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Justin Nobel | Longreads | July 2017 | 16 minutes (4,000 words)
If you’re visiting New Orleans and want to see something truly amazing, take your beer or daiquiri to-go and walk a few blocks past the Superdome—you’ll find a school being constructed on an old waste dump.
“All the toxic chemicals from the landfill are still there,” says toxicologist Wilma Subra. This includes lead, mercury, and arsenic, exposure to which can lead to reproductive damage, and skin and lung cancer. Even more astonishing, Subra says hundreds of schools across Louisiana have been built on waste dumps. Why? Dumps represent cheap land often already owned by a cash-strapped town or city, plus serve as rare high ground in a flood-prone state. And this is just the beginning of Louisiana’s nightmare.
The risk of cancer in Reserve, a community founded by freed slaves, is 800 times the national average, making the community, by one EPA metric, the most carcinogenic census tract in America—the cause is a DuPont/Denka chemical plant adjacent to the town that annually spews 250,000 pounds of the likely carcinogen chloroprene into the air. If you think the situation in Flint is bad, there are approximately 400 public water systems in Louisiana with lead or other hazardous substances leaching into the drinking water. Meanwhile, hundreds of petrochemical plants peppered across the state’s lush swampy interior freely emit carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and neurotoxins into the air and water, as well as inject them deep into the earth.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Louisiana is ranked, according to different surveys, 47th in environmental quality, third in poverty, and 49th in education. Are you still gushing about your latest trip to New Orleans for Jazz Fest Presented by Shell, or French Quarter Festival presented by Chevron? “New Orleans is the best,” one visitor recently wrote to me, “you are so smart to live there!” But how smart is it to allow children to attend school built on toxin-laced waste? How smart is it to allow a community’s cancer rates to shoot off the charts? Louisiana is rich in culture, spirit, and faith, yet what type of state knowingly poisons its own people? What type of country stands by and allows it to happen?
While it is fashionable to critique President Trump for his scientific ignorance, science was misdirected long before Trump laid hands on it. It is time to open our eyes and see what is really going on in this world, to critique our society’s dinosaur methods, then step back and imagine what a new path forward might look like. It is with this aim that I begin a science column for Longreads. In my first story I’ll tour us through a land America should have never allowed to materialize—it’s what I’m calling the Louisiana Environmental Apocalypse Road Trip. As the Trump administration chucks environmental science out the window, evaporates industry regulations, and cripples agencies charged with protecting the environment, this tale is relevant for all Americans, because the poisoning happening in Louisiana could happen in your state too—in fact, it is probably already happening.
But for now sit back, enjoy a signature New Orleans cocktail from the comfort of your couch or chair, and get ready to keep reminding yourself: Yes, this is occurring in 2017 in the United States of America.
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We begin beneath a shade tree on Croydon Street, in the state capitol of Baton Rouge, where Lieutenant General Russel Honore shares with us a one-line lesson in Louisiana economics. “We have some of the most profound natural resources in America, and we are the second largest energy producer, but we are the second poorest state,” says the General. “Now what the fuck is wrong with that picture?”
The General is an epic Louisiana hero. In the dark violent days after Hurricane Katrina, he was tapped to lead Joint Taskforce Katrina and roared into the beleaguered city to control the chaos. A Times-Picayune reporter called him a “salty-mouthed, cigar-chompin’ guardian angel in camouflage.” Now, at age 69, rather than winding his career down with rum and cokes on some tropical beach, the General has transformed himself into a venom-spitting environmental warrior. He leads a guerilla posse of activists called the GreenARMY, whose aim is to rescue Louisiana’s poisoned communities and environment. Soldiers tirelessly crisscross the state, chastising toxic corporations and lame duck regulatory agencies at public meetings and standing up for the people. We lay out a map of Louisiana and the General, dressed in Army cap, navy blue blazer, and leather boots hurls out a laundry list of catastrophes.
