Our Toxic Neighbors

By Natalie Lirette, Petrochemical Accident Researcher

On June 14th, a year after the anniversary of the ExxonMobil Benzene spill where 31,000 pounds of the known carcinogen was released,  the Refinery Efficiency Initiative interns took a trip out to Baton Rouge to visit environmental leader Willie Fontenot. As we walked into the house ready to hear about his actions and love for the environmental world, the first thing I noticed was books. Books were everywhere, on every shelf, table, and chair. I knew we were in for a good time. Ready to hear about Mr. Fontenot’s widespread knowledge, not only from all the books he has read but from his life experiences, he began by pulling out a large stack of papers.

He started by telling us that just a day before a group of cyclists, making a trek from New Orleans to Houston, had stopped by to learn all about the toxicity of refineries. He thought he would share the same stories with us as well. Within the stack of papers were endless stories of how contamination and water pollution are ruining the bayous and affecting major waterways all over the world. Headlines read “Texas Fertilizer Plant Fell through Regulatory Cracks,” “Presence of Explosive Chemicals Often Kept Secret,” “Missouri River is sinking,” “Baton Rouge’s  Corroded, Overpolluting  Neighbor: Exxon Mobil,” just to name a few.  It was mind-blowing. What is happening to this world? The river is eroding, causing potential problems for a freshwater source used by many and this is happening because of us. We decide to dam the river and the result is that the river is losing its natural amount of sediment flow. And that’s just a dam. As Mr. Fontenot shared the stories about plants having explosive substances that their neighbors and other citizens do not know about caused a bit of anger. This is happening all over the place and the only way the people find out about the corruption of the plants and refineries they live near is when something explodes and people are injured, when people die, or when they experience serious health effects from these accidents.

After sharing with us many books he found to be worth reading and very informational (some contained gruesome pictures of oil and chemical spills in our waters), it was time to grab some lunch. But it was the ride to and from lunch that really struck a nerve. As we were driving, Mr. Fontenot pointed out all the refineries as we passed them, one being Exxon Mobil Refinery, the second largest oil refinery in the United States where they produce 500,000 barrels of crude oil daily. Louisiana’s coast is disappearing and an hour away stands part of the reason why. Continuing driving, Mr. Fontenot explained that this is supposed to be the Scenic Highway, that at one time the road was lined with bushes and flowers, green things. All we could see were chemical plants and refineries, a house here and there surrounded by metal fences and empty space. The refineries and plants had bought out a portion of the communities that used to live around them, but the rest remain living in the shadow of ExxonMobil and other plants and refineries.

The visit with Mr. Fontenot was a real pleasure. We were able to learn about the toxic side of Baton Rouge and the contamination in the country that we would not have known about or seen otherwise.

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