By Rie Ma, Social Entrepreneurship VISTA
The oil industry loves Louisiana… really.
During recent strategic planning conversations at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, discussion turned to the question of why the fenceline communities are all but invisible. To clarify, fenceline communities are those neighbors who live closest to the oil refineries in our region, often able to look out of their windows into the refineries themselves – literally separated by only a chain link fence. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s mission is to support these communities’ use of grassroots action to free themselves from the negative health and economic consequences of their proximity to poison, a tactic which has been effective for communities all over the country in response to a wide array of problems.
So what is the problem here? For some reason, these communities who suffer the most at the hands of the oil industry in the form of regular exposure to harmful chemicals (including known carcinogens) are extra ordinarily disconnected from each other and unaware of (or actively misinformed about) their risks – despite the fact that these neighborhoods are legion, spread up and down Cancer Alley.
As we explored possible barriers, an ugly echo came through our conversation: fenceline communities are in an abusive relationship with the oil industry. All of a sudden, we were wondering how we could not have noticed earlier the way the industry isolates its neighbors, community from community and resident from resident, by addressing any issues as an individual’s problems, not something for the community or region to answer holistically. Why didn’t we recognize the communities’ numbness to the damage they undergo? How did we miss understanding the way the industry limits communities’ mobility and economy, effectively controlling their behavior? Did we really not make the connection to the fact that the oil industry literally sees fenceline neighbors as “property?”
The oil industry is very good at showing the friends and family of these communities what they want to see: a new park, job creation (albeit dangerous ones), and a mutually beneficial relationship. But as with many abusive relationships, what the public sees and what happens the rest of the time are two very different things. We know that the oil industry averages a refinery accident a day, and we know that the communities who live near them experience regular health issues as a result. We know our region has more cases of cancer and more deaths from cancer proportionately than the rest of the country. But when the cameras come out, we just see the industry telling us about the new music festival they are sponsoring, their arm possessively gripping the Mississippi while Louisiana smiles and pretends everything is all right.
I apologize if any victims of personal abuse take offense at my language, but I find these parallels too glaring to go unremarked.