“This is about as stupid as stupid gets!” he spits, diving into a story that conveys how Louisiana’s lax oversight can actually lead to things exploding. A military facility in northern Louisiana called Camp Minden contained 18 million pounds of old explosives, much of which had been stored improperly by a military contractor, including gigantic 880-pound sacks of propellant left outdoors and exposed to the baking Louisiana sun. On October 15, 2012, a tremendous explosion rocked the site, shattering windows in homes four miles away, generating a toxic mushroom cloud that rose 7,000 feet into the atmosphere. The local sheriff told people the cause may have been “a meteor.”
One hundred miles south in Colfax, a company called Clean Harbors has been burning old military and industrial explosives out in the open on metal sheets, releasing arsenic, lead and radioactive strontium into the environment. “Here we are in the 21st century and they’re using Roman army methods,” fumes the General. The burns are illegal under the Clean Air Act but Clean Harbors was granted an exemption by Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality. “This is one of the few places in America an open air burn of military explosives would even be permitted,” he says. Activities too toxic for other parts of America are regularly shuttled to Louisiana, often at the eager request of the state’s politicians. “Louisiana,” says the General, “is a dumping ground.”
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Near Alexandria, in central Louisiana, two plants that use coal-tar creosote and pentachlorophenol to pressure-treat and preserve wooden objects like rail ties and telephone poles operate directly adjacent to communities. Historically, wood was cooked with these chemicals then laid outside, where chemicals escaped into the air and leaked into the soil and groundwater, often flowing from these facilities in open ditches. One plant drained into a schoolyard. Pentachlorophenol can cause severe irritation to the skin and may be carcinogenic. As for creosote, exposure, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, can lead the outer layers of skin to flake off and peel away. Regulators have continued to reject the plants as a health hazard. “Please,” the General begged city officials at one 2015 meeting, citing a man with strange blotches across his face, “please, please, please on behalf of these poor people, do something.”
Residents in Bossier City, Louisiana, near the Arkansas border, have also suffered from living adjacent to a wood preservation plant. A Louisiana State University toxicologist found leukemia rates here to be 40 times the national average. In 2001, a reporter visited the community and spoke to Harold Quigley, who grew up beside a ditch the plant used to funnel away creosote waste. “He spent summer nights sleeping on the side porch, breathing the fumes from the plant,” the reporter noted. Harold’s family health history: two cousins lost to leukemia; sister had breast cancer and also suffered an aneurism; mother developed four different types of cancer; two brothers both got skin cancer and both bore sons with birth defects; a nephew’s wife has birthed two stillborn babies.
The wind whistles through our shade tree. Even this pleasant late spring morning breeze feels suspicious. “Here we are,” the General sighs, paraphrasing Ansel Adams, “fighting our own government for clean air.”
The General grew up on a farm in tiny Lakeland, Louisiana, one of 12 children. “We never worried about having enough money because we never had enough money,” he said during a May 2016 TED Talk. About 7 miles from his home, in New Roads, the Big Cajun II coal-burning power plant continues to spray the fine country air with neurotoxins, mutagens—compounds that can alter an organism’s DNA—and teratogens—compounds capable of disturbing the development of a fetus. In a nearby parish is Belle River, a fishing community of 107 households on the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest bottomland hardwood swamp in America. Since the mid-1980s an environmental service company has been shipping industrial waste from across the nation and injecting it deep beneath the swamp. “What a great fucking concept,” smacks the General.
Travelling west to Mossville, a 30-minute drive from the Texas border, a once vibrant 230-year-old African American community is now surrounded by 14 industrial facilities, including petroleum refineries, vinyl chloride manufacturers and a coal-fired power plant—“There are no fucking birds in Mossville,” says the General.” In 1998 the federal government tested the blood of Mossville residents and discovered dioxin levels to be among the highest ever seen in the country. The South African fuels company Sasol, looking to expand their petrochemical facility, is now buying residents out, one by one. “The poor people never get a break in this state,” says the General. “With no help from the state of Louisiana, none!”
Marylee Orr, director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and one of the General’s main allies brings us mugs of water. Instead of being seen as environmental advocates, people like the General and Orr are often regarded by legislators as a threat to the state’s tourism and commerce. “A lot of people are concerned that if we over-speak it’ll make our seafood suspicious,” quips the General. “What we’re talking about here is atypical information warfare—psychological operations. Our democracy has been hijacked.”
