Environmental Racism in Louisiana Don’t Drink the Water !!



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Environmental Racism in Louisiana


Don’t Drink the Water !!

Don’t Breathe the Air !!


  • We have the rare privilege, living here in New Orleans, of being in one of the most badly polluted places on Earth

  • Only the environmental disaster of Eastern Europe exceeds the toxic chemical pollution of southern Louisiana

  • When it comes to policing its own polluters, Louisiana outdoes even the most backward LDC

  • Our state and local environmental laws are a bad joke

  • Our State Department of Environmental Quality is a rubber stamp for polluters

  • Louisiana is a polluter’s paradise

  • In 1987, EPA started to require toxic chemical industries to report the types and amounts of pollutants they released each year

  • Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) is available to the public, posted online

  • Louisiana usually makes the top three most polluted states in every category

  • Partly because of the bad publicity generated by the annual TRI, Louisiana has started to clean up its act

  • 1993, polluters dumped 450.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals

  • 1994, polluters dumped 152.7 million pounds of toxic chemicals, decline of 70% in 1 year!

  • 2009 - polluters dumped 135.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals

  • Future reductions will come at a much higher price

  • Cost of cleaning up the mess we’ve already made is incalculable

  • What makes La. especially deadly is not the quantity of our toxic wastes, but their outstanding quality!

  • We are at the head of the pack when it comes to hazardous wastes

  • No one knows the effects these millions of pounds of toxic chemicals will have on human health

  • No one knows the effects of these toxic chemicals on local ecosystems - never systematically studied

  • We know that our chemical warfare against the environment must be having a significant impact on wildlife

  • We have reliable toxicity data on thousands of chemicals

  • But no one knows what happens when you mix them together - synergistic effects

  • Synergy occurs when two or more compounds produce an effect that is greater than the effect they have by themselves

  • Heavily industrialized 150 mile stretch of the Mississippi River, from Baton Rouge to New Orleans

  • Known in the industry as the Chemical Corridor

  • Most people call it Cancer Alley

  • Over 136 industries line the River along Cancer Alley, most of them petrochemical plants

  • No other place in America rivals Cancer Alley for the sheer quantity and astounding variety of pollutants

  • Mississippi River carries 213 million pounds of chemical pollutants per year as it passes through New Orleans

  • Here is a list of known chemicals in the River as it passes through Jefferson Parish

  • But don’t worry, that’s before the water is treated and sent to the tap

  • Here’s what’s left in the drinking water…

  • Perrier, anyone? …..

  • Two main sources of drinking water in Louisiana

  • Mississippi River

  • Underground aquifers

  • 1.5 million people live downstream from Cancer Alley, and get their drinking water from the River

  • 13 parishes that drink from the River have the highest cancer rates in the nation for several types of cancer

  • Plaquemines Parish provided an interesting experiment

  • When residents switched from aquifer water to water from the New Orleans pipeline, cancer rates in the parish went through the roof

  • For every person in the state that drinks from the River, two people drink from aquifers

  • Many of the state’s aquifers are threatened by pollution

  • Just north of Plaquemine are huge pools of toxic wastes, courtesy of Dow Chemical

  • Pools are unlined, unprotected, used for 30 years as a toxic waste dump

  • Underground pool of poison would cover ~ 30 football fields

  • 243 mp of toxic sludge is percolating down through the soil toward the Plaquemine aquifer

  • 7,500 people rely on the Plaquemine aquifer for their drinking water

  • Dow Chemical’s toxic sludge has already reached the aquifer

  • Reports of children’s skin burning after bathing or using outdoor pools

  • Series of miscarriages in Myrtle Grove traced to vinyl chloride contamination in the aquifer

  • Residents launched a lawsuit in 2003

  • State assigned a grand jury to investigate

  • First ever grand jury in Louisiana for an environmental issue

  • Too late for Myrtle Grove...

  • Vulcan Chemical, just down river from Geismar, has a similar toxic pool

  • Except that their pool is 8 times larger!!

  • Last 20 years, Vulcan’s toxic chemicals have trickled down through 130 feet of soil

  • Now less than 20 feet away from the Norco aquifer

  • Only solution is to physically remove millions of cubic feet of contaminated soil, store it as hazardous waste!

  • Cost would be astronomical

  • Dow Chemical for example would need $1 billion to clean up its Plaquemine site

  • One solution is to bury the stuff deep underground

  • Out of sight, out of mind…

  • Injection wells - store chemicals in a deep well, with positive pressure applied to keep it from coming back up

  • 2005 – 39,740,931 pounds of chemicals were added to La. injection wells

  • 2009 – 65,556,296 pounds of chemicals were added to La. injection wells

  • Injection well technology is not foolproof

  • Leaks and cracks in wells release chemicals directly to groundwater

  • Injected chemicals can find their way back through underground cracks, old oil wells…

  • Need to keep pressure on constantly for thousands of years!

