As they watched the sky, filled with fire and smoke, older residents of Garyville, Louisiana thought back to a half-century ago. It was a different time, before the sugar-cane fields lining the Mississippi River were replaced by the massive Marathon Refinery, lined with gleaming, puffing smokestacks.

Though Marathon was built in 1976, it is considered the last significant oil refinery built in the United States.

That’s partly because of community opposition to new refineries, a position that people in Garyville understood well last month.

“It’s hard to explain the mixed emotions that come with living in the conditions that we have been forced to live in here,” said Robert Taylor, who lives in the vicinity of the plant, in the community of Reserve. “Why are we designated as a sacrifice zone?”

Taylor grew up among the sugarcane fields of this part of St. John the Baptist Parish. The sugar mill where his parents worked once stood on the very spot where the Marathon Refinery was built.

During Taylor’s lifetime, the entire area switched focus, from cane to crude.

For decades now, he has fought the petrochemical plants here, in what’s become known as Cancer Alley. In 2015, Taylor founded the Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish, after a National Air Toxics Assessment revealed that residents of the parish have the highest lifetime cancer risk in the nation because of emissions of chloroprene and ethylene oxide from nearby plants.

Before Marathon opened 47 years ago, Taylor said, a small community called Lions stood on that plot of land. Townspeople would gather on Sundays at Zion Travelers Baptist Church, which had its own tidy little cemetery.

But in the mid-1970s, after a whir of pounded beams and sky-high metal towers, tied together by a maze of pipes, Marathon took over the grounds and built what became the nation’s second-largest refinery.

The nation was in the midst of an energy crisis and so Louisiana felt like it was coming to the country’s rescue. For the refinery’s grand opening in 1976, Archbishop Philip Hannan prayed over an audience that included Louisiana’s entire Congressional contingent along with Gov. Edwin Edwards, who said that the refinery represented the South stepping up for the entire nation, a duty that other regions had shirked. “For the past 10 years,” Edwards said, “the Northeast, which needs energy most, has refused to do anything to resolve our energy problem.”

Even today, no region is begging for new refineries in their communities. So, instead of pulling new permits – a process often contested by neighbors – existing refineries have chosen to expand out, into mega-refineries.

In 2009, the Garyville refinery embarked on a $3.9 billion expansion, which doubled its capacity to 596,000 barrels per day. More than a quarter of their budget came from $1 billion in tax-free Gulf Opportunity Zone bonds, meant to help Louisiana recover after Hurricane Katrina.

As the Marathon fire blazed, local schools closed so that students could evacuate. That afternoon, Latamia Lee (far right) stopped at East St. John High School to pick up her cousin, 10th grader Maknezi Thorne, second from left and her two children, 11th graders Kyron Lee and Enveah Lee. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens Credit: La'Shance Perry – The Lens / Environment – The Lens

Last month, as columns of dark-black smoke billowed above Marathon’s sprawling complex, neighbors worried that the whole place was gonna blow. 

Recently released documents from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality describe what happened: a “suspected pinhole leak” in the floor of a naphtha tank ignited. The fire soon engulfed a large portion of three gigantic in-ground storage tanks, containing naphtha, diesel fuel and vacuum gas oil, the LDEQ document said.

Nearly two weeks later, a small group of St. John neighbors gathered under vivid blue skies and wondered what pollutants the fire had left behind. 

For neighbors, Marathon now stands at the top of suspected emissions culprits. Other industrial neighbors have also long raised concern.

Less than a mile away stands another behemoth of industry, Denka Performance Elastomator’s neoprene facility. It’s the only plant in the nation that produces significant levels of chloroprene, which is associated with an increased cancer risk with long term exposure.

Over a lifetime, it’s unsafe for humans to breathe chloroprene emissions above 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. But within a mile of the Denka plant, just over 400 students attend the Fifth Ward Elementary School, where monitoring has routinely shown readings dozens of times above the EPA’s suggested limit. 

This week, neighbors and visitors gathered from the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice had little confidence in official accounts, after decades of rubber-stamped official reports. After every incident, the conclusion always seems to be the same: no matter how bad the leak, fire or explosion, all airborne emissions somehow stayed within factory fencelines. 

On Friday afternoon, August 25th, neighbors fled when parish officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for a two-mile radius surrounding the refinery. When the all-clear was given a day later, they returned, but with a certain weariness. They did not believe that authorities would protect anyone from released chemicals. 

