardian, VICE, Hakai Magazine, The Atlantic and other reputable publications. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and the Safina Center, as well as several visual arts awards.
Banner photo: Oil refineries in Louisiana. (Credit: wise pig/flickr)