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When Pollution Hits Home

Somewhere along the way, Ed Jackson and his neighbors seem to have lost their right to a clean environment

  • Ginny Carroll
  • Aug 01, 1991
Mona Jacob has lived all her 35 years on West Third Street in Reserve, Louisiana. Through childhood, adolescence, marriage and motherhood, she has moved six times—but always on the same narrow street in St. John the Baptist Parish. "All my family's here, all the people I grew up with," says Jacob. "If you need help, all you have to do is go knock on a door and ask. It's a small-town way of life."

In recent years, chemical emissions, leaks and explosions also have become a way of life in St. John. But Jacob and her family have persevered. When the water turned yellow and smelled bad, they started using only the bottled stuff. When the nearby Shell Refinery at Norco blew up one night and tossed people out of their beds, Jacob bought a T-shirt to commemorate the occasion. When the odor of burning body parts from the medical waste plant on Eighth Street drifted over her home, she shut the doors and windows. When people became sick, she helped the families as best she could.

But now Jacob is moving, as soon as she and her husband can afford to repair and sell their house by the railroad tracks. Their 9-year-old son's asthma has gotten so bad he takes adult doses of medication three times a day. Doctors at Louisiana State University Medical Center have told Jacob that "Scooter" will not improve unless he leaves the area. "We're moving out in the country," she says, "somewhere my kids can have fresh air and a life."

St. John the Baptist Parish, Jacob's lifelong home, lies smack in the middle of one of the nation's largest industrial concentrations, a 75-mile stretch of Mississippi River in south Louisiana. Since the 1950s, its people have watched a steady march of plants upriver from New Orleans and downriver from Baton Rouge. One political administration after another convinced Louisianans that industry—largely petrochemical—offered the opportunity to relieve the poverty that has gripped the region since its plantation culture faded. But along with jobs, the plants brought emissions that turned the air into chemical mist that fouled the bayous and the mighty Mississippi.

Over the years, reports of high cancer rates and respiratory ailments have struck fear in river communities, despite government and industry assurances that no link to pollution could be established. Now the people of St. John are fighting back, trying to force existing plants to clean up and to thwart encroachment of more industry. What they're asking for, they say, are basic rights: to breathe clean air, drink clean water, live free of fear of disease. But they've learned that their task is far from simple. "Rights such as speech and religion are more clear-cut," notes Oliver Houck, Tulane University professor of environmental law. "We know you don't go busting into a church and break up the ceremony. But articulating environmental rights is much trickier."

It's trickier in part because industry locates where people are desperate for a livelihood and where political influence is low. "Companies assume that these people are already politically disadvantaged," says Linda King, director of the Environmental Health Network in New Orleans. "They're worried about putting food on the table, not some invisible thing that might harm them. A lot of the people who live in these areas are minorities, but the overall picture is poverty. Poverty is the single thread that runs across the country where industry takes advantage of people. Disadvantaged people don't know their rights, their right to be angry, their right to clean air and water. It's a tragedy beyond words."

Wilfred Greene, 68, a retired school principal who lives on the predominantly black west bank in St. John, recognizes that his community's dilemma is one of empowerment, not just race. "Chemicals don't kill black people, and they don't kill white people," he says. "They just kill people." Nonetheless, he notes, it is a fact of American life that a disproportionate percentage of the disadvantaged are minorities, and whites have been slow to respond to the concern.

Some studies suggest that race is an even greater factor than economic status in toxic exposure. A 1987 report by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice found that more than half of all blacks and Hispanics live in communities that contain at least one closed or abandoned hazardous waste site. Also provoking was the news that the incidence of government-approved waste sites in such areas was higher than that of illegal dumping grounds. "This tells us that when government gets involved and makes policy, we are concentrating even more toxics in low-income and minority areas," says David Hahn-Baker, a National Wildlife Federation consultant on cultural diversity and poverty issues.

