By LABB staff member Benjamin Leger, based on interviews with Istrouma residents in mid-September
Hurricane Gustav made landfall near Cocodrie, La., Sept. 1, 2008, and wreaked havoc on 34 parishes, working its way up the center of the state and knocking out electricity for 1.5 million people. Baton Rouge residents witnessed some of the worst winds the city had ever seen and most businesses and government buildings remained closed several days later.
In North Baton Rouge’s Istrouma neighborhood, residents were without power for almost two weeks. And as they sat outside, on their front porches or in backyards, trying to escape the stuffy heat indoors, they faced another problem. ExxonMobil Baton Rouge, the largest refinery in the state, which sits across the interstate overpass from Istrouma, was spewing pollutants over the already ravaged city.
The company had not properly shut down the facility before Gustav made landfall and as a result, a cooling tower toppled over in high winds, releasing 599,122 pounds of pollutants (the bulk of which was sulfur dioxide, a known respiratory irritant, plus nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia) for what residents say were nearly 12 days of flaring.
“We had to sit outside all day and all night breathing in some of the worst pollution I have ever experienced. On top of the stress from the hurricane, we were all sick from chemical exposure,” said Seabell Thomas, leader of Community Empowerment for Change, and a resident within walking distance of the facility.
Thomas has been fighting for the health of her community for years as head of the community group, but in the days after Hurricane Gustav, neighbors were feeling left behind.
Interstate-110 cuts between the refinery and Istrouma, right over a strip of empty lots where homes once stood, creating an eerie buffer zone of green space. It’s a scene repeated in many refinery communities, where the facilities pushed up against residential areas and people either moved out or got bought out, leaving behind large swathes of abandoned lots and crumbling pavement.
But in talking to Istrouma residents, it’s clear the interstate overpass also serves as a dividing line between their mostly black community and the refinery area, where the Scenic Byway passing along the refinery serves as an easy thoroughfare for businesses and industry that took up the cheap, empty lots.
After the storm, Istrouma residents claimed most of the emergency relief was ending up across the interstate in the form of food trucks, water and ice distribution. Their community wasn’t made aware of the help until it was mostly gone.
“They are not concerned with things on this side of the bridge,” Thomas said.
Lois Dorsey, a lifelong Istrouma resident who suffered through the storm, remembers a childhood spent at weekend company picnics at the refinery where the whole community turned out. The neighborhood then consisted of many families with ties to the refinery and several of the men in Dorsey’s family worked for ExxonMobil.
But those days are long gone. Most people in Istrouma no longer work at the refinery. And even her fond memories are marred with the effects of oil production all around her. Her grandfather had to have his vocal chords removed because of cancer from years of exposure. Her sister was diagnosed with lung cancer later in life, though she never smoked. And one of her grandchildren is at St. Jude’s suffering from lung cancer as well. She remembers rumbles in the middle of the night and once even falling out of her chair as a child when an explosion at the refinery rocked her house.
In 1995 another explosion at ExxonMobil shook the neighborhood so forcefully that it left a crack down the wall of Dorsey’s house. In the aftermath and community uproar, the refinery refused to pay claims to the neighborhood, only honoring those on the west bank of the Mississippi because that area was downwind from any emissions. “It was like we didn’t even exist,” Dorsey said.
While the walls in Thomas’ house didn’t suffer similar damage, they are not without signs of the nearby refinery. On her dining room wall, right next to a framed picture of her daughter Sonjya, is a poster showing the total accident emissions at ExxonMobil from 2005-2008. “It’s a shame we have to live under these conditions,” she said.
From Thomas’ house, you can see straight under the interstate overpass, across the green, empty lots to the main entrance of ExxonMobil. The company set up a billboard right at the entrance. The sign workers see as they enter facility grounds features a target with the words “Whether at work or play … Make safety your #1 target!” On the other side, which workers see as they leave for the day, reads “School is in session. Follow all safety precautions.”
That’s because a pre-K school sits just a few blocks east and an elementary school several blocks north. One of the alarm systems set up to alert residents of a major accident at the refinery sits on the pre-K school’s grounds. But Thomas and her neighbor, Elizabeth Levy, claim it hasn’t been working since school started. “Out here, the alarms don’t go off,” Levy said. “They fix them everywhere else, but not here.”
Four of Levy’s grandchildren are dealing with asthma. She’s been in and out of the hospital a number of times. “I own Baton Rouge General now,” she joked.
“Ever since school started, they’ve been doing emergency tests (on all the alarms around the refinery) every first Wednesday of the month,” Levy said. “You can hear it off in the distance. They are working everywhere else but not here.”
Those alarms obviously weren’t working after the storm and residents paid the price.
“Many nights, we would just sit outside (after the storm) and just try to get through it,” said Dorsey. “We have to keep pushing ExxonMobil as a community and not stop.”
After the storm, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined ExxonMobil $5,000 for its emissions, stating that the delay in shutting down the plant until after the hurricane made landfall endangered workers. But the fee was later waived.
Thomas, Levy, Dorsey and others in the Istrouma community continue their push to create a safer community where the refinery reduces emissions and is held accountable for accidents. They are also working to bring the younger generation of residents into the conversation, so they can continue advocating for better emissions standards and emergency preparedness.