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SEJ’s Chemical Corridor Tour Exposes Struggle of Fenceline Communities

September 10, 2014

Last week, Goldman Prize Communications Officer Jenny Park attended the 2014 Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. The most impactful part of the conference for Park was a tour of Louisiana’s “chemical corridor,” in which participants had the opportunity to hear from activists and industry representatives and to see first-hand what life is like in the fenceline communities living in the shadow of the Gulf’s big oil and gas industries.

The tour started with a presentation from oil and gas industry representatives touting the economic impact the chemical industry has had in southwest Louisiana, where the nation’s recent boom in shale gas has accelerated the pace of industrial activity.

Industrial plants fill the horizon along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast

Next, the group arrived at the Air Liquide plant, where different types of gas are produced for various industries such as health care and food (think oxygen tanks and liquid nitrogen), using a series of highly sophisticated and automated processes, which aim to reduce waste and increase efficiency.

And while Air Liquide’s sustainable efforts are commendable, their practices are not the industry norm. As Park pointed out, “Air Liquide is not the type of chemical plant that’s typical of the chemical corridor in the region. It produces purified, pressurized air. It’s not representative of the kind of polluting petrochemical industries plaguing southern Louisiana.”

Interestingly, the tour organizers shared that they had asked several petrochemical plants to host the group, but Air Liquide was the only one who accepted the invitation.

Air Liquide processing plant

At the next site, the group met with Marylee Orr, founder of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN). Orr discussed how she became an activist when her young son developed problems with his lungs because of the air pollution in the region. She talked about how a lot of environmental movements are started by women, and in particular, moms. Several Goldman Prize winners come to mind: Terri Swearingen, Lois Gibbs, Kim Wasserman, Sofia Gatica.

Orr and her team at LEAN help communities advocate for themselves and make sure their voices are heard. Her work is about serving people, protecting public health and safety, bringing justice, and demanding better enforcement of existing regulations that were put in place to protect communities.

Like 2004 Goldman Prize winner Margie Richard, Orr has worked to negotiate settlements for communities that needed to be moved away from toxic zones, saying, “You can’t put a sticker price on replacing your home. But if you have to make a choice between continually being poised for the rest of your life versus being relocated, you have a tough choice.”

The tour’s next stop was a community park in Norco, Louisiana—hometown of 2004 Prize winner Margie Richard. “It’s a classic “fenceline” community—we were smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood, with a playground in the middle of a park and just a few feet away was a fence separating us from an industrial site with stacks,” Park said.

A chemical plant sits ominously within a stone’s throw from a local park.

At the park, the group heard from Kim Nibarger from the United Steelworkers Union, which represents the workers who do a lot of maintenance and inspection work at these industrial plants. Nibarger suggested that “people who complain mysteriously disappear—the mantra becomes: if you want to keep your job, keep your mouth shut,” said Park.

The next speaker was Anne Rolfes, founder of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and longtime community organizer. She noted there are three reasons why industry is concentrated in this part of the country: “Access to land, the river, and a compliant government.”

Anne Rolfes, founder of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, speaks to the crowd.

The group then heard first-hand accounts from St Rose residents, who recently started smelling strong chemicals in their town. Reports started to surface of people getting sick with nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness. One woman recounted a terrifying ordeal of having to perform CPR on her 5-year-old son who stopped breathing, and the days of bedrest she had to endure herself. Another called law enforcement to find out what was going on, and the cops told her, nonchalantly: “Oh, just change the air filter on your AC unit.”

After days of trying to get more information, medical care and accountability from their own government to no avail, residents formed a community group, St Rose One Voice. Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, a well-respected leader in Louisiana, has joined their voice in demanding air monitoring, medical care, and accountability for residents in St Rose.

At the end of the tour, Park reflected, “We hear about these stories all the time, doing the work we do here at the Prize—but this was an opportunity for me to see it up close and personal. Walk along the fenceline, hear from residents and community activists, and experience the stark contrast between their impassioned pleas and the polished presentations from industry representatives.”

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