Thoughts from Thanksgiving: Learning about my Home from a Distance

By Ellen Dean, Petrochemical Accident Research Assistant

I grew up in Shreveport, a city in north Louisiana that is home to an oil refinery called Calumet Lubricants. Ironically, I never had reason to give the refinery much thought until I began interning with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. I started interning this fall, and I never could have imagined how much I would learn about my hometown, Shreveport, from a nonprofit in New Orleans.

Growing up in Shreveport, Calumet was never the subject of serious discussion around me. I most often heard people speak of Calumet in terms of their employment with the refinery. My interaction with Calumet thus far has mostly been limited to seeing tall silver structures, bright lights, and smoke, as it can be viewed from Interstate 20. I grew up in a neighborhood called South Highlands, which is surprisingly proximal to Calumet, yet still dramatically different from the neighborhood that Calumet occupies. No one I knew was ever concerned about the refinery, no one criticized its operations, and, frankly, no one cared much that it existed, so long as it continued to occupy the backbone of our local and state economy. No one from my neighborhood, school, church, family, or social circles even knew to be concerned.Recently, however, my world was turned upside down, thanks to the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s Refinery Accident Database. I learned that chemical air pollution from Calumet has been contaminating the neighborhood around it, and that a group of brave residents, Residents for Air Neutralization, has been fighting for years to achieve a common ground of respect with their neighbor, Calumet. While I was home for Thanksgiving, I drove the 12 minutes from my home in South Highlands to the RAN office, which, suitably, is a only a few blocks from Calumet. By spending just an hour with three RAN members—Velma White, RJ Bowman, and Ronesha Johnson—my objective was re-confirmed. Calumet has chosen to assume the role of big, bad industrial giant, resisting every effort that RAN makes to meet with a representative from the company human to human, citizen to business administrator. It is unjust that this environmental abuse is taking place, and it is shocking that people from outside of this neighborhood are unaware. I have recently realized that I lived the first 18 years of my life less than four miles from a refinery that has been abusing its economic power at the expense of people in a low-income neighborhood that share a fenceline with it.

In light of this mind-boggling enlightenment, I felt there was no other choice than to dedicate my semester project to assisting RAN. My personal project is exactly that—personal—because I am eager to prove to RAN and its members that someone from the other side of the interstate is aware of their fight, as well as ready to lend a hand and spread the awareness. The oil industry possesses incredible clout in the state of Louisiana, but that power should be balanced by responsibility and accountability to both humanity and the environment, which unfortunately, is often not the case. Therefore, I join RAN in its bold endeavor to attain environmental justice. I believe in my hometown, and I believe that, if we can spread the awareness to other neighborhoods in the city, the quality of life can be improved in this neighborhood.

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