Environmental Justice Activists Arrested Amid Growing Concerns Over Louisiana’s Cancer Alley Pollution
Mounting concerns over pollution, public health and the expansion of the petrochemical industry came to a head when two activists were detained in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Oct. 30, the last day of a two-week protest against environmental racism in Louisiana's Cancer Alley.
Police officer telling protesters that they need to clear the hallway outside of LABI's office in downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Oct. 30. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
Pastor Gregory Manning, who is legally blind, and Sakura Kone were singled out by police for refusing to leave the hallway outside of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) office where about 40 activists continued with an impromptu rally after being asked to leave. The group had hoped to confront LABI's head over the association's influence in state politics and regulations.
Kone was given a citation and released outside, while Manning was taken to jail. According to a release from Manning's group Justice and Beyond, Pastor Manning, who is being charged with a felony count of inciting a riot and Kone will be arraigned on Nov. 5 in Baton Rouge City Court.
The police officers' actions infuriated members of the Coalition Against Death Alley (CADA), a group of Louisiana residents and members of various local and state organizations behind the protest. The coalition focuses on fighting against and bringing attention to the petrochemical industry's expansion that is underway in Louisiana.
Robert Taylor and Pastor Manning speaking before Manning was detained. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
Pastor Manning and Sakura Kone being detained. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
Louisiana's Cancer Alley, also known as the "Petrochemical Corridor," is an 80-mile stretch along the Mississippi River with over 100 petrochemical plants and refineries between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The Louisiana government is welcoming an increasing number of industrial facilities to this corridor in primarily African-American communities.
Seeking Environmental Justice for Cancer Alley
Sharon Lavigne, a lifelong resident of St. James Parish, marching with CADA in downtown Baton Rouge on Oct. 30. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
CADA's protest focused in large part on the struggles of the communities in St. James and St. John the Baptist Parish, both on the Mississippi River's banks and both frontline battlegrounds for environmental justice in the shadow of heavy industry.
Sharon Lavigne, CADA member and founder of RISE St. James, a community organization opposing the Taiwanese-owned Formosa plastic manufacturing complex proposed in St. James, was shaken after police violently took down Pastor Manning a few feet away from her. "Why are they arresting Rev. Manning, who is trying to protect us, instead of the polluters who are poisoning us?" asked Lavigne later that day on a call announcing Manning's release from jail.
CADA member Robert Taylor, director of the Concerned Citizens of St. John, is fighting for an existing polluter in his community to lower its emissions or close. His group is pushing the Denka Performance Elastomer plant to lower its emissions of the toxic chemical chloroprene to the level deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Robert Taylor on a street in downtown Baton Rouge marching with CADA after Pastor Manning was detained. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
CADA members on the street outside of the LABI office after Pastor Gregory Manning was taken away in a police car. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
Taylor was furious at the way the police handled Pastor Manning while detaining him. "They did their classical take down of that stubborn negro, with their knees in this man's back with him down on his face, helpless, handcuffed behind him, with their knees in his back, twisting his arms, and he's screaming," Taylor said to me, while the protesters regrouped at a park a few blocks away from the LABI office.
Over the last two weeks, CADA marched and held protests at numerous locations in New Orleans and the river parishes, addressing diverse social issues plaguing Louisiana, from voter suppression to environmental justice.
Daryl Malek-Wiley, New Orleans Sierra Club representative, with CADA in Baton Rouge on the last day of its two week protest in front of the building where the Louisiana Chemical Association (LCA) has its office. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
A New Plastics Complex in St. James
Sharon Lavigne with members of RISE St. James at the July 9 LDEQ permit hearing. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
While Lavigne and Taylor support the coalition's broader work, each remains focused on protecting their own communities.
If the Formosa plastics complex is built in St. James, Lavigne fears the already degraded air quality at her home, near several petrochemical plants and oil storage tanks, will become a death trap. Many of her neighbors have died of cancer and respiratory illnesses associated with the types of emissions released from the existing facilities.
This summer, Lavigne's activism helped turn out a large crowd opposed to Formosa's proposed $9.4 billion industrial complex, which is called the "Sunshine Project" due to its proximity to the nearby Sunshine Bridge.
At a July 9 Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) public hearing, dozens spoke out against granting five air quality permits to Formosa. In addition, the agency received 15,000 comments against the project.
Gail Leboeuf, a St. James resident and member of both RISE St. James and CADA, protesting in front of Denka's synthetic rubber plant on Oct. 19. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
LDEQ's decision on the permits could come any day, but many do not expect a decision to be made public until after the upcoming runoff election for governor on Nov. 16.
Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, who has disappointed environmentalists with his ongoing climate science denial stance and his readiness to welcome even more polluting industrial projects to the state, is facing off with Republican businessman Eddie Rispone.
Though CADA members expressed displeasure with Edwards during a five day-long protest in June, the group voiced support for him for governor over Rispone, a self-proclaimed Trump loyalist, over fears the latter would roll back already weak state environmental protections.
Air Pollution Concerns for Students in St. John the Baptist Parish
Robert Taylor's daughter Tish, a member of the Concerned Citizens of St. John and CADA, on the fourth day of the coalition's two-week protest outside of the Fifth Ward Elementary School near Denka's plant. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
For years, Taylor's group has pleaded for regulators to require the Denka neoprene manufacturing plant in St. John the Baptist Parish to lower its emissions of chloroprene, a likely human carcinogen, to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter, the level the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggested as safe.
While the factory has greatly reduced chloroprene emissions, which previously registered over 700 times the EPA's suggested level, the levels remain higher than recommended.
As a result, the citizens group is now focused on protecting the community's children who attend school near the synthetic rubber plant. The group is demanding that the 400 students at the Fifth Ward Elementary School, about a quarter mile from the plant, be moved in the meantime.
This summer, the St. John the Baptist School Board discussed possibly relocating the students, but no concrete actions have materialized.
Lydia Gerard, a member of the Concerned Citizens of St. John, giving Fifth Ward Elementary School students information for their parents during CADA's protest, with an invitation join the group for dinner. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
"The School Board has started the process of putting together a redistricting plan that could include moving students from Fifth Ward Elementary," Jennifer Bouquet told me on behalf of Patrick Sanders, the school board's president.
Taylor is frustrated the school board president hasn't committed to moving the children out in a timely fashion. Talk of developing a redistricting plan is not acceptable to him. He believes that such a plan could take years to finalize and the children should have already been moved out of harm's way.
A recent reading from the EPA's ongoing air monitoring outside the school showed a level over 20 times above the EPA's suggested level, which is not legally binding. "Anything higher than 0.2 is too high," said Wilma Subra, with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, who has been working with the Concerned Citizens group since its inception in 2016.
In 2016 the community became aware of the EPA's National Air Toxics Assessment, which evaluates air contaminants and estimates health risks and found that residents near Denka's plant have a lifetime risk of cancer from air pollution 800 times above the national average.
Since that time the LDEQ and the state's health department have downplayed the health risks of chloroprene emissions. Louisiana's state health officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry has stated that the emissions do not present a health emergency and that the children at the Fifth Ward Elementary School are not in harm's way.
However, in July, the University Network for Human Rights released a health survey with findings that suggest cancer and illness levels are unusually high for those living close to the plant.
Though Denka disputed the report's findings, the governor's administration promised to conduct a "comprehensive study" to determine if people living near the plant have elevated rates of cancer.
Members of the Concerned Citizens of St. John march with CADA from the Fifth Ward Elementary School to the Denka Performance Elastomer plant on Oct. 19. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
Lavigne and Taylor have expressed gratitude to CADA members who have joined their communities' fight as well as disappointment that more river parish residents have not joined them. They told me that many community members won't speak out in public because they or someone in their family works in the petrochemical industry.
Members of the Concerned Citizens of St. John join CADA for a rally in front of Denka's plant on Oct. 19. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
Taylor's ongoing activism caught up to him on the sixth day of the sustained CADA protest. During a rally in front of the Denka Plant, he was overcome by the heat and taken by ambulance to a hospital for heat exhaustion. While recovering, Taylor, who recently turned 79, told me that he plans to fight as long as it takes until his community's children are safe.
Robert Taylor, who suffered from heat exhaustion during a protest on Oct. 26, is helped off CADA's bus after receiving medical attention. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
Robert Taylor, who suffered from heat exhaustion during a protest on Oct. 26, is helped off CADA's bus after receiving medical attention. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
"It is bad enough that we have breathed in this poison for decades without knowing it was a carcinogen," he told me from the hospital where he spent a night recovering, "but knowing how bad the air is and letting the children go to school so close to the plant is unacceptable."
"I will fight to move the children out of harm's way no matter the cost to me, because they are worth it," he said.
Robert Taylor speaking at a CADA rally in front of Denka's plant. Julie Dermansky / DeSmog
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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