As the Environmental Protection Agency moves to curb the amount of cancer-causing pollution spewed out by 218 of the country’s largest oil and chemical plants, environmental leaders and Black residents in some Southern states say the proposal doesn’t go far enough.
Roughly two-thirds of these plants are sprinkled across Texas and Louisiana, where many of the country’s earliest Black communities developed as slavery ended. Residents say the Biden-Harris administration’s proposal doesn’t adequately address myriad damages that have sometimes led to the complete erasure of their communities.
“Anything that can be done to make things better is a good thing, but the problem is that they did not go far enough,” said John Beard, executive director of the Port Arthur Community Action Network. “Do you know how many funerals we have to go to for our friends, neighbors, and relatives?”
The proposal, announced earlier this month, outlines cuts of more than 6,000 tons of toxic air pollution annually, significantly reducing the cancer risk for tens of thousands of Americans. And although the plan’s impact may drastically improve the life outcomes of future generations, it offers little reprieve for those living in the shadow of the petrochemical industry today.
“These companies count dollars and cents rather than human lives,” Beard added. “If they would’ve done this 30 years ago, think of the people that would have been saved.”
The EPA estimates that the proposed cuts of pollutants such as benzene and ethylene oxide will lead to a 96% decrease in cancer risk for residents living in the shadow of these plants, costing polluters more than $1.5 billion to get their operations and technology into compliance. The new rules will target the way companies burn off chemical byproducts through flaring events and impose harsher standards for more concealed forms of emissions through storage and leaks.
In many cases, residents like Herbert Rigmaiden have lived through the decimation of their neighborhoods and seen family members get sick or die. They’ve also had their farms razed and watched disease ravage their animals.
The 88-year-old lives in a desolate community outside of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and takes care of his 85-year-old brother, Raymond, who has Parkinson’s disease. Rigmaiden often spends his days washing, feeding, and dressing his brother. A 2023 study found the debilitating illness is associated with a chemical commonly emitted from petrochemical plants.
As a young man, Rigmaiden also witnessed how cancer cut his mother’s life short, explaining how it spread throughout her body in a matter of a few months.
And years ago, he was forced to put down 18 of his cattle, who were all painstakingly consumed by cancer.
What’s different about this EPA approach?
The move underscores a new community-centered approach taken by President Joe Biden’s EPA head, Michael Regan, who is the first Black man to hold the position.
“I pledged to prioritize and protect the health and safety of this community and so many others that live in the shadows of chemical plants,” Regan said when announcing the proposal in La Place, Louisiana, a majority-Black city where residents have a risk of developing cancer that is 32 times the EPA’s acceptable limit.
“I’m proud that this proposal would help deliver on that commitment,” he continued.
For the first time, the agency conducted a “community risk assessment” to inform residents of the benefits and consequences of the new proposal. The assessment analyzed the cancer risk from all facilities within 6 miles of the 218 plants affected by the new rules, considering how environmental racism and racist zoning policies have left certain areas home to dozens of plants at a time.
The analysis found 105,000 people living within the assessment zone exposed to a cancer risk that the agency considers “unacceptable.” The EPA considers the acceptable cancer risk from air pollution to be 1-in-10,000, meaning one in 10,000 people are expected to develop cancer because of the air they breathe, regardless of their health and familial predispositions.
Five plants will be subject to the EPA’s new rules in the majority-Black southeastern Texas city of Port Arthur, where Beard lives. Certain neighborhoods in the city of 55,000 have a cancer risk from air pollution that is 1 in 53. That is 190 times higher than the EPA’s “acceptable” cancer risk. Given his home’s extreme risks for decades, he is not sold on the long-term benefits of the emissions cuts now.
“I like to put it this way,” he said, “‘what’s the difference between drinking a gallon of poison or a couple of cups?’”
The petrochemical industry and the ‘afterlife’ of slavery
Along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and New Orleans, communities of formerly enslaved people thrived for centuries on fishing and farming — until the petrochemical industry moved in, trapping them under a new oppressive system.
Today, residents in the region, which is 40% Black and home to more than 200 petrochemical plants, are diagnosed with cancer at a rate between 7 and 50 times higher than the rest of the country. Roughly 40 plants within Cancer Alley will be subjected to the EPA’s new rules.
The largest slave revolt in U.S. history took place in what is now known as Norco, Louisiana, in January 1811. Hundreds of enslaved people, most without weapons, worked to drive dozens of white plantation owners 25 miles east to New Orleans. In the years since, the consequential piece of American history has been overshadowed by the petrochemical industry, which, starting in the early 1900s, began slowly building on top of a thriving Black neighborhood. The city’s current name even has its roots in oil with Norco being the acronym for the New Orleans Refining Co., the first oil company to set up shop there. The plant, now owned by Shell, will fall under the EPA’s new regulations.
The area, which was once majority Black, has had its share of Black residents dwindle to less than 10%, with many residents taking buyouts well below market value just to escape. For others, like the Hawkins family, history makes it hard to leave.
“A lot about our own culture is lost, because we really don’t have a lot of documentation to go back and we’re told our history is not that important,” said Audrey Hawkins, a 78-year-old grandmother who lives about half a mile from the refinery. “But we had a really thriving community that deserved to be preserved.”
