How poverty and dirty oil refineries are closely linked


For a long time, I’ve been writing about Louisiana’s so-called “Cancer Alley,” the seemingly endless line of oil refineries and chemical plants which — exploiting the state’s rich natural resources — line the Mississippi River banks from Baton Rouge all the way past New Orleans, towards the Gulf of Mexico. For decades, locals tended to view these unsightly industrial beacons, tangles of steel pipe and belching smokestacks that light the nighttime sky for miles around, merely as sources of good paying jobs.

That’s changed in recent years, as the jobs have been scaled back, the paychecks have been slimmed down, and neighbors and workers realize that the cluster of plants — major sources of air and water pollution — are probably making them sick. Indeed, Louisiana has the second highest rate of cancer of any state, and environmental factors are almost certainly a part of that. And yet there’s not much escape for the folks who lived along “Cancer Alley” — because a cycle of poverty has bound them to the land.

This week, journalist Trymaine Lee — who shared the Pulitzer Prize when he was based in New Orleans for the Times-Picayune, but now works for MSNBC — returned to the region to look at the connection between pollution in “Cancer Alley” and poverty. Here’s an excerpt of his outstanding piece:

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana— One by one nearly all of Brunetta Sims’ neighbors have disappeared. Some have died of cancer or other mysterious illnesses. Others packed up and moved when the air got too thick or too nasty for their little ones to handle. Many more relocated after being bought out by the bigwigs over at the oil plant next door.

“They’re all gone now. Nobody here but me,” Sims said from her kitchen table in Standard Heights, an African American neighborhood along the fence line of Exxon Mobil’s colossal Baton Rouge plant and refinery, the 11th largest oil complex in the world.

For a long time Sims said she paid little mind to the stench that would often waft into her home from across the fence. She was comfortable in her modest but sturdy little house and was happy enough to have a place to call her own. She ignored her burning eyes and scratchy throat. She chalked up persistent sinus infections to bad allergies. And she even looked past the soft sheet of grime that she’d wake to find blanketing her car on many mornings.

“I really didn’t think about all that stuff until something went wrong,” she said. “But sometimes the smell is so bad, so bad you just can’t stand it.” There came a point when there was no more pretending, no more turning a blind, burning eye to the mysterious smells or the illnesses that seemed, in one way or another, to touch nearly everyone she knew.

I have written about Standard Heights on this blog several times, and also in my recent book Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America. The place is a slow-motion environmental train wreck. But Lee’s article brings into focus how the neighborhood’s pollution is intertwined with poverty and race. He cities studies showing that the poor, and especially poor African-Americans, are much, much more likely to live near problem pollution sites. He points out that Louisiana has the nation’s third-highest rate of poverty, and Standard Heights is well above the statewide average for poor people.

Underprivileged whites, in old mining towns in Kentucky and elsewhere, are also more frequently exposed to pollution hazards. But Dr. Robert Bullard, author of Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, told  Lee: “People are talking about this economic recovery and the rebirth of clean energy and renewable energy, but what we have is energy apartheid, where poor communities and poor communities of color are still getting the dirtiest of the dirty energy.”

It’s been said here many times that fossil fuel extraction is indeed a dirty, dirty business. Sometimes we focus so much on the big picture with oil, gas and coal — greenhouse gases, and how they impact global warming — that we overlook what all the foul air and dirty water is doing people on the ground. Yes, burning oil is bad for the atmosphere. But it’s already been catastrophic for the good people of Standard Heights.

Read Trymaine Lee’s MSNBC piece on the link between poverty and pollution in the South:

Read more about ExxonMobil’s history of pollution in Standard Heights in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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