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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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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