Report outlines how chemical plants built disproportionately in Black communities
After plotting the sites of more than 100 plants against Census data, a clear pattern emerged: most of the facilities sat in areas that were 40% to 60% Black. Three decades later, the center mapped the chemical corridor again and found that the trend has only continued along the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Thirty years ago, a report called out Louisiana’s petrochemical industry for building plants in areas with a large Black population.
On Monday, a new update to the report found that little had changed, and new plants in the state’s chemical corridor are still disproportionately planned near Black communities, according to an analysis by a New Orleans-based environmental justice nonprofit.
The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice’s new report builds on its research from the 1990s, mapping out locations of polluting facilities in the chemical corridor.
After plotting the sites of more than 100 plants against Census data, a clear pattern emerged: most of the facilities sat in areas that were 40% to 60% Black.
Three decades later, the center mapped the chemical corridor again and found that the trend has only continued along the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Overall the amount of pollution has decreased, but plants are still being planned in areas with a large Black population, and the risk of cancer and other health problems remains high.
The region itself also has a higher proportion of Black people than in the ‘90s, according to 2020 Census data. In areas like St. Charles Parish, the majority of plants sat in mostly white communities in 1990, but now the biggest polluters are “primarily” in areas with a 52% to 65% Black population.
“Nothing has changed. The data is still there. In fact, it’s getting worse,” said Deep South Center of Environmental Justice founder Beverly Wright during a news conference Monday.
The 2023 update to those 1990 maps analyzed Environmental Protection Agency data on greenhouse gas and toxic air emissions overlaid with demographic data. The center worked with Intellectual Concepts, LLC to compile it.
The report examined the nine parishes within the corridor as well as Calcasieu Parish in southwest Louisiana – the state’s second-largest hotspot for air pollution. Parish by parish, the report looks at the concentration of plants, how many emissions are released and whether they’re located in minority or poor communities.
Within the chemical corridor and Calcasieu, there are 170 plants that report emissions to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory – the dataset used by the environmental justice nonprofit for the report. About 149 plants report their greenhouse gas emissions to the EPA. Across the chemical corridor alone, there are more than 200 industrial plants.
Wright said while the amount of pollution has declined overall in Louisiana since her first report in 1990, Black communities in the chemical corridor are still disproportionately burdened by air pollution.
“Our people are inundated, even in majority-white parishes,” she said.
Several peer-reviewed studies support the report’s findings. A 2022 study published in the journal, Environmental Challenges, by two Tulane Environmental Law Clinic scientists found that the siting of industrial facilities isn’t driven by the availability of infrastructure, like pipelines or railways, nor the availability of a workforce. Their model found that the disparity of pollution exposure was associated with race.
And Wright’s report suggested the disparity could get worse. Of the 29 plants proposed or under construction in Louisiana, 24 are planned in the state’s so-called Cancer Alley as well as in Calcasieu Parish.
Of the 18 future facilities in the chemical corridor, at least nine are planned in census tracts that are mostly Black. Most are planned in Ascension Parish, which already produces the most pollution of all 11 parishes in the report. Based on data from the Louisiana Tumor Registry, the parish already experiences a cancer rate six times higher than the average rate for a community that size, according to the report.
In the past, Louisiana officials and petrochemical industry proponents have said cancer rates aren’t elevated within “Cancer Alley,” even if the risk is – also pointing to annual reports from the tumor registry. Industry groups have also said the companies who operate the facilities don’t pose a threat to public health.
The report comes as billions of federal dollars have begun to go toward addressing long-standing environmental disparities through the Biden administration’s Justice40 mandate. Private entities have also started funneling money into addressing pollution from industrial plants, including the launch of a new $85 million campaign funded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg to stop petrochemical expansion on the Gulf Coast.
Wright said she hopes the updated report will spur more action than it did in the 90s as more interest and money flows into environmental justice communities across the country.
“My hope is that we are at the beginning of seeing a change,” she said. “I can tell you this: There will be a change in Louisiana in terms of our stepping up, our efforts to mobilize and advocate for a cleaner environment in the state and the protection of our communities.”