“I think the government is doing a terrible job of protecting the people from these chemical plants,” Taylor said. 

Taylor believes that an emergency should have been declared earlier, rather than waiting 12 hours after the fire began. 

Just before 7 p.m. Thursday, August 24, Marathon officials had called Louisiana State Police to report a fire, after something went wrong while making a transfer from a half-full in-ground storage tank holding 67,000 barrels of naphtha, a highly flammable petrochemical that is gleaned from crude oil during the refining process.

By Friday afternoon, as the evacuation was ordered, the fire was blindingly bright, underneath thick black clouds of smoke.

Two injuries were reported from the fire and 10 firefighters were treated for severe heat stress as the blaze continued into Sunday. 

Over that weekend, some nearby residents reported aggravated asthma and other respiratory symptoms. Local students got one extra day off, on Monday. But all schools reopened on Tuesday – as if nothing had happened. 

On Monday, St. John Parish issued a Marathon update emphasizing, again, that air monitoring had detected “no off-site impacts.” All of the notices have now been deleted from the parish website.

“We get very little information about Marathon,” said Taylor. “They are controlling everything.”

“The parish acts as an industry protector,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “They’re trying to find out if people are going to die immediately. They’re not measuring for respiratory problems, headaches or longer-term illnesses from exposure.”

West Bank resists spread of industry

The Banner sisters, Dr. Joy Banner and Jo Banner, founders of the Descendants Project, in Fee-Fo-Lay, the cafe they run in Wallace, La., where the walls are lined with photos of the sisters’ ancestors. Last month’s court hearing was prompted by a case filed by the Descendants Project two years ago against St. John the Baptist, because of zoning that would allow the construction of a giant grain terminal in Wallace. The sisters believes that the grain terminal would change people’s way of life—while also endangering lives on the river’s West Bank. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

Ironically, on Friday, August 25 — the day that the fire was blazing at its height in Garyville — neighbors across the river were packing a courtroom, hoping to prevent their community from becoming the next Garyville.

Garyville, home to Marathon, lies on the east bank of the Mississippi River, where sugarcane plantations were sold off, one by one, to the petrochemical industry. Belching smoke stacks now dominate the landscape.

On the river’s east bank, the pair of cemeteries – Zion Travelers and Bishop – that remain from the community of Lions are fenced off from the community’s descendants, who were displaced from their homes by the plant’s construction. Now, they must ask the refinery’s permission to dig into family plots when a loved one passes away.

By contrast, the west bank of St. John Parish remains agricultural, largely removed from the industry’s spread along the east bank of the river. Residents want it to stay that way.  

For the August 25 court hearing, held in the parish seat of Edgard, people filled courtroom benches to combat the West Bank’s most immediate threat, a grain terminal proposed for Wallace, a small town that was founded by freed Black Union soldiers.

A company called Greenfield Louisiana has its eye on Wallace for a huge, industrial grain-processing development that would include 54 grain silos, a dock and a conveyer belt.

If built, the grain terminal would destroy the last untouched section of Louisiana’s “German Coast,” representing 300 years of agricultural tradition, sites with historic and archaeological importance and a delicate natural ecosystem, according to historians from the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation

Even the National Trust for Historic Preservation sees value in preserving the West Bank’s “remarkable and profoundly important cultural landscape … (which is) integral to telling the full history of our country,” according to Katherine Malone-France, the National Trust’s chief preservation officer.

Last month’s court hearing was prompted by a case filed two years ago against St. John the Baptist Parish by The Descendants Project, an organization founded to advocate for the descendants of people once enslaved in Louisiana’s river parishes.

Jo and Joy Banner, the twin sisters who founded the Descendants Project say that here, on the mostly rural west bank of the river, the terminal would change people’s way of life—while also endangering lives. They are determined to fight it.

Though filed only two years ago, the case has been 33 years in the making: it is a challenge to a corrupt, decades-old rezoning ordinance passed in 1990, which would allow Greenfield to build the grain elevator. The Descendants Project lawsuit asked the court – successfully – to nullify the ordinance.

In the 1990 ordinance, a large tract of rural land in Wallace was re-zoned to industrial use, in a move tied to the fortunes of former Parish President Lester Millet Jr. In 1996, Millet was sentenced to nearly five years in prison for his role in trying to help Formosa, a Tawainese corporation, obtain land in St. John Parish to build a rayon pulp factory.

