Blog post by Bartosz Starodaj, LABB intern and Bard College Urban Planning graduate student
Driving into Shreveport from the south, the landscape stayed flat even as the thunderclouds behind us billowed in height. The air was hot but not yet oppressive. To our right were stacks defining the acreage of Calumet Lubricants, an oil refinery centered within a predominantly African American residential neighborhood. We traveled here from New Orleans to meet with Mrs. White, and the rest of RAN, Residents for Air Neutralization, in support of their efforts within the residential neighborhood surrounding the refinery.
The next morning, we sat at Willis-Knighton Medical Center around the hospital bed of Mrs. White, about a mile from the refinery. Her health problems, she declared, only increase her inclination to fight harder against Calumet. In its short lifetime, her organization has had notable successes, including the establishment of air monitors near the refinery. But with a lack of 24-hour surveillance, the ability of the monitors to capture the true level of Calumet’s emissions is doubtful. Now, RAN members want relocation. The unacceptable treatment of the community by Calumet includes health concerns, from respiratory issues to kidney problems, but also noise, stress, property damage, and intimidation.
Mrs. White and the rest of the organization members, in addition to tens of thousands of other Shreveport residents, live in this refinery community, a mixture of well-kept small houses, schools, churches, and abandoned lots located in the southwestern section of Shreveport. Almost none of the locals work at Calumet. The company reported releases of over 115,000 pounds of toxins in 2008 alone, 73,000 of which were either carcinogens or developmental or reproductive toxicants. But in this residential area, there is also other heavy industry, including a glass plant and a steel company, in addition to a heavily used interstate heading to downtown Shreveport and rail tracks that cut through the area as they exit the refinery.
As the rest of his family gathered in the hospital a mile from Calumet, Mr. White gave us a tour of the community, pointing out the lack of separation between houses and the refinery. As we circled Calumet, he pointed out spots where spills have occurred, where valves have failed and caused oil to gush out, and concrete slabs where houses once stood. “We’re fighting for our lives, ” he later noted.
His house, a small white cottage, is located a few blocks from the fenceline. As we talked in his living room, trucks rumbled by. The desire for relocation is not a desire for money from Calumet or the government, but rather the opportunity to improve quality of life, Mr. White explains. Many RAN members have lived in this neighborhood for decades, and would not willingly give it up unless their very health was at stake.
The struggles of this community are not isolated. The community, predominantly African American and poor, needs help. Unlike many of the more prosperous locales of the city, there are few government officials advocating on behalf of RAN members. Business deals dominate, while our communities suffer from lack of clout. LDEQ and EPA, created to protect America’s citizens, are failing. While the oil spill is justifiably capturing the media’s attention, BP is only part of the wider story of the industry’s absence of concern for the environment and the health of locals. From Norco to Morrisonville, this story has played out within our country’s refinery communities again and again. What does it mean to have such suffering communities right next to such highly profitable companies, and how much longer will our government and we, the American people, accept it?