“We’re sick of being sick, we’re tired of being tired,” said Pastor Harry Joseph of Mount Triumph Baptist Church, which serves this sleepy riverside town of about 1,000 residents, mostly poor and African American. Once a bucolic village of pasturelands and sugarcane fields on the banks of the Mississippi, St James, Louisiana, is now a densely packed industrial zone in the heart of Louisiana’s petrochemical corridor, commonly referred to as “Cancer Alley.”
Photo by Benjamin White
It’s only anecdotal evidence of what life is like here, but Joseph says he has buried five residents in the last six months, all victims of cancer.
After a $1.9 billion methanol plant recently broke ground and with another $1.3 billion methanol plant and a controversial new oil pipeline planned for the area, Joseph’s one-room church has become a staging ground for an environmental justice fight — albeit one with tempered hopes under Donald Trump, even before he served notice on the Paris accord on climate change last week
Joseph has emerged as the de facto leader of a group of local residents demanding residential buyouts — for those who say they have had enough and struggle to sell their homes — and pressuring state and federal agencies to halt further development. With regulation that critics say is loose and incentives-rich, even by Louisiana standards, St James offers a glimpse into the type of unchecked development that Trump has hailed as a precondition for American jobs and economic growth.
The town’s location on the Mississippi river and accessibility to cheap oil and gas feedstock make St James what Louisiana Economic Development, a state agency, described to The Guardian as an “ideal” site for large industrial projects. About ten years ago, the town was rezoned from residential to industrial, paving the way for the highly concentrated development seen today. Fifteen large industrial sites — mainly oil storage facilities, pipelines, and petrochemical plants — now fill the 13-mile stretch of road that defines the town of St James, also known as the fifth ward of St James parish.
Yet residents here say they’ve seen little economic benefit — either in jobs or tax revenues — from the industry that has taken over the town. Instead, they say, they’ve been saddled with a myriad of health issues, medical bills, and environmental degradation.
“They put [the plants] here and the other parishes are the ones that get the jobs,” claimed Joseph. “We’re like the lamb that was sacrificed.”
The rise of the oil and petrochemical industry at their doorstep has thrust residents into a financial trap. They can’t afford to leave without selling their houses, but the predominance of industrial plants and pipelines has slashed home values and scared off buyers. Many here see only one ticket out: a residential buyout by industrial companies operating here.
“We’re going to make sure they get compensated right and they are able to move on with their life,” said Joseph of the significant population here that wants to leave, many of them elderly. “They have dedicated themselves to St James. And right now they are saying, ‘I can live in St. James, but I can’t die in St. James.’”
Geraldine Mayho is one of those residents determined not to die in St James. A large suitcase and stack of boxes fill one corner of her modest home, which is bordered on both sides by the huge cylindrical oil storage tanks that dominate the local landscape. She walks through the house to point out the crooked doorways and window frames and cracked walls — an effect of the near-constant industrial activity at nearby loading docks that has shifted the house foundation.
She says she can’t afford to rent an apartment on her monthly pension of about $700 from her days as a janitor at the local high school. Her best option is to move in with her grandchildren in Mobile, Alabama, until someone — local industry, she hopes — compensates her for her home.
“Whether or not they buy me out, I’ve got to get out of here,” said Mayho. “I’m so tired of being sick.”
She says that since moving here in 1965, when the area was still mostly agricultural, she has suffered a range of ailments, from headaches to stomachaches and heart problems, that doctors could never fully explain. But several years ago, she says one doctor gave her a letter stating her conditions were the result of exposure to “toxic substances.”
Her family’s health, too, has been shaped by the town’s air pollution. She rattles off a list of six female relatives, all residents, recently diagnosed with or deceased from breast cancer. One son has had a persistent cough; another is infertile. Her daughter died in her 30s, but she says doctors couldn’t identify the exact cause.
“She was sick like I was sick,” Mayho said. Asked if she thought her daughter’s death had been caused by industrial pollution, she fought back tears: “I know it was.”
The Louisiana Tumor Registry, a state cancer tracker, only releases data on a regional level, so localized cancer rates are hard to come by. But many residents who speak to The Guardian seem to have some ailment or an affected family member, from cancer to asthma to multiple sclerosis and skin conditions, and they all trace it back to the air pollution from the chemical plants that surround them.
However, according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), the state regulator, emissions from the collection of plants that surround St James are compliant with state and federal regulations. LDEQ representatives point to improvements in air quality over the years as a sign of regulatory success.
“It’s very clear that air quality has greatly improved over time,” Bryan Johnston, who works in the air permits division of the LDEQ, said. “Over the last 20 years and even more recently, in just the last several years, there has been dramatic declines in air emissions in St James parish.”
Johnston said the LDEQ would release its long-term emissions data for St James with its forthcoming final permitting decision for the YCI plant. Publicly available EPA data is inconclusive and often averaged across the entire county. One data set from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory for “core chemicals” — which does not include chemicals added since 1988 — shows wide year-over-year fluctuations in total air emissions for St James Parish since the late 1980s. In 2015, total core chemicals emissions were 501,150 pounds, scarcely below the 516,088 reported in 1988.
But few here would agree with Johnston’s assessment. Some say they simply stopped reporting strong chemical smells that regularly waft across the town because, they say, local authorities don’t do anything.
“Back in the day, you knew when you smelled it,” said Brettaiene Celestin, 66, describing unusual emissions events. She grew up in the area and lives alone in a small trailer that borders an industrial railroad and oil storage terminals. “But now, it’s like a part of your life.”
Local people say wild lemon and orange trees have stopped bearing fruit, there are no more butterflies or crickets, and new flooding issues have plagued the town since their industrial neighbors began to use the agricultural ditches that once let rainwater flow through for plant drainage use.