The Formosa factory was never built. But for more than three decades, the land intended for the Formosa factory was zoned industrial. Then on August 4, Judge Sterling Snowdy struck down the ordinance. The land reverted back to its original, agricultural zoning. 

Celebration about the decision was short-lived, however. 

Soon afterward, the parish council announced plans to re-zone the land again, back to industrial status. The Banner sisters saw the council’s meeting agenda and alerted their lawyers, who successfully requested a temporary restraining order (TRO) that prevented the parish from “affirming or acting under” the nullified ordinance.

But the parish council seemed unconcerned with the TRO. On the following day, Tuesday, August 22, the council introduced a resolution to reinstate the industrial zoning, which was passed by a 6-3 vote. The Descendants Project argued that the resolution was in direct violation of the court’s restraining order.

Three days later, on Friday, August 25, Judge Nghana Lewis extended the TRO, barring the parish from rezoning the land under the old ordinance. 

Descendants Project lawyer William Most also filed a motion of contempt for the parish’s actions. Arguments about that motion will be heard before the court on October 6. 

The potential rezoning of this land poses “a direct threat to our community members and to the national significance of this land and its descendants,” Jo Banner said.

Measuring what is in the air – or not measuring at all

An observer stands on the less-developed West Bank of the Mississippi River and watches the Marathon Refinery blaze across the river. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens Credit: La'Shance Perry / Environment – The Lens

Marathon’s Los Angeles Refinery continuously monitors 17 pollutants. They monitor benzene every two weeks. That’s because they’re required to do so.

All of the refinery’s air monitoring data is available to the public in real time, in accordance with South Coast Air Quality Management District Rule 1180. 

In Louisiana, Marathon’s refinery likely exudes similar pollutants into the air. “Oil refineries put out all kinds of things that we know are really harmful,” said Caitlion Hunter, an attorney at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. 

In other places, refineries are strongly regulated because of those known dangers, Hunter said. But not in Garyville. “Louisiana doesn’t want to take that step, to make sure people are safe,” they said.

But Los Angeles is an anomaly. In most places, air-monitoring values are not simultaneously released to the public. 

In Garyville, benzene, a known carcinogen, is the only chemical whose monitoring data is available to the public. But not in real time. It is only reported every two weeks and doesn’t become public immediately. However, a field interview document from the Garyville fire incident shows that benzene was detected downwind of the fire during the night, hours before the surrounding area was evacuated. 

An-air quality chart from showing increased emissions on the day of the fire measured by a monitor in Garyville. The orange bar shows the elevated levels that prompted an air-quality alert, issued on the day of the fire.

Looking back at the Garyville naphtha fire, it’s clear that measurements of fine inhalable particulate matter showed a dramatic increase on that Friday, according to a PurpleAir monitor operated by Public Lab. Data from AirNow, which maps the official U.S. Air Quality Index, shows that ozone and particle pollution rose to “unhealthy for sensitive groups” levels during the fire. 

Ozone pollution, often called “smog,” aggressively attacks lung tissue. The heart and lungs can be harmed by particle pollution: small particles cause the most damage as they can penetrate deep into the lungs or even enter the bloodstream. 

News updates from the parish said that three different organizations found no off-site impact during independent air monitoring: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and an undisclosed private, third-party contractor, reported by to be the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH). 

CTEH has been accused repeatedly of downplaying health risks; most recently during an investigation into the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment. In Louisiana, CTEH has been accused of concealing public health risks during investigations into the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and after a post-Katrina refinery spill in Chalmette.

The Mississippi River is also hard-hit by polluters like the Marathon Refinery. Recently, an Environmental Integrity Project analysis of the half-billion gallons of wastewater that drain from the nation’s refineries each day found that the Garyville plant contributes two toxic metals to the river that can mutate fish. On a national scale, the Marathon Refinery here ranked fourth highest in the nation for its nickel discharges and eighth for its releases of selenium.

Along with water, firefighters last month used a chemical foam to smother the blaze that cannot be treated in Marathon’s normal wastewater treatment equipment, according to a recent document from the LDEQ. Mobilized, special units have been brought in to treat the accumulated wastewater in the firewater pond. 

After treatment, the wastewater will be released into the Mississippi River.

The story was corrected to reflect that it was the Banner sisters, not their lawyers, who saw the St. John Parish council meeting agenda about plans to reinstate the nullified zoning ordinance.