Tag Archives: Louisiana

The Louisiana Environmental Apocalypse Road Trip

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 toxins from the landfill are still there,” says toxicologist Wilma Subra. These toxins include 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. Read more…

Of the Parade, But Not In the Parade: The Mardi Gras Flambeaux

Louisiana Rien Fertel explores the complex history of New Orleans’ flambeaux — the men who carry the torches that light the way for Mardi Gras parades — in Oxford American. Perhaps unsurprisingly, race issues were intertwined with Mardi Gras from the festival’s earliest days.

That inaugural spectacle proved so popular that a second flambeaux procession, now doubled in size, marched about two months later, on April 6, to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, a day “generally celebrated as a holiday,” according to the Picayune, and the unveiling of the city’s newest Confederate statue, that of General Albert Sidney Johnston astride a marble likeness of his famed steed, the aptly named Fire Eater. Just as it had weeks earlier, this “carnival of fire,” as an unidentified reporter called it, paraded down St. Charles Avenue to Lee Circle, the centrally located traffic crossroads and commercial district that had been rechristened three years prior, at the height of Carnival season, to honor the dearly departed Confederate general. Though Robert E. Lee never crossed into Louisiana as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia—he likely visited New Orleans for a brief stay while soldiering during the Mexican-American War, decades earlier—the city honored him with a bronze statue, standing and facing north, a traitorous Golem ready to spring to life and defend the South from Yankee advances, atop a sixty-foot Doric marble column. Today, despite the skyscrapers that eventually mushroomed around him, Lee’s statue still manages, from certain vantage points, to dominate the city’s skyline, at no time more so than from the Mardi Gras parades, which all circle beneath his stony gaze.

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Living and Dying in Cancer Alley

oil refinery

Nothing comes easy in places like Standard Heights or St. Rose or Alsen. The streetlights turn yellow then red then green again. The trees lose their leaves then grow them again. The plant lights come on at night, the steam rises, the toxic flares flash, the heavy odor moves through the house like a thin curtain lifted off its rod, the brown dust falls on the cars. Even when you take a second to remember the smell or to see the rusting tanks through the fence, a hundred daily chores come ahead of picking up the slingshot and aiming at Goliath.

“You know yourself,” Spears tell me. “With a big company like Exxon, you can’t fight a case so you gotta go along with them. I’m not down on Exxon because I use their gas, so what can I say? We need it. I wish they could straighten up the odor thing, but I don’t know. The only thing I see, we gotta live with it till we die. I’ll be here till 5. Every day of the week except Sunday.”

— David Hanson, writing for the Bitter Southerner, helps residents of Standard Heights, Baton Rouge, tell their story of a town next to an Exxon plant — explosions, sinkholes, toxic sludge, and an everyday life that has to go on, regardless.

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Ravaged Yet Connected: New Orleans, Ten Years After Katrina

Hurricane Katrina, and all of the myriad events surrounding it, both good and bad, is that vast, sweeping layer within the lives of the people of New Orleans. Almost fifteen hundred people died. There was $100 billion in damage. The levees failed. The city flooded. The city, state, and federal governments failed even worse than the levees did. It was estimated in 2006 that four hundred thousand people were displaced from the city; an estimated one hundred thousand of them never returned. Parts of the city recovered. Parts of the city were rebuilt. Parts of the city gleam now brighter than they ever did. There will be parades on the anniversary of the storm because there are things in the city to celebrate, but it is the tradition in this city that the music doesn’t lively up and the parade really doesn’t start until the departed has been laid to rest, until what is lost is counted, and until the memories are stored away. Only then does the music swing the way the music is supposed to sound. Only then do they begin to parade.

At Esquire, Charles P. Pierce reflects on the “boundless loss and endless opportunity” of New Orleans ten years after Hurricane Katrina.

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Meet the Man Behind the First Slavery Museum in America

He was driving around the Whitney in his Ford S.U.V., making sure the museum would be ready for the public. Born and raised in New Orleans, Cummings is as rife with contrasts as the land that surrounds his plantation. He is 77 but projects the unrelenting angst of a teenager. His disposition is exceedingly proper — the portly carriage, the trimmed white beard, the florid drawl — but he dresses in a rumpled manner that suggests a morning habit of mistaking the laundry hamper for the dresser. As someone who had to hitchhike to high school and remains bitter about not being able to afford his class ring, he embodies the scrappiness of the Irish Catholics who flooded New Orleans in the 19th century. But as a trial lawyer who has helped win more than $5 billion in class-action settlements and a real estate magnate whose holdings have multiplied his wealth many times over, Cummings personifies the affluence and power held by an elite and mostly white sliver of a city with a majority black population.

“I suppose it is a suspicious thing, what I’ve gone and done with the joint,” he continued, acknowledging that his decision to “spend millions I have no interest in getting back” on the museum has long been a source of local confusion. More than a few of the 670 residents of Wallace — 90 percent of whom are black, many the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who worked the region’s land — have voiced their bewilderment over the years. So, too, have the owners of other tourist-oriented plantations, all of whom are white. Members of Cummings’s close-knit family (he has eight children by two wives) also struggle to clarify their patriarch’s motivations, resorting to the shoulder-shrugging logic of “John being John,” as if explaining a stubborn refusal to throw away old newspapers rather than a consuming, heterodox and very expensive attempt to confront the darkest period of American history. “Challenge me, fight me on it,” he said. “I’ve been asked all the questions. About white guilt this and that. About the honky trying to profit off of slavery. But here’s the thing: Don’t you think the story of slavery is important?” With that, Cummings went silent, something he does with unsettling frequency in conversation.

“Well, I checked into it, and I heard you weren’t telling it,” he finally resumed, “so I figured I might as well get started.”

David Amsden writing in the New York Times Magazine about John Cummings and Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation. Cummings has spent the past fifteen years and $8 million of his personal fortune turning the plantation into a museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery in America.

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