Welcome to “Cancer Alley,” Where Toxic Air Is About to Get Worse

Comparison to the Nation:

By the 1960s, the American public was growing apprehensive about the dense smog created by petrochemical production. As a national environmental movement took root, Congress passed the Clean Air Act. A 1990 amendment required major polluters to reduce their toxic emissions. In Louisiana, the new controls allowed the state to reach a goal in 1997 of cutting emissions by more than half. Still, the state has made less progress than most, our analysis reveals.

How Much States Decreased Toxic Air Levels in Their Most Polluted Areas

We compared the average toxic air levels of the 50 most polluted areas in these states at two points in time — 1988 and 2017.

Using the EPA model, we calculated the estimated spread of toxic chemicals in Louisiana’s air in the last three decades. Over that time, the state’s 50 most polluted census block groups had improved by an estimated 75%. (A block group is an area of varying size that typically has fewer than 3,000 people.) But in the nation’s most polluted block groups, the median improvement rate was 94%, putting Louisiana among the 10 least-improved states. The analysis also found that Louisiana’s share of the most heavily polluted block groups in the country increased from 3% to 7% over that period. The backsliding may be a direct result of how Louisiana regulates industry. Following the passage of the Clean Air Act, many states developed their own rules to increase oversight of major polluters. And while the Louisiana DEQ calls its set of guidelines one of the nation’s most stringent, many other states have far stiffer standards. “Louisiana’s program lacks the specificity and actual monitoring that is found in other state programs,” wrote Victor Flatt, an environmental law professor at the University of Houston, in a 2007 paper comparing air toxics programs in different states.

The paper stresses the importance of regular air monitoring of toxic pollutants, as Texas and Massachusetts do, to ensure emissions data provided by chemical companies is accurate. Flatt also pointed out that some states like Connecticut and New York regulate all sources of toxic pollution, not just major plants. Louisiana, instead, opts to monitor only major polluters, and in most cases it takes companies at their word on emissions. Bryan Johnston, an air permits administrator at the DEQ, defended Louisiana’s methods. “There’s a perception that these [permits] are rubber-stamped, represented as a formality. That is not the case,” Johnston said. “Sometimes it’s not easy to secure an air permit in Louisiana.” Johnston explained that getting permits in some areas of the state is difficult because — owing to existing emissions — companies cannot demonstrate that nearby air quality will meet national standards. Even so, more than a dozen chemical plants are being built and expanded in the already-busy river corridor. Johnston said he does not recall the DEQ ever denying a permit, although he says companies do not always get permission to release exactly what they request. Johnston’s boss, DEQ Secretary Chuck Carr Brown, said in an interview this week that during his four years in office, he has turned away some industry proposals to build in certain locations because those communities had already “borne their burden.” He declined to name the communities or the companies in question, saying, “I don’t want to pick one over the other.”

“I just kind of want to let you know that there are some that we looked at,” he said. “And there have been, in four years, no new permits issued there, because these communities have borne their share.” Johnston also pointed out that Louisiana is one of the only states that has its own set of air quality standards that dictate, for each monitored toxic chemical, a maximum allowable concentration. But Flatt’s paper indicates that Louisiana’s air safeguards are based on a relatively lenient risk standard — that is, the level of toxic exposure and cancer risk that remains after chemical companies install emission controls. While the EPA has dictated a range of risk levels it deems “acceptable,” it is up to states to set their own standards. Louisiana’s standards are at the loosest end of that spectrum. “Just by changing that standard changes what you would call risky and not risky,” Flatt said. “If the standard is loosened, you can have the best modeling, you can have great analysis and great enforcement, but you have just placed more people in danger.” Comparing maximum allowable chemical exposures in different states confirms Flatt’s claim. Louisiana’s benzene standard is more than twice as lenient as the Texas standard, which is over 30 times looser than that of Massachusetts. (States enforce their standards in different ways.)

“We’d Had Enough”

By the early 1990s, with the required publication of toxic emissions data, something that had been obvious to river communities became apparent to everyone else: The burden of industry wasn’t being shared. In 1993, about 105 pounds of air pollution and other hazardous materials were being released in Louisiana for every person in the state. But in St. Gabriel, the rate was three times as high, according to EPA data. The rest of Iberville Parish had managed to avoid the pile-on of industry. The parish seat, where decisions about land use in St. Gabriel were made, was in Plaquemine, nearly an hour’s drive away. Many St. Gabriel residents felt parish officials from the more prosperous West Bank gave the petrochemical industry free rein on the mostly black and poor East Bank. Meanwhile, St. Gabriel’s sidewalks, roads and other amenities provided by the parish deteriorated — even though St. Gabriel, thanks to the industrial activity, was generating a large share of the parish’s taxes. A 1994 parish analysis found St. Gabriel was supporting 40% of the Iberville Parish budget but getting only 6% of the spending. Community leaders began stumping for incorporation in the early 1990s. They promised a government run by St. Gabriel residents would finally build long-promised sidewalks and streetlights, patch up the roads and install a sewerage system to replace leaky septic tanks. A 1993 proposal by Supplemental Fuels Inc. for a hazardous waste facility in St. Gabriel was the catalyst the movement needed. It pushed Schexnayder, then a member of the Iberville Parish School Board, into environmental activism. “It wasn’t that SFI was particularly bad; it was that we’d had enough,” Schexnayder said. “That got us together. We had to show them we mean business.”Anti-SFI yard signs cropped up alongside pro-incorporation signs. In August 1994, the vote for incorporation passed by a 3-1 margin. Parties broke out, and about 300 people paraded through town.

