By Sam Howe, Petrochemical Accident Researcher
Hey y’all, my name is Sam Howe and I’m an intern with the Refinery Efficiency Initiative (REI) team. Last Friday, the REI team took a driving tour with Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club to learn more about the history of the areas surrounding the chemical plants and oil refineries in Louisiana, as well as learn more about the pollution in the area. On this tour, we followed the curves of the Mississippi River to the heart of plantation country. The Mississippi River, in many aspects, is the life-blood of Louisiana. Along this river, Louisiana was first settled; from it many communities, towns, and cities draw their water; it has brought commerce and economic growth to the state, but not all of this growth has been good for the people living in the communities near the river.
We started the tour on River Road at the end of St. Charles Ave heading upriver. Darryl pointed out to us the intake pipes for New Orleans water supply located on the levee next to the road; he described the purification process to us. The process removes dirt, sticks, debris from the water which then undergoes a chlorination process to kill any harmful bacteria that might be lurking in the water. While this process makes the water safe to drink it does not remove any of the chemical pollutants in the water. Pollutants such as benzene, atrazine, and many others still remain in the treated water; several of these chemicals are known carcinogens. These ubiquitous chemicals are released into the water by chemical plants and oil refineries further up the river after they have treated the water themselves.
We continued on River Road further up the river. As we went, Darryl pointed out all the docks for the refineries and chemical plants hidden from view by the levees. These docks allow for easy shipment of both finished and raw product from the plants via the river. He also pointed out the grain elevators that towered over and bridged the road to the facility on the other side. In some instances, these conveyors can be just as dangerous as the chemical plants and refineries due to flammability of grain dust.
Travelling along River road, one can still see the remnants of the plantations in the design of the chemical plant and oil refineries facilities; many still have the line of live oaks that were originally planted in front of the plantation’s main house along the front of River road. Eventually we reached the Bonnet Carre Spillway. From our vantage point on the river, we could see Shell Chemical West, the nuclear plant, the electric facility, and other chemical plants along with grain barges carrying their cargo upriver. Looking away from the view of the river, one sees the plant located next to the spillway with its row of live oaks right next to the main gate.
Crossing the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge on 310 over the Mississippi River, it’s a stark contrast to see the steam billowing from the vents and the pilot light for the flare in the chemical plant next to fields full of green sugarcane. We continued on down River Road, past many chemical plants until we reached Holy Rosary Cemetery. Looking out at the cemetery, one sees perfectly arranged tombs set in an impeccably kept grounds; one can tell it’s a place of reverence, a place that should be respected. The parishioners moved the church a few years ago to get away from the plant; the attentive eyes of the church’s windows have now been replaced with the glaring watch of the flare staring down at the hallowed ground. Many of these graves and tombs have been there for close to a hundred years. The chemical plant that now watches over them was never a conceived possibility for them.
Leaving Holy Rosary Cemetery, we continued our drive past the nuclear plant to plantation country. Darryl pointed out the lines of trees that marked the edges of the old plantations; many of the fenceline communities back up to these trees. We drove past Laura Plantation and Oak Alley, along with many other old, original homes in the area.
Darryl informed us that some of these homes plots of land actually continue right up the banks of the Mississippi unlike newer built homes, whose property lines end at the road before the levee. A community member here actually used this fact to prevent a grain facility (one that would have built grain elevators right over his neighborhood) from being built by refusing to sell his land at the river’s shore for their dock.
Everywhere we went on our drive; we saw the beauty of the land surrounding these chemical plants and oil refineries and could only imagine what the land had looked like before these massive complexes were built. Were they fields of sugarcane? Soybeans? In many instances, this was land that had belonged to the people living in what are the fenceline communities near these refineries and plants. These communities have been there since the end of the Civil War; typically they are small consisting of only about 4 streets or less of homes. The people who live on these streets are tight-knit; a true community in every sense of the word. This tour highlighted one basic and undeniable fact: the people were here first.