  • Computer models show that wastes should not migrate back up for 100,000 years

  • EPA approved the technology on the basis of computer models alone

  • Not content with our own towering piles of toxic wastes, in 1997 we imported 2,761,000 pounds of toxics from other states

  • Way down from 1988, when our total imported wastes = 819 million pounds!!

  • Clearly, this dismal record has to change

  • Some future legislature may have to change our state bird to the pigeon and our state animal to the cockroach

  • They’ll be the only survivors of Louisiana’s toxic environment

  • Who pays the price for polluting Louisiana?

  • We all pay, with every breath that we take, with every drop that we drink

  • Average life expectancy in New Orleans is among the shortest in America,  68.4 yrs for men, 79.5 yrs for women

  • Mortality rates along the Mississippi River are significantly higher than the rest of the country

  • Highest rates are along the lower stretches of the River

  • Full weight of this chemical warfare falls on those least able to defend themselves

  • The very young

  • The very old

  • The very poor

  • Infants in LA are exposed to poisoned air and water from birth

  • They even get it in their mother’s milk!

  • This is only a partial list of the chemicals found in Baton Rouge breast milk

  • Chemical had to be in at least 7 of the 8 samples to be listed

  • No thanks, mom…I’ll get something from the fridge!!

  • Like the very young, the very poor have had no way to fight back, at least not until recently…

  • Minorities have been systematically exploited by large industries who see their neighborhoods as easy targets for polluting industries and toxic waste dumps

  • Environmental racism is the disproportionate siting of hazardous industries and toxic waste dumps in minority neighborhoods

  • Environmental equity means that everyone should be treated equally under environmental laws, regardless of race, culture, or economic status

  • Robert Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie chronicles this socioeconomic disaster

  • Big industry needs lots of land, lots of water, lots of cheap labor

  • Plant sites are chosen where land is cheap, taxes are low, water is available, workers are plentiful

  • Poor people live in the same places for many of the same reasons

  • Minority populations have historically been concentrated along the Mississippi River

  • Many of them were originally brought there as slaves to work on the plantations that lined the River

  • Poor people have little access to technical education or legal education

  • Even the experts don’t always understand the health effects of toxic chemicals

  • Can’t afford high-priced legal talent to square off against big corporate polluters, or get control over local zoning laws or permits

  • Minority communities may be lacking in college degrees and legal eagles, but they are not lacking in intelligence, common sense, or the ability to organize

  • Mainstream environmental groups like Audubon or the World Wildlife Fund have traditionally focused on wilderness issues

  • The boards of these mainstream organizations, and their top-level corporate staff, have long been lily white

  • Minorities are becoming increasingly vocal and organized about a wide range of environmental issues

  • Grass-roots activism has generated a strong and growing organization to protect poor communities from being used as dumping grounds

  • Environmental racism became a national issue in 1982

  • Pirate dumpers had unloaded a huge cargo of dangerous PCB’s (poly-chlorinated biphenyl) alongside a North Carolina road

  • The state loaded the mess into dump trucks and started looking around for a place to dump it

  • They chose Warren County, poor rural area, 75% African American

  • But this time the citizens fought back…

  • Benjamin Chavis lived in nearby Granville County, was the Deputy Director of the Commission on Racial Justice, sponsored by the United Church of Christ

  • Chavis had been educated as a chemist, and knew how dangerous PCB’s really were

  • Chavis helped organize a protest to block the caravan of dump trucks loaded with poison soil

  • Protests resulted in over 500 arrests, and made national headlines

  • Chavis continued to fight against environmental racism, a term he coined

  • Chavis led a 1987 study commissioned by the United Church of Christ

  • First report to conclude that environmental racism was a reality

  • Many subsequent studies have supported Chavis - minority neighborhoods are systematically targeted by big polluting industries

  • But --- is this disproportionate siting an issue of race or an issue of economics?

  • Environmental racism strikes an especially heavy blow in southern Louisiana

  • Several of the small towns that big industries have absorbed were originally founded by freed slaves

  • Like Reveilletown, south of Plaquemine, bought out by Georgia Gulf

  • Or Good Hope, near St. Charles, overrun by a refinery complex

  • Or Sun Rise, where now the sun only rises over abandoned homes

  • Morrisonville is one of a long series of small towns in southern Louisiana wiped off the face of the earth by industrial expansion

  • Morrisonville was founded in the 1870’s by freed slaves from the Australia Plantation, on the banks of the River near Plaquemine

  • Morrisonville was a close-knit community for over 100 years

  • It had a single Baptist Church, which everyone attended

  • 250 citizens, all of whom had known and trusted one another all their lives

  • Morrisonville was a real neighborhood

  • You could sit out on your porch at night

  • You could leave your house unlocked and unguarded

  • Sounds like a little slice of heaven…

  • Now it’s the back door to hell!

