“How did you get here?” A man bluntly asks after I tell him I’m at his doorstep to protect our community from industrial pollution. “We carpooled” I answer. He proceeds to defend our larger corporate neighbors, refineries and petrochemical facilities that line the Mississippi River. He touts the jobs and economic benefit they provide. “Don’t you think that these people are concerned about safety?” I agree in believing that they are, but talk about the need for responsibility for our greater public health. “Well, why don’t we send all of our jobs and pollution over to China?” he states while raising his voice.
I assure him that the industry is vital to Louisiana, but we should not have to bear the burden of national consumption. I tell him that the schools around ExxonMobil Baton Rouge have the worst air quality in the country. He’s mad; mad about our economy, mad about congress not doing enough, mad that I think his industry is being demonized. I’m not changing his mind tonight. I hand him a flier for our Refinery Accident Database, encouraging him to enter his zip code to see the pollution in our area as I wish him well and move on to his neighbor. I remind myself that it is people like him who strengthen my resolve in spreading our message, while others are carried with me as an inspiration.
Over in Algiers: “I was a safety inspector for Shell Norco in the late 90s. We used to open up the catalytic cracker and wash it out into the river. If you had a $50,000-a-year job, would you risk it by reporting?” I could feel that passion in his words and the dilemma of his past. I was walking to his neighbor’s house and he delivered the letter to me, “Thank you, and keep up the good work” Even though he couldn’t get involved financially, he understood the necessity of what we are doing. He and his wife wrote an articulate letter to ExxonMobil’s refinery manager, urging him to consider our children’s future in the company’s decisions.
On a hot September day in Uptown, I was explaining that the majority of refinery pollution happens during storms – hurricanes, tropical storms, even just heavy rain. The man replies with a chuckle: “I’m actually leaving for a rig tomorrow, off the coast of Trinidad.” He invites me up to his apartment while he gets his checkbook. “You think things are bad in Louisiana, you can’t imagine what happens when we get into international waters.” I thank him graciously, leaving with a handshake and a “thank you for your work” ringing in my ears.
Our membership, the people who live in refinery communities in Louisiana, is an incredible diverse group of individuals, with complicated opinions about the industry that surrounds them. These stories are just a sample of what our Community Organizers hear every day. They are a powerful testament to the importance of the work that we do that would not be possible without the support of our members. I hope you will consider getting involved today.