In spite of the important coverage the Lens has given to the cancer-causing emissions of petrochemical plants in St. James and St. John Parishes, most Louisiana readers must learn what’s going on from the national press.
Recently, I have had to learn from The New York Times and the Huffington Post the latest details of the disaster. Sharon Lerner—a distinguished environmental reporter, in her June 22nd Times op-ed—pointed out that in St. John the rate of cancer-causing air pollution is 800 per million people; whereas the rate nationwide is 30 per million. On July 9th, environmental scientist Wilma Subra, quoted in The Huffington Post, made it clear that if the proposed Formosa Plant is built it will become the state’s largest emitter of ethylene oxide and the second largest emitter of benzene—both known carcinogens.
On May 30, a Thursday, I left New Orleans in a school bus to join about a hundred activists in a five-day protest march. Our target was the 200 petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. The fumes from the plants are sickening and killing nearby residents — and some of us farther downstream. The strip along the Mississippi, once called Cancer Alley, is now called Death Alley by the protesters.
But will Louisiana, beholden as it is to Big Oil and the chemical industry, ever get serious about cleaning up Death Alley? We marched in the faith that someday common sense and human decency would prevail.
We began our march in Reserve. On the first day, as on the days that followed, we walked many hours in 90 degree-plus heat and when we needed to, we rode in the bus or accompanying cars to our destinations. The bus picked up those who live in New Orleans at 7:30 each morning and returned us each evening.
The key leaders in our effort were Sharon Lavigne, director of Rise St. James, a group of upriver activists, and Robert Taylor, Director of the Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish. The residents of St. James and St. John’s Parishes—90 percent black—are among those who suffer from the deadly fumes released from the chemical plants. Lavigne, Taylor and scores of residents spoke of the cancer deaths of so many family members, deaths that epidemiologists link to petrochemical emissions.
Justice and Beyond, a black-led, racially mixed activist group in New Orleans, has also been deepening its understanding of what’s going on in communities near the chemical plants. Our moderators, Pastor Greg Manning, Sylvia McKinzie, and longtime civil-rights leader, Pat Bryant helped put together the protest march. All along the way, we kept hearing heart-wrenching stories from the many residents walking with us.
When we stopped to make a prayer circle, Lavigne asked everyone who lost a loved one to emissions in St. James or St. John parishes to say the names. At least a hundred were uttered, reflecting the cancer rate along this part of the river. This is the price we have been paying so that the owners of the chemical plants and their investors can become richer and richer.
We sang freedom songs and chanted, “Shut it down, shut it down,” as we passed by the Mosaic plant and the Denka-DuPont plant. (While DuPont sold the plant to Denka, they still own the land.) And our hollering and singing only grew louder at the site where Formosa plans to add significantly to the toxic pollution.
For hours after each day, I was still singing our songs, especially this: “Victory is mine, victory is mine. I told Satan to get thee behind…” For many of the marchers, Satan was not only the plant owners and managers, but also Governor John Bel Edwards who has supported the chemical industries by granting huge amounts of tax relief and with no apparent support for humanitarian relief for the “people along the river.”
I have a different view of the governor. In spite of his unforgivable stand in support of the chemical plants, he has done important things for all of Louisiana, such as helping workers stay employed. He is a “saint” compared to his inept predecessor, Bobby Jindal, whose two-terms as governor left the state basically bankrupt. But then I don’t live along the Mississippi, with family members dying so prematurely.
Residents, environmentalists, and activist groups like Justice and Beyond are making these six demands: 1) No new plants in the Mississippi River parishes, 2) Ban industrial emissions within five miles of all public areas, 3) Either limit the release of chloroprene emissions at Denka to the recommended limit or shut Denka down, 4) Shut Mosaic down and remove the adjacent mountain of its toxic waste — the “stack” — that now poses a severe public health risk all the way to New Orleans and our drinking water supply, 5) Cover all health-care costs incurred by residents for illnesses caused or exacerbated by exposure to industrial pollution, 6) End the industrial tax exemption program.
I was impressed with the diversity of the marchers — not just our racial diversity, but also the variety of our backgrounds and economic situations. Besides the residents of St. John’s and St. James, some of them plant workers, there were leaders from black organizations including the NAACP and the Christian Unity Baptist Church. A particularly welcome addition to our ranks was the East St. John High School basketball team, brought to the march by their coach.