Not all decisions are at the federal level. Detroit operates the country's largest trash incinerator in a predominantly black neighborhood. When North Carolina had to pick a disposal site for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), it chose Warren County, among the state's poorest and blackest. Warren County also had the shallowest water table among 100 counties, increasing the possibility that PCBs could leach into water closer to the surface. "Clearly, it was one of the most unsuitable sites in the state," says Hahn-Baker. "Yet the decision was made to put it there."

The California-based Center for Third World Organizing, a training and development center for minorities, estimates that abandoned uranium-mining operations have deposited two million tons of tailings on Native American land and suggests that the rate of reproductive organ cancer among Navajo teenagers, 17 times the national average, is not a statistical coincidence. "Pick a region, pick a state, pick a country, and you will find disproportionate impacts on low-income and minority people," says Hahn-Baker. "It's the national trend."

That realization prompts strong words in Louisiana. "What is going on here is chemical warfare," contends Pat Bryant, executive director of the New Orleans-based Gulf Coast Tenants Association. In the most recent available statistics (compiled with information from the Institute for Southern Studies and Northwestern National Life Insurance Company), Louisiana—ranked 20th in population claimed a fistful of dubious achievement honors. It is first in toxic surface-water discharges, second in underground injection, second in discharge of carcinogens, second in hazardous waste importation, second in overall toxic discharges and fourth in toxic air discharges.

"Everyone is so concerned about chemicals in the Middle East," said Bryant last winter before allied forces took on Iraq. But, he maintained, as many people in South Louisiana had died from chemicals as had Kurdish victims of Sadam Hussein. As hyperbolic as that notion may be, the fact is that mortality rates in the heavily industrialized river parishes of Louisiana are uniformly above national norms. A 1988 Greenpeace report noted that the death rate for males in St. John was 9 percent above the national average and falling only half as fast; for females, the rate was 15 percent higher and falling 35 percent more slowly. The cancer death rate for men was rising 71 percent faster than elsewhere in the country; the women's rate was increasing 50 percent more quickly.

Industry and state regulators are quick to point out that, due to installation of scrubbers and other controls, Louisiana's air is far cleaner than it was a decade ago. Dangerous industrial emissions fell 43 percent from 1987 to 1989, according to the most recent statistics from the state Department of Environmental Quality.

As for anecdotal evidence that links pollution with specific incidence or "clusters" of disease, scientists are skeptical. Whether supposedly caused by anything from air pollution to power lines, disease clusters often fall apart upon close examination. And in Louisiana, lifestyle habits of the region's poor—smoking, alcohol, poor nutrition—play a crucial role in the health problems, says Dr. Joel L. Nitzkin, acting assistant director of the state health department. "This is an area where traditional ethnic diets would increase risk of disease," he says. "If there is a cancer problem relating to industry, we believe it is relatively small." The state has established a tumor registry in an effort to begin sorting out cause-and-effect relationships, but the operation is still in infancy.

People who live on the river don't give a hoot about scientific skepticism. They believe pollution is a factor in the high cancer rate, and all the official reassurance in the world won't take away their fear. "We know that some of these plants produce cancer-causing agents," says Ed Jackson, 55, of Geismar, whose wife, Mary Lee, died earlier this year of metastasized breast cancer. Geismar, 25 miles upriver from St. John Parish, has a concentration of 18 industrial plants in a five-mile stretch. It is what the people of St. John are fighting to avoid.

"We had plantations in Geismar until the l940s," says Jackson. "People didn't die of cancer then. We've got to believe it's the plants." Probably part of the reason Jackson and others don't remember much cancer before the industry is that it went undiagnosed. But, says Linda King, "what we can't ignore is that industrial cities across the world show a general increase in cancers."

Most experts believe that a definitive link will be difficult to establish, if at all possible. "We don't live in areas that spew out only copper, only benzene," says King of the Environmental Health Network. "We live in chemical stews." Paul Templet, Louisiana's secretary of environmental quality, notes that a primary concern is federal and state toxicity standards themselves. "The regulations look at each chemical in isolation and then set low levels for compliance," he points out. "We have hardly begun to examine the cumulative or synergistic effects."

