Guest blog post by Pearl Kuo, LABB Intern and Tulane University School of Public Health undergraduate.
Even as a native of Baton Rouge, I never realized the full effects of the petrochemical industry on the city and its communities. It was not until I visited Mama Sea Bell and Ms. Sonya on Baton Rouge Avenue in Istrouma that I gained a true insight to the situation. I live in the Shenandoah area of East Baton Rouge parish- a drastic demographic change from the Istrouma area. We are not afflicted with abnormally high levels of cancer and respiratory problems. We do not walk outside on a given day to inhale the stench of rotten eggs. We do not have an imposing view of a sprawling industrial plant. Perhaps most importantly (in the context of environmental justice), we are not considered one of poorest areas of the parish.
Regardless of all these trials and tribulations, Anna Hrybyk (LABB Program Manager) and I were welcomed with open arms and plates of delicious homemade food by Mama Sea Bell and Ms. Sonya, who are also the vice president and environmental justice chair of Community Empowerment for Change, for the press conference held on June 1st, the first day of hurricane season. We were later joined by the president, Mr. Mark Milligan, and an active member, Ms. Lois Dorsey. Mr. Art Smith, a local lawyer, also joined the group to show support. Each was evidently passionate about bringing justice to the neighborhood as they have individually experienced adverse health effects themselves and within their families from the excessive discharges from nearby industrial plants. Such effects ranged from increased asthma attacks during flaring to a 14 year old granddaughter with a rare form of lung cancer.
The heartache and financial burden rooted in these health issues fuels their plea for large oil refineries like ExxonMobil to fully prepare for the hurricane season. During Hurricane Gustav, ExxonMobil alone released 1, 252, 982.9 pounds of pollutants in the air. This was caused by a rapid shutdown when Gustav’s winds blew down a water cooling tower. The rapid shutdown would not have occurred if the plant followed proper hurricane protocol and implemented a controlled shutdown 28-48 hours in advance of hurricane landfall. Information like the incident above, data from LDEQ reports, and personal stories from Community Empowerment for Change members were shared with a local Baton Rouge channel NBC 33. With only one media medium present, it seemed like a disappointing turn out to me.
Especially since the Community Empowerment for Change’s call for action in industrial hurricane preparedness is not just limited to on land refineries. As with the current oil spill, much could have been prevented with the right protocols and checks and balances in place. The Minerals Management Service failed to provide the supervision that was supposed to occur. BP attempted to downplay the seriousness of the situation. Similar tactics are employed for the on shore refinery business. The parallels between the two are evident as this is an industry-wide issue. Preparedness is for not only for the company’s benefit, but also for the potentially effected population’s benefit.
In this case, my own city is threatened with unnecessary exposure to refinery pollutants. It is true that the directly affected populations are those in the Istrouma area, but air does travel. As polluted air disperses, an even larger number of people in greater Baton Rouge can be adversely affected depending on the amount of pollutants present.