  • Dow Chemical spent $10 million to purchase Morrisonville, one house at a time, finally leaving only a few isolated homes

  • It’s very hard to walk away from the only home you’ve ever known, a home built by your father or grandfather

  • The intense and constant noise from the plant is equal to that of a major airport

  • Flares turn night into day, constant danger of chemical contamination

  • Dow Chemical left the residents of Morrisonville little choice but to move

  • Nothing is left of Morrisonville now but the memories of those who lived there

  • The same pattern is unfolding in many other small towns in Louisiana

  • Mount Airy

  • Carville

  • Geismar

  • St. Gabriel

  • Norco

  • These are towns caught in a dark shadow, small houses dwarfed by towering smoke stacks and storage tanks

  • Why do industries choose these communities for their most hazardous operations?

  • Are the decisions based purely on economic considerations, like cheap land and low taxes?

  • Or are there racist motives as well?

  • The government of Louisiana has always been willing to look the other way where big money is concerned

  • Louisiana offers sweetheart deals to major corporate polluters

  • Good old-fashioned greed has always been a powerful motivator

  • The fact that poor people can’t usually put up much of a fight makes their community an even better bargain in the eyes of big business -- lagniappe!

  • Center for Policy Alternatives, civil rights “think tank” issued a report in 1994, co-sponsored by NAACP, United Church of Christ

  • Problem had worsened since Chavis’ 1987 report

  • Polluting industries were not intentionally targeting minority communities

  • Regardless of the motives involved, report observed that minority communities were certainly bearing the brunt of toxic waste pollution

  • Report found that non-white citizens of Louisiana were 44% more likely to live near a toxic waste site than white citizens

  • Of 12 hazardous waste sites examined in Louisiana, 10 were located in areas with greater than 25% minority population

  • 1993 - U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report -- The Battle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana: Government, Industry, and the People

  • Environmental racism was evident in Louisiana, but no evidence of overt racism

  • Latest battle in Louisiana was fought over a Japanese company called Shintech

  • Shintech, in Oct. 1996, proposed building a huge PVC plant (polyvinyl chloride) in a minority neighborhood in Convent, little town ~ 30 mi. upriver from New Orleans

  • Shintech had a relatively clean record, but manufactured a very dangerous product

  • Major toxic compound produced in PVC manufacture is dioxin

  • Dioxin was one of the components of the infamous Agent Orange, used as a defoliant in Vietnam

  • In doses as low as a few ppb, dioxin causes liver damage, lung damage, leukemia, birth defects, miscarriages, and severe facial scarring (chloracne)

  • It was easy for LA officials to overlook the potential hazards because the proposed $700 million plant would have been an economic boon for St. James Parish

  • This sounded all too familiar to local residents, who already had to contend with 11 other huge petrochemical plants

  • But despite this massive industrial activity, unemployment in St. James Parish was about twice the national average

  • Initial promise of 400 new jobs from Shintech rapidly dwindled to 165 new jobs

  • Area around the proposed plant was ~ 87% African American, mostly poor and undereducated

  • Citizens organized a grass roots campaign, St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment, collected signatures door to door - many had to sign with an X

  • Shintec’s path appeared to be free and easy

  • EPA had adopted a states-rights approach to new permits, so all the initial permit work was done by state and parish officials

  • The officials were well paid for their efforts…

  • State DEQ approved the permit, despite a cautionary letter from the EPA that the issue of environmental racism should be carefully considered

  • Tulane’s Environmental Law Clinic came to the aid of the parishioners

  • Gov. Foster bounced off the ceiling at the Capitol Building, called then prez Eamon Kelly and read him the riot act, implying that bad things would happen to Tulane - like removing our tax-exempt status!!

  • Kelly told Foster where he could stick his permit application

  • State still managed to make Tulane pay a big price for its noble stand

  • State Supreme Court ruled basically that law clinics could no longer defend poor people in large lawsuits like that brought against Shintech

  • EPA was reluctant to enter the fray

  • Strange, considering that Bill Clinton made a strong statement in 1994 about environmental racism

  • Clinton reacted to the failure of Congress to deal with environmental racism

  • Clinton issued new regulations requiring all federal agencies to examine all new permits for impact on minority communities

  • September 1997, EPA finally responded to the Tulane Law Clinic’s petition and ruled that Shintech’s permit was invalid, sending the company back to square one

  • It was the first time in history that the federal government had ever rejected a Louisiana industrial permit!!

  • Oddly enough, the EPA side-stepped the issue of racism, based its rejection on several minor technical issues

  • Shintech withdrew its proposal

  • So the answer to the question “who pays for polluting Louisiana” should now be very clear

  • We all pay for pollution

  • And only we can stop it, through increased education, increased activism, and environmental awareness




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