Some hazards are known or strongly suspected. Despite improvements, Louisiana still ranks first or second in poor air quality. The state's program for monitoring what's in the air is undermanned and underfunded, environmentalists complain. Ed Overton, director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at Louisiana State University, is attempting a monitoring program on his own. Overton has been operating a high-tech mobile laboratory around the state's petrochemical complexes. One day, as his assistants were sampling the air north of Baton Rouge, they were overcome by a pungent stench that burned their eyes and noses. Yet in analyzing their samples, they found nothing recognizable.

"There are things out there that we can't even identify," says Overton. "We've got better analytical facilities to look at race-horse urine than we have to look at environmental health effects from toxic air emissions. We don't do the work, we don't put out the effort, then we stand around and say we can't tell if there is a problem." The tenants association's Bryant argues that the call for empirical studies is simply a delaying tactic, allowing industry simply to dodge its responsibilities. "The people who live here don't need any more evidence than we already have," he says.

One of those people is Elixia Henderson, 56, a retired teacher who lives in predominantly black Mount Airy, six miles north of Jacob's home in Reserve. One afternoon in January, after an all-night bedside vigil in the hospital room of a friend dying of cancer, she sat in the kitchen of her modest brick home and ticked off the number of neighbors who were terminally ill: "One-two-three-four-five—and that's just right here. We lost one man this morning to cancer."

Some of the people smoked for much of their lives, she conceded. "People have been smoking as long as I've known people to roll it in those little thin papers," says Henderson. "They didn't die of cancer. A lot of people who've died weren't smokers. This environment is just killing us." Henderson complains that the odor from existing industrial plants along the river is so strong she no longer opens her windows, winter or summer. "Used to be, on a cool day, we'd air the house out, but no more. I can feel those chemicals in my throat when it's damp and foggy. It's almost like you can taste the odor. I go look at my toilets, and they look like I haven't cleaned them in a month. If that water's settling in toilets and lavatories like that, what's it doing to the bottom of my stomach, to my kidneys?"

Even so, the present is not as frightening to Henderson as the future. The St John Parish Council, citing the local need for jobs, opened the door last year to two giant new industries, one cheek by jowl with Henderson's neighborhood. The council rezoned 435 residential acres at Mount Airy for a $300 million Aristech Chemical Corp. cumene and phenol plant. Directly across the river in Wallace, Wilfred Greene's home, the council rezoned 1,800 acres surrounding and including historic Whitney Plantation to make way for a $2 billion Formosa Plastics complex, ignoring environmentalists' complaints that Formosa had a long pollution record in Delaware, Texas, elsewhere in Louisiana and in its native Taiwan.

Earlier this year, the company agreed to pay $125,000 for more than 30 federal Clean Water Act violations at its Point Comfort, Texas, plant. A recommended $8.2 million penalty for alleged violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is pending. Formosa maintains that many of its environmental infractions stemmed from old equipment and plants it acquired from other companies. For example, says Alden Andre, a Formosa vice president, the toxic emissions at the company's plant in Baton Rouge are only 2 percent of what they were when Formosa acquired the huge facility in 1982.

The people of St. John Parish were not convinced. The prospect of two huge new industrial complexes on each side of the river prompted a public outcry. A network of grass-roots groups picketed and eventually sued over Aristech's plans. The company suspended its construction schedule indefinitely. At the same time, two new medical waste facilities petitioned for permits to locate nearby. Mona Jacob and her neighbors organized petition drives, picketed and jammed meetings of the governing board. They successfully forced a ban on further medical waste facilities in the parish.

But it was the prospect of the giant Formosa plant that galvanized opposition as no cause before in St. John. "Formosa is in the same position as the next guy entering the bar after Billy the Kid has shot it up," says Tulane's Houck. "People are mad at BASE Shell, American Cyanamid, but they can't do anything about it because they're already there. They can fight Formosa." Blacks, whites, environmentalists and historic preservationists have joined forces to ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reject the Formosa plant.

