By LABB staff member Benjamin Leger
Four vehicles were parked behind me, blocking my only way out on a dead-end road. The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Department, Baton Rouge Police Department and two ExxonMobil security vehicles. Their lights were flashing.
What’s funny is we were just talking about what we would do if this happened. Now we were about to find out.
But let’s backtrack a bit. This was Saturday, Oct. 23. LSU was about to play Auburn, and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade was about to host a meeting in the Istrouma community in North Baton Rouge, just outside the gates of ExxonMobil – the largest refinery in the state and one of the largest in the country.
LABB was hoping to encourage participation in a health study to assess illnesses and problems Istrouma residents have and if those are related to the refinery’s accidents and chemical emissions (ExxonMobil dumped more than 4 million pounds of pollutants on the community from 2005-2009, according to LABB’s Refinery Accident Database).
We invited a Loyola student to photograph the meeting and, having gotten to Baton Rouge early, I decided to show her the neighborhoods closest to the refinery.
As in most cases where refineries encroach on communities, expanding and swelling to the fenceline of residential areas, the residents often have no choice but to move out. The refinery scooped up the property for cheap, bulldozed the homes and left nothing but trees, grass, stop signs and decaying streets. It’s a green space after the fact, a buffer zone without an actual planning model that led to it.
I thought it would be great to photograph the refinery looming behind empty lots. Also, ExxonMobil created an “Educational Trail” that meandered through some of the empty lots, complete with signage for the local flora like Eastern Red Cedar and the Pecan tree. Unfortunately, there was no signage pointing out the homes that used to sit there or what happened to the original residents.
After about 20 minutes photographing around the educational trail, we moved to another neighborhood of about five square blocks right up against the southeastern fenceline of ExxonMobil. There were maybe four or five houses left in the neighborhood.
We parked down a dead-end road that slowly disappeared into greenery near the refinery fence. We got out and took a few more photos, then hopped back in with only 15 minutes to spare before the community meeting started.
ExxonMobil security was the first to arrive. The truck pulled up behind me and the lights came on. A man in a shirt that read “ExxonMobil Security” walked up to my window and asked what we were doing there and why we were taking pictures.
He asked to see our driver’s licenses, we handed them over and he walked back to his truck. “I don’t feel comfortable giving that guy my driver’s license,” I said, turning to my partner. He wasn’t a police officer, and as far as we were concerned, we were on a public road. Though we both agreed it was probably best to comply, and in hindsight, it was the better idea.
In a moment, a Sheriff’s Department vehicle pulled up, the officer came to my window and asked me to step out of the vehicle. Then BRPD showed up and another ExxonMobil security vehicle behind that. At this point, what was left of the neighborhood was coming out of their homes to watch the scene unfold.
The officer asked to see my camera. I worried he’d start deleting photos, but he handed it back after I explained why we were there and about the meeting we had scheduled. “So, do you have something against Exxon?” the security officer interjected. No, I replied, we’re just trying to educate the community on what chemicals are being emitted at the refinery, based on what ExxonMobil itself reports to the EPA and LDEQ.
The sheriff’s officer explained that the road we were on was private property, which came as a shock to me. “All of these streets are private?” I asked. “They are all owned by Exxon,” he nodded, waving his hands in every direction. “Exxon bought them all up when they bought all the properties. They own the roads. They maintain them.”
“But what about the houses?” I asked, pointing to the homes still occupied. “You’re saying they are using private streets?”
“No,” he corrected. “Where you see a house is a public road. Where you see empty lots is all private.”
Did I lose you there? Because he lost me. So following that logic, on one strip of road where two houses are separated by an empty lot, the portions of the road in front of the houses is public and maintained by the city, but the portion of the road between the houses is private and maintained by the refinery. To get from one house to the other, you are trespassing on refinery property.
Consequently, Google Maps Street View covers the exact spot where we had been questioned. So obviously, we weren’t the only ones who took it for a public street.
It gets better. When I said we had just come from the educational trail, the officer informed us that was also private land. Never mind the sign right off the road saying “Welcome to the ExxonMobil Educational Trail.” As inviting as that sounds, it’s not for you to use.
In the end, the officer and ExxonMobil security took all our information, including license and registration and several LABB business cards I handed out. We were again informed this was private land, but never once did the term “Homeland Security” come up (something we hear often from people who’ve had their cameras’ memory cards deleted after taking photos of a refinery).
But security is almost a laughably hard task to pull off at Louisiana refineries, which are in such close proximity to the citizenry. Drive down River Road between Norco and New Sarpy. You can toss a Coke bottle out your car window and hit a refinery or even the pipelines that cross the highway to the river. At a ball field in New Sarpy, a pop fly could easily end up over the refinery fence. On a day when there’s a huge flare at Motiva, take Prospect Avenue (which links Airline Highway to River Road and cuts right between Motiva and Valero) and roll down your windows. You can actually feel the heat coming from the flare high above you.
Or, head down to Chalmette, where the road to the ferry terminal passes just a few yards from Chalmette Refining’s equipment.
Better yet, check it all out on Google Maps. Look down at the neighborhoods pressed against refineries in the state. Who is facing a bigger safety issue here? The refineries or the residents that wake up every morning in the shadow of a huge chemical plant?
Some would argue the refineries couldn’t have anticipated growth and urban development. But in most cases, the neighborhoods were there long before the refineries. The plants slowly swallowed up the cheap land between them and should have had the foresight to plan for necessary buffer zones, if not for the company’s safety and security, then for the prevention of accidents that could cause them a load of fines and claims in the future.
Still, it doesn’t seem like any refinery is forced by regulation to create a buffer zone or at least maintain one when expanding. Who’s to say the green space between Istrouma and ExxonMobil won’t one day be the site of a tank farm or more refining machinery? What’s stopping them?
In any case, once the security vehicles drove away, we left the neighborhood and made it to the site of our community meeting. During the meeting, LABB Program Manager Anna Hrybyk described actions residents should take when they witness an accident at the refinery or see a huge flare.
One method is to take pictures or video of it.
That’s assuming ExxonMobil doesn’t force you to delete the evidence of their accident.