The General must run to the capitol building, where he’ll be presenting to the House’s Health & Welfare Committee on a bill intended to make Louisiana Tumor Registry information, now kept confidential and only accessible at the parish level, available at the community-level. The bill was passed by the House last May and signed into law by the governor in June. Effective August 1, 2017, House Bill 483 could prove monumental, potentially pulling back the curtain on cancer clusters across the state.
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Zooming south out of the capital we enter a squiggly 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that contains more than 150 petrochemical plants. This is infamous Cancer Alley, and to help explain how it came to be we turn onto a country road in New Iberia and park in the gravel drive of Wilma Subra, toxicologist, environmental consultant, and winner of the prestigious MacArthur ‘Genius Grant.’ Behind bulletproof glass she hums about a bunker-like room filled with tables completely occupied by neatly stacked piles of documents; each stack is a different community that is being poisoned. At any given time she has between 100 and 150 cases, though not all are from Louisiana. But this state is home. Subra grew up in the nearby oil town of Morgan City, and got her masters at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1966. She has been fighting for the health of Louisianans ever since.
Subra explains to us that 200 years ago Cancer Alley was a fertile belt of river-front land occupied by sugarcane and cotton plantations, and worked by enslaved African American men and women. The plantations extended inland from the Mississippi River in long rectangular plots. With Emancipation, in 1863, former slaves settled in shacks along the lanes bordering the plantations. These rows of shacks became communities, like Diamond, St. James, Morrisonville, Reveilletown, and Reserve. But this scenic sleepy stretch of the Mississippi was of magnificent industrial value, as a ready-made port with quick access to the grain and corn fields of the Midwest, the oil and gas reserves of the Gulf Coast, and the deposits of salt that layer southern Louisiana and contain chlorine, a necessary component in the production of many fertilizers and plastics.
In the 1970s, notoriously corrupt Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards (he spent eight years in federal prison on racketeering charges) invited, “all these industries to relocate to Louisiana,” Subra says. “He granted them benefits and permits that weren’t restrictive, the corporations came and these facilities just operated however they wanted.” When neighboring communities began complaining about bad air and water, the petrochemical companies—as is presently happening in Mossville—began buying them out. Reveilletown was swallowed by the Georgia Gulf Corporation in the late 1980s; Morrisonville devoured by Dow Chemical around 1990; And the community of Diamond, squeezed between a Shell refinery and a Shell chemical plant, and forced to suck down decades of noxious emissions, was at last digested by the company in the early 2000s—Shell, to remind you, is the official sponsor of Jazz Fest; Diamond and environs where famous jazz musicians Tubby and Minor Hall hailed from, as well as James Brown Humphrey, referred to by some as “the grandfather of jazz.”
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With natural gas presently booming in the U.S., Cancer Alley is buzzing with activity. Earlier this year Houston-based Yuhuang Chemical, a subsidiary of China-based Shandong Yuhuang Chemical broke ground on a massive methanol plant in St. James Parish, in the middle of Cancer Alley and right beside the community of St. James. Following the American way, Yuhuang simply bought the town. The plant, to be completed next year, will cook natural gas into methanol, used as the feedstock in many plastics. “The process creates so much pollution,” says Subra, “that they can’t even do this in China.”
So plantations become petrochemical plants to produce fuels and products we all use daily, yet rarely do we stop to consider that they are made in a place, and that place is a Louisiana community founded by freed slaves, and these communities are being poisoned, and now corporations that own the plants are buying up these communities and turning them into “buffer zones.” Can we all put down our cocktails for just a moment, and think about that?