Bayou Paul Lane in St. Gabriel, 25 years after the town incorporated. The new city’s footprint was unusually expansive. At 30 square miles, it’s the state’s sixth-largest city by area but 52nd by population. The result is that St. Gabriel has control over an area well beyond its neighborhoods.

No large plants have been approved within St. Gabriel’s border since incorporation, but at least one facility that had already applied for a permit was built after 1994. “When companies come in here with a new plant, all we have to do is go to meetings and say, ‘We don’t want that here,’” Schexnayder said. “If we fill a room, they know we can vote them out. They have to listen to us.” Zoning is the most powerful weapon in the city’s arsenal. St. Gabriel’s leaders can determine whether a property is zoned industrial, commercial or residential, and thus what can be built. The city’s elected leaders reflect its population. All of the top officials — the mayor, five-member City Council and police chief — are black, and most have lived in the community for decades. If a new plant moves in, these officials are just as likely to be in the path of air pollution as their constituents. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the chemical industry has opposed subsequent incorporation drives. Shortly after St. Gabriel became a town, its neighbor, Geismar, just downriver in Ascension Parish, tried to do the same. The industry, neutral on St. Gabriel’s incorporation effort, fought hard against Geismar’s.

Meanwhile, at the state Capitol, lobbyists persuade lawmakers to bar new municipalities from taking in industrial areas. Geismar’s effort ended when Shell, Borden Chemicals and nine other large petrochemical companies obtained a court injunction preventing residents from taking further steps to incorporate. Few other communities have taken the initiative since, The Nutrien Geismar Nitrogen and Phosphate facility. Geismar tried to follow St. Gabriel’s example and incorporate, but the effort failed.

Small Wins, Bigger Losses

Twenty-five years after incorporation, St. Gabriel is seeing mixed results. There are better roads, new sewer and water infrastructure, and sidewalks and parks. More ambitious projects have included a new police station and civic center. There have been scandals, too — such as when Mayor George Grace, the town’s first mayor, was convicted in 2012 on bribery, racketeering and fraud charges. And St. Gabriel still struggles with crime, poverty and other problems. But as envisioned, city leaders have flexed their muscles to block unwanted projects. In 2015, St. Gabriel rejected a request from Chinese chemical giant Wanhua to rezone 3,000 acres for a vast industrial complex. Wanhua got a much friendlier reception when it took the plan downriver to Convent, an unincorporated community in St. James Parish, though the project is currently stalled. In 2017, St. Gabriel thwarted Apex Oil Co.’s plans for a 500-acre expansion. That same year, residents rallied against an expansion proposed by a hazardous waste incinerator, Adsorbent Solutions, that had numerous air quality violations. City leaders halted the proposal, and a few months later, the incinerator shut down.

Air pollution, of course, does not respect political boundaries. Just outside St. Gabriel’s city limits, in Ascension Parish, the Occidental Chemical plant has been slated for a $147 million dollar expansion, and Praxair and Kinder Morgan have won approval for new facilities. There’s little the town’s political leaders can do about that. According to Cynthia Gould, who has contracted with the EPA for over 20 years to model toxic emissions, a plant’s highest stacks can carry pollutants 30 miles from their source. In other words, pollution is not something that only affects fence line communities. It is — or should be — a regional concern. “The highest concentrations normally happen fairly close in to the facility, but under certain conditions high stacks can increase concentrations further out,” Gould said. “When an area is affected by releases from different facilities, the combined exposure may be concerning.”

What’s happening outside St. Gabriel’s boundaries underscores the town’s limited power to control its own destiny. “The growth of the chemical industry has been aggressive outside of our city,” said Johnson, the mayor. “It’s growing in Ascension Parish right alongside us, but it’s not as though Ascension pollution will stop at the Ascension border.” Still, overall, incorporation has been “a blessing,” Johnson said, adding: “It’s given locals control over their lives, and we’ve used that for the betterment of our lives.” Nonetheless, if Schexnayder were young today, she wouldn’t dream of buying a house in St. Gabriel. “If I was one of these young people, nothing in the world would get me to move here,” she said. “We’re still surrounded by plants.”

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