Frank Nette, 31, president of St. John Citizens for Environmental Justice, is one of the leaders of the Formosa fight. He moved his young family from Mississippi to his native Louisiana so his children could share the experiences of his childhood. "We'd take a pirogue out on the lake to fish or go swimming," Nette recalled. "We'd go into drainage canals looking for crawfish. It was a good way to grow up," he recalls. "But what did I find when we came back? A toxic wasteland. You don't know what's in the water: pesticides, sewage. St. John the Baptist is St. John the Industrialist."

The people of St. John say they realize they can't turn back the clock, but they want to preserve what is left. Sam Jackson, 34, a stern opponent of Formosa and Aristech, grew up across the river from Nette, near Wilfred Greene in Wallace. He lived in Chicago for a while and then New Orleans, but came back to his rural roots in search of a simpler life. "If they put that [Formosa] rayon plant in, it's going to stink just like a paper mill. With the wind blowing from the south nine months of the year, what kind of a life will we have? We do need jobs, but clean jobs." Jackson doesn't want his community to become like Geismar, where fires from the industrial plants often turn the sky red at night.

Amos Favorite, 68, lives 1.7 miles from that concentration, the densest in the river parishes. He warns the residents of St. John that if they don't fight now, they will become another Geismar. "I had a garden out back there," he recalled, gesturing at the land behind his brick home. "One night, there was a heavy fog out there. I thought it was a heavy fog. I woke up the next morning, and everything was shriveled up and dead. That is enough proof for me that these chemicals are killing us."

He doesn't care if science sees no link between the pollution and disease that plagues his community. Favorite smokes, as do many of his friends, but the experts who cite lifestyle factors as causes of disease in Geismar fail to convince him. "People used to die of old age, from pneumonia," he says. "They used to die of sickle cell anemia. They used to die from strokes, heart attacks, but never cancer. Since these plants came out there, you can't die without having cancer."

Downriver, Wilfred Greene has also seen neighbors sicken and die. But even those who remain healthy face the loss of a treasured lifestyle, he says. "If I didn't have money and wanted to fix myself supper, 1 could just go out and shoot a rabbit or a bird, catch myself a fish. Now, I catch fish so oily and slimy I wouldn't think of eating it. My dog wouldn't eat it." Greene lives by the levee on land his great-grandparents bought after Emancipation. His small brick home is paid for. "It may not be as good as some people have, but to me, it's home," he says. "It's peace. I don't owe anybody. If I don't want to open the door in the morning, I don't have to. If I want to walk in the backyard and play with my dog, I can. If I want to plant butterbeans, I can." Greene's relatives are buried nearby, beneath cypress trees a century old.

Now Formosa has indicated it is interested in Greene's property, and he fears the company will either find a way to get it (even though he doesn't want to sell) or will buy all the surrounding land and leave him isolated. "If they take this land, they take my liberty," he says. "Everybody in this country, black, white, whatever color, has the right to live in peace, has the right to breathe fresh air, the right to drink clean water, the right not to smell these chemicals when they come home at night."

But absent changes in national law, the fight for a clean environment will be a grass-roots battle. "Guerrilla warfare has escalated to the point it is the war," says Houck. "Corporations are more afraid of local movements—the not-in-my-backyard groups—than of all the federal, state and local regulators combined." Still, the efforts and results remain a mixture of success and failure, as in St. John Parish.

Longer-term solutions require work at all levels, says Hahn-Baker, among individuals, industries and government agencies. "We have to re-examine our habits as a society," he says. "We have to realize the difference between progress and growth. Because of the waste we produce, growth is no longer progress. We're hurting a large number of people so a small number of people can benefit. As the environmental crisis worsens, we must create more and more incentives for change." Otherwise, the Mona Jacobs, the Wilfred Greenes, the Elixia Hendersons and the Frank Nettes face a lonely battle for a clean environment—one guerrilla movement, one neighborhood, one parish at a time.

Ginny Carroll, Newsweek's Houston bureau cheif, traveled to Louisiana with Boston-based photographer Jerry Berndt for this story. Berndt's social issues photographs have been widely exhibited and published. He is now working on a lengthy project about Haiti and Haitian refugees 

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