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But there is a resistance. It is bold and beautiful and we curve through Cancer Alley on Highway 44 to find it, passing facilities operated by Cargill, Marathon, and Kinder Morgan, one of the (self-described) largest energy infrastructure companies in North America. In Reserve, one of the most cancer-ridden towns in America, 76-year-old Robert Taylor Jr. welcomes us into his home, where we politely step past his sick wife and daughter, who are watching the Will Smith movie Collateral Beauty in the living room, and take a seat at the kitchen table. Taylor was born in Reserve and remembers when DuPont began neoprene production in 1969, and the unexplainable wave of sickness and death that followed. Production of neoprene—dive wetsuits, insulated lunch boxes, beer koozies—emits toxic chloroprene, and this is the only plant in America that produces it.
Taylor, in jeans and black T-shirt is well-spoken and furious. One of his main concerns is the Fifth Ward Elementary School, which borders the plant, and where just this past January chloroprene concentrations in the air were recorded at 332 times the federal guidelines. “If we can commit an act of war against another country for chemically poisoning their children,” says Taylor, “how can we stand by and do nothing when chemicals are poisoning our own children?”
Taylor was born in 1940. As a teenager in the 1950s he played electric bass on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where bars and restaurants were still legally segregated by skin color. In 1963, he got married, and in 1966 he began building the home we’re presently seated in. Taylor worked as an electrician, a general contractor, had four children and numerous grandchildren. “This has been our community,” says Taylor, “all my life.”
He tells us that the DuPont/Denka plant appears to emit large spurts of chloroprene in the wee hours of the night, “when they figure everyone’s asleep and they can get away with it.”
We have also noticed, Taylor adds, “that if it rains you better get inside, because they are going to dump that stuff out in quantities that are unbelievable.”
“What does chloroprene smell like?” we ask him.
“I can’t describe it,” says Taylor. “It has a real and immediate effect on you, the kids know to look out for it. They’ll be outside playing basketball and run in with their eyes and throat burning. Your chest starts hurting, you start breathing differently.”
“When we call 911,” he continues, “we get hostilities. The last time I called 911 they came and were totally unconcerned. They said, ‘What do you want us to do?’”
Taylor pressed St. John the Baptist Parish emergency preparedness officials on whether or not they had plans for an evacuation should some type of disaster occur at the plant—they have no plans. And the school board, he says, has no plans on how to evacuate the children. “It goes beyond complacency,” says Taylor. “It’s complicity. They are gassing people, and then do a language trick and call it emissions. There has to be some consequences to this.”
The looming fear in Cancer Alley is not so much the slow leak of emissions and the cancer it causes, but a swift burning chemical death, like what happened in Bhopal, India in 1984, when a Union Carbide pesticide plant leaked highly toxic methyl isocyanate gas into the night, killing nearly 4,000 people. “I’ll be awake at two or three in the morning and hear a loud noise coming from that plant and I’m panicking,” says Taylor, “should I be waking my family and run?”
But the most tragic story involves the schools. Not only are Reserve children being poisoned with a known carcinogen but, “they’re not teaching our black boys anything except sports,” says Taylor. “They’ve taken out shop, they’ve taken out home economics, they’ve taken out music!” Remember, Wilma Subra had said, “the industries in these community become partners in education and have total control over the topics that are taught. If you have a student who wants to do a project about plant emissions, they get told, ‘No.’ And the school board members need money to run for election, and where do you think their money comes from…?”
Louisiana is intentionally raising a generation devoid of the knowledge necessary to comprehend their own toxic situation. Not only is the state poisoning its people, but it is taking away their means of being able to understand that they are being poisoned. And it doesn’t stop there. Louisiana State University and many reputable institutions across America receive large sums of money from the petrochemical industry, so who, Subra asks, is going to do the research that actually critiques these corporations?
“Do you have some time?” Taylor asks me, “I want to take you to our meeting.”
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At a church in Reserve, every two weeks, a group of local citizens—diverse in race, age and gender—gather to strategize. They are the Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish, a group co-founded by Taylor in October to fight back against DuPont/Denka. Every two weeks Wilma Subra meets with the group for a public toxicology class of sorts, aimed at arming the community with an education on the chemicals that are killing them. On alternate weeks—like when we are there—the group meets on its own.
There is Shondrell Perrilloux, a vivacious young mother who says her 10-year-old son, “has been getting sick, fever, respiratory problems—I don’t know what is going on, he didn’t go to school for two days, they have him on a pump.”