“[We feel] totally unprotected, forgotten about,” added Eve Butler, 60, a resident and local advocate.
Despite the constant refrain from politicians and companies touting job opportunities, few here of working age are employed in the local oil and petrochemical plants. Any boom in construction jobs is brief and the far fewer permanent jobs tend to go to contractors outside the parish or the state. There are some local residents employed by the nearby plants, but, according to residents, many people work outside of the town or parish, mainly in professional services positions or at other industrial plants.
“Our quality of life has deteriorated and nobody takes responsibility for that. Because you’re told: it’s private industry, it’s going to be good for the community. But the community has not benefitted,” said Butler. “We are kind of, like, collateral damage.”
With two new methanol plants, plus the terminus of the Bayou Bridge pipeline — which would carry crude oil from the controversial Dakota Access pipeline — planned for the area, local and state activists see an opportunity to fight back. But Trump’s dual aims of handcuffing the EPA with budget cuts while also accelerating industrial deregulation have tempered hopes for change here.
In January, Yuhuang Chemical Inc (YCI), a subsidiary of China’s Shandong Yuhuang Chemical Co, broke ground on the first phase of its $1.9 billion methanol plant. When the project was announced in 2014, it was the largest greenfield investment by a Chinese firm in the United States. The plant will eventually produce 3 million metric tons of methanol per year, 40 to 60 percent of which could be shipped abroad, according to YCI’s general counsel, Jerry Jones.
South Louisiana Methanol’s (SLM) $1.3 billion plant, to produce 5,300 metric tons per day, is planned nearby. The Bayou Bridge pipeline, another project drawing the ire of environmentalists, would, once built, cross 163 miles of delicate Louisiana wetlands, including eight watersheds, and terminate at oil storage terminals in St James. Both projects are expected to receive permits to move forward soon.
In this largely African American town that grew out of former slave plantations, people are concerned with a certain kind of environmental injustice. Two environmental groups have pushed the EPA to declare civil rights violations because the cumulative air pollution of existing and new plants disproportionately impacts a community of color.
“We felt it was a perfect example of environmental injustices happening at a community that has already got too much to be there,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley, environmental justice organizer at the Sierra Club, which, along with the local not-for-profit Louisiana Environmental Action Network, filed the EPA petitions against YCI and SLM.
The EPA did not respond to the SLM petition, but in August, the agency agreed with some parts of the group’s petition addressing the YCI plant and kicked the question of the air emissions permit back to LDEQ. The state agency floated a revised permit for public comment late last year; the same environmental groups again petitioned in March, saying the new version still failed to comply with Clean Air Act standards. But another EPA ruling in their favor is an unlikely prospect, the advocacy group fears, as the agency prepares for major cuts under Trump, including the elimination of its environmental justice program. The LDEQ says it expects to issue final approval for the new emissions permit this month.
For environmentalists in Louisiana, where the LDEQ is widely viewed as an accessory of industrial corporations, Trump’s attempts to unravel the EPA are especially worrying.
“[LDEQ] feels that it’s their goal to issue permits … not to protect citizens of Louisiana, not to protect the environment,” said Malek-Wiley. He says that while the EPA’s Region 6 office, which covers Louisiana, has been among the weakest on enforcement, the agency has still stepped in at times when the state has not. One of the first environmental justice cases tried by the EPA put a stop to a proposed PVC plant in 1998 in Convent, Louisiana, directly across the river from St James.
Johnston, of the LDEQ, strongly rejected claims the office served as a rubber stamp for industry, citing what he said were long-term air quality improvements in the state.
Louisiana has developed an outsized role in the country’s energy and petrochemical industry, thanks in part to generous tax breaks that are largely borne at the local level. The state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP), which dates back to the 1930s, offers a 10-year local property tax exemption for industrial developers. Between 2008 and 2015, the state estimates it lost nearly $10 billion in revenue under the ITEP. It expects to forego an additional $7 billion from 2016 to 2020.
St James has been one of the top parishes for the ITEP over the past decade, giving out an average of $36.5 million in tax breaks every year. That’s compared to a total of $61.8 million in taxes actually collected in the parish in 2015.
As the latest high-profile company to enter the town, in April, YCI hosted a crawfish boil with company representatives on hand to answer questions about the plant. The event turned contentious, as Joseph and a group of upset citizens peppered the company president and CEO, Charlie Yao, with questions, unsatisfied with his assertion that the plant would be built to the highest environmental and safety standards.
“No one can get 100 percent support of anything you do,” Yao told The Guardian. “That’s my mission, to work with people.” He said the meeting was the start of a community engagement process that would include job and vendor fairs this summer. The company plans to hire 90-100 people on a permanent basis once the first phase of the plant comes online, by October of 2019.
“We’re going to try to do the best we can to be a good community neighbor,” Jones, YCI’s general counsel, told The Guardian. When asked if the company would participate in any residential buyouts, Jones said: “I don’t feel it’s appropriate [for YCI] to bear the burden of solving that problem for the community. If the industrial complex wants to figure out a way to solve that problem, then we will be a part of that.”
Still, many here remain skeptical.
“What you are looking at is a dying community,” said Butler. “Not because of the residents, but because of the way industry is allowed to come in. And they call it progress.” Years ago, she encouraged her children, who grew up in St James, to move out of Louisiana because of the health risks. Within the next ten years or so, she expects the entire town will be nothing but plants and pipelines.
“We’ve got a president now that looks at money and not people,” said Joseph. “Our fight is just beginning, because if it’s not going to be this [plant], it’s going to be another one.” Nevertheless, he says his hope is that public pressure on YCI will force the company — and others looking at St James — to eventually pull out.
“We might not win all the battles,” he said. “But I think we are going to win the war.”
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