In Louisiana, it’s normalized for cancer to spread throughout your family line, said Jo Banner, co-founder and director of The Descendants Project, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and protect the “health, land, and lives of the Black descendant community” located in Louisiana’s River Parishes.
“Of course, I have family members who have cancer; not even in their 50s, men getting breast cancer, which is one of the side effects of these chemicals,” Banner said. “And in addition to cancer rate, I’m seeing Parkinson’s, asthma, and anxiety.”
It was the institutionalization of the destruction of her home and its inhabitants that drove Banner and her twin sister, Joy Banner, to start their nonprofit, which has been successful in halting a $400 million industrial plant from being built next to their family’s land, instituted models for collective land ownership, and been vocal in calls for climate reparations.
The work, Banner says, is to disrupt the direct line she’s noticed between slavery and the region’s concentration of life-threatening industries and how it has altered how people and communities interact.
“Formerly enslaved and historically Black communities have been targeted for these toxic facilities,” Banner said. “There has been this idea forever that if you live here, you’re supposed to be beaten and tired, and willing to sacrifice everything.”
She likes to call this way of thinking a “petro-masculine” mindset, “where it is part of your identity not to care if you’re healthy.”
In recent years, however, many Cancer Alley residents have taken up a handful of fights against the chemical industry and its control of the region. Last month, residents of St. James Parish in Cancer Alley brought a landmark lawsuit against their county government for exhibiting “a pattern of racist zoning practices” that packed toxic chemical plants into Black neighborhoods. St. James is home to four plants that fall under the EPA’s new regulations.
“It’s time to end this discriminatory and harmful land use system that has roots in slavery and its afterlife,” said Myrtle Felton, an environmental activist with Inclusive Louisiana, in March when the suit was brought. “We need to stop adding harmful chemicals that are impacting our health and homes.”
The struggle against chemical companies in the region extends beyond protecting the living. Community members have also taken up fights against companies’ expansion plans that threaten gravesites of the enslaved. In Ascension Parish, where residents already have a cancer risk that is 47 times higher than EPA limits, Air Products Blue Energy LLC — a hydrogen and ammonia manufacturing company — has been plotting to build a new plant on the site of the former Orange Grove Plantation. At least 15 gravestones have already been found on the proposed site. In tandem with EarthJustice, an environmental law firm, residents have worked to sound the alarm.
“The reason this land is available today for a project like Air Products is because of the plantation economy and slavery,” said Shamell Lavigne, chief operating officer of the environmental justice organization RISE St. James.
“Petrochemical companies don’t care about the living, so I’m not surprised that they don’t care about the dead.”
How pollution killed this freedmen’s town
Mossvile, Louisiana, once known for its bayous and Cypress trees, was formed by the formerly enslaved in the 1790s. Over the past three decades, it has all been but wiped off the map by a handful of chemical plants.
Once home to more than 10,000 residents, the area today is home to fewer than 800, counting the Rigmaidens. It is also home to an oil refinery, several petrochemical plants, the country’s second-largest concentration of manufacturers of vinyl chloride — a main ingredient in plastic — and the world’s largest concentration of transport terminals for liquified natural gas.
Roughly a dozen plants in the area will be required to lower their emissions under the new standards. The current cancer risk for remaining residents is eight times the EPA’s limits, but the damage has been building for decades.
A 1998 toxicology study found that the average amount of cancer-causing chemicals in Mossville residents’ bloodstreams was three times greater than the average American.
Leading a tour through the remnants of Mossvile, Debra Ramirez delivers dozens of eulogies. “This lady died from cancer. She was from Mossville. She didn’t know she was living on contaminated land,” Ramirez said, pointing to a crumbling home.
“All of this land down here was a Black community,” she said, rounding another corner. “That little building was a Black schoolhouse; my dad and one of my dad’s older sisters lived right here. Everyone here is deceased now.”
The erasure of Mossville happened in a two-pronged way: dozens of residents succumbing to health struggles as a massive chemical plant, using more than $100 million in state subsidies, bought out private land for an expansion. Sasol, the latest company to buy out homes, ultimately purchased 584 plots in the community between 2013 and 2020, including in a majority-white area that borders Mossville.
A 2021 report found, however, that the predominantly white areas received payouts from the company worth $8.5 billion — 82% higher than in Mossville — prompting roughly 100 households to remain put because they were not offered enough money to find similar homes elsewhere.
For this reason, Ramirez will always take the EPA’s words with a grain of salt. The combination of lax pollution regulations, corporate malfeasance, and anti-Black racism makes it nearly impossible for families and communities to recover or build something new, she says.
“[Mossville] was beautiful; this landscape, you couldn’t see stuff like this nowhere else, and then these people were forced to endure these plants and are now being told to pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” Ramirez said. “When it comes down to energy in the country, you got all these barons running the country.”
And thousands of Black folks don’t have much say, hinted Rigmaiden.
“Let me tell you one thing,” he said using all his voice, raspy but sturdy, “you better make sure no one in your family gets [Parkinson’s] disease.”
An outcome that he knows firsthand is impossible to ensure.