There is Kellie Tabb, who recently had her right lung removed because of cancer and suffers from heart palpitations—a symptom of chloroprene inhalation according to the International Programme on Chemical Safety.
There is Mary Hampton, who has lost five family members to cancer.
There is Yvonne Perkins, who says, “I can’t even tell you how many people I’ve seen die.”
There is Robert Taylor, whose mother died from a rare bone cancer, whose brother and a nephew both died from lung cancer, whose daughter has a rare immune disease and heart palpitations, whose wife of 54 years is a breast cancer survivor.
And then there’s Geraldine Watkins, an elderly lady who lives on the fence-line of the plant. “I know I’m gonna be dead soon,” she says. “My time is almost up, but I have grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, and they’re constantly sick. It’s important they have decent air. Let’s give them a break, let’s give them a fighting chance.”
The meeting, which lasts over two hours, is tense and fiery and frustrating but it is democracy, it is human beings who have been told they have no power and can do nothing coming together to create power and do something. “We need to be able to strike back!” says Taylor.
Night falls—we drive to the coast. “I am committed to keeping our air and water clean,” President Trump tweeted on Earth Day, “but always remember that economic growth enhances environmental protection. Jobs matter!” The fear of local politicians, time and again, both Subra and the General say, is that if these plants leave these communities—even though residents in communities like Reserve rarely work in the plants—the people will become even poorer, even worse off than before. One can only imagine the zilch level of concern for a compound like chloroprene by President Trump, who had at his side when he signed an executive order in February stipulating the roll-back of government regulations the chief executive of Dow Chemical—“Andrew, I would like to thank you for…the fantastic job you’ve done,” Trump told Dow chief Andrew Liveris, then handed him his signing pen to keep as a souvenir. Meanwhile the people in St. James Parish, home to the new Yuhuang Chemical methanol plant, were recently interviewed by a local TV reporter. “We can’t even come outside and breathe,” said one. “They are killing us,” said another.
If you want to tell us that to have plastics in hospitals and gas in your Subaru and neoprene scuba suits poor people in Louisiana will need to get cancer and lose their lungs and raise sick children, then fine, give us an honest calculation, tell us how many people will be killed, how many years shaved off these children’s lives. But don’t tell us there is no other way, don’t darken our horizons from the start and try to convince us that a society that rocketed human beings through the black hell of space and landed them on the moon cannot run its vehicles on a new fuel and make materials without chemicals whose production maims and kills people.
And do not even think of using the word climate change, because it is not about that, it is about running a toxic open-air chemistry experiment next to human beings, and their backyards and schools and churches. Do not pretend that this moment is the zenith of human expertise and imagination. Do not tell us not to dream. Do not silence people like Lieutenant General Russel Honore and Wilma Subra and Robert Taylor and Geraldine Watkins, who simply wants her great-grandchildren to be able to breathe. This column will be a space for dreams, and ideas that may seem too grand to be anything but. And it will be a space to call out the non-dreamers, to bring them in front of the court of the children of the future.
We’re at the coast now, a perfect spot for a final drink in the sand. The sky dims, goes lavender, purple, black, and one by one lights twinkle on the horizon, oil rigs, dotting the Gulf, lighting the night, some of the roughly 4,000 production rigs and drilling platforms located off the coast of Louisiana. And beneath the waves are more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells, many of which are leaking. This is Louisiana, America, 2017. But it doesn’t have to be. All matters, are merely a matter of vision.
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Correction: August 17, 2017
We’ve clarified a comment by toxicologist Wilma Subra. She was discussing toxic chemicals, not toxins. We’ve also updated the warnings for exposure to pentachlorophenol and creosote.
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Justin Nobel’s stories have appeared in Rolling Stone, Popular Mechanics, Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review and been published in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014, and Best American Travel Writing 2011, and 2016. A book he co-wrote, The Story of Dan Bright, tells the life story of a New Orleans man wrongfully convicted of murder, and was published last year with University of New Orleans Press.
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