Marchers included environmentalists, marching alongside people more focused on racial injustice and economic inequity. Among the environmentalists were those affiliated with 350.org, a group allied with others seeking to move the world economy beyond fossil fuels and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, headed by Anne Rolfes, a key leader in the March. There were also young libertarians, some who just heard about the March and joined us, and then there were old-time warriors like me, a white man with my Episcopalian clergy collar protruding above my “Rise St. James” T-shirt.
Over and over again at our rest stops and in the churches that welcomed us along the way, Pastor Manning prayed aloud for all of us, prayed that the plant owners and the governor would have a change of heart. He prayed that all of the marchers would gain strength from knowing that God is with us and leading us. “God has given us this good land,” Manning said, “and we are just taking back what God has given us—the safe air, the safe water, the safe soil.”
I realized from various conversations along the way that most of the young white marchers were not people of religious faith, but they appreciated all the God-talk because, whether there is a God or not, they know as well as any of us the importance of what we are doing and the power that somehow has been given to all of us to change things for the good. The unifying mantra: “Death to Death Alley!”
Pat Bryant came to the March with his daughter and two young granddaughters. They were carrying signs that said, “Please don’t kill the children. We want to live, too.” Bryant, whom I consider the strongest civil-rights leader in New Orleans today, gave us short history lessons as we stopped for rest along the way. He told of the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and how he, like King, was arrested numerous times for his protests. He told of similar marches in the late 1980s and 1990s that were successful in preventing Formosa from building a plant on the nearby Whitney Plantation, today a controversial, though well-meaning, museum of slavery.
As we walked along various highways and roads, singing and chanting, sometimes we were the only people around. It didn’t matter if no one saw or heard us. The march itself was renewing our sense of community across social and racial barriers.
I was encouraged by the CBS-TV crew who documented the march to be aired on an evening show, though they did not tell us when, and I am not sure this will happen. They had already spent three days with Robert Taylor, whose wife is suffering from a deadly cancer while their daughter and two of her former high school classmates battle an extremely rare and debilitating autoimmune disease.
Our plan from the start was to walk across both the Sunshine Bridge and the Mississippi River Bridge outside of Baton Rouge. When we were forbidden to walk over either bridge, my longtime friend, the esteemed Loyola University civil rights lawyer Bill Quigley, protested on our behalf before a state Supreme Court judge in Baton Rouge.
To support Bill, we took the bus to Baton Rouge and sat in court as he testified. He made a powerful argument before the judge, but our appeal was turned down — by an African-American judge, as it happens. We were informed that if any of us tried to cross the bridge, we would face felony charges with a possible sentence of 15 years.
At the foot of the huge Sunshine Bridge, we knelt and prayed for our cause under the watchful eyes of about 30 local and state police officers. Facing the strong probability of a felony arrest and possible 15-year jail sentences, we did not cross the bridge, “Not this time,” Bryant said, “but our time will come and soon.”
From there, marchers again took the bus to Baton Rouge to confront Edwards at the heavily guarded Governor’s Mansion. He never appeared, but our large group chanted our slogans and sang our freedom songs—and announced our plans for a second march — 10 days, this time — two or three weeks before this fall’s elections. One of our chants was especially loud: “We vote, we vote, we vote, and until you change, we don’t vote for you.”
Even though Edwards ducked our protest, we delivered a letter alerting him to our demands and advising that on the following Monday, June 3, between 12:30 and 2:30, we would be in the visiting room outside of his office in the Capitol to discuss the issues of grave concern to the state economy and, indeed, to the very lives of our citizens. Once again, he failed to appear.
Lavigne had the last word on Saturday evening: “We live in a 24-hour-a-day gas chamber empowered by the EPA, the DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) and laws of man. But the laws of God say we have a right to clean air, clean water and clean land. To protect our God-given right to breathe, we must violate any law and power that says we cannot march across the Sunshine Bridge and the Mississippi. Not today but soon.”
So what are we to make of our five days in Death Alley? That we failed because we did not storm the bridge and wind up in jail or the hospital? We are seeing momentum build in the national media. Will it continue? Will the governor, the state press, and other policy members finally feel the heat and respond positively to our six demands?
I am not very hopeful that the people of Louisiana will insist on stopping those cancer-causing deaths in the river parishes. But I know this much for sure: At 80-plus years, I hope the rest of my days will be filled with the kind of love and the shared commitment to justice that we experienced over the five days we are now calling the Big March.
William Barnwell’s recent book, “Angels in the Wilderness,” was named Book of the Year in the Indie Book Awards inspirational non-fiction category. He tells more about his ministry to Angola inmates in a previous book: “Called to Heal the Brokenhearted: Stories from Kairos Prison Ministry International.”
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens Founder Karen Gadbois.