Environment

The Oil Industry Has Abused Louisiana for Decades, but a Local Resistance Movement Soldiers on, Against the Odds

In St. James Parish, where the petrochemical industry has a chokehold on government, resistance can be excruciating.

Protest against the BP Oil Flood, Jackson Square, New Orleans, May 30, 2010.
Photo Credit: Infrogmation of New Orleans

The election of Donald Trump has made these days a golden age of dissent. Over two recent Saturdays, scientists and those concerned about the planet marched in Washington, D.C. and other cities, demonstrating one form of resistance in this age of Trump. The president ignored the marches, perhaps summoning the National Park Service to offer pictures of an empty mall. But let’s look for—and support—resistance in overlooked corners of our country, in places where our resistance is not just ignored, but crushed by the overpowering force of government.

Louisiana, where I live, is a state where Trump received 58 percent of the vote. We are last on every good list and first on most of the bad ones. But still, there is resistance here. 

My work for the last 20 years has focused on resisting the oil industry that has abused our state for a century via pollution, destruction of our coast and profiteering from Louisiana's far too generous subsidies. I work with communities next door to spewing refineries and chemical plants. Children stop playing outside and rush indoors when toxic chemicals engulf the neighborhood. I know parents who have watched their children vomit from chemical exposure. This region along the Mississippi River, known as Cancer Alley, has over 150 petrochemical plants along an 80-mile stretch. We bear an extraordinary burden of pollution and political control by industry. 

Despite the odds against us, we resist, as we did last month in St. James Parish. Pastor Harry Joseph approached the microphone at the parish council meeting. He leads the Mount Triumph Baptist Church. Pastor Joseph, along with his congregation and community, are concerned about the pollution in the parish and the additional problems posed by the proposed Bayou Bridge Pipeline that Energy Transfer Partners plans to construct there. Pastor Joseph’s African-American community, like the Standing Rock Sioux, is considered expendable in the pursuit of a pipeline we do not want and do not need. 

In a parish overwhelmed with pollution, Pastor Joseph was simply asking the parish council for an evacuation route: one road or dedicated path that would help his community escape in times of an accident. The current street design has them trapped by industry. 

The residents are right to fear an accident, since the oil and chemical industries have so many. According to the National Response Center, the federal point of contact for petrochemical accidents, there have been 14 reported accidents in St. James Parish already this year. 

On March 4, the Plaines All American Pipeline Company spilled 12,000 gallons of crude oil. The report to the National Response Center detailed it as a discharge of crude from a storage tank. The oil flowed out of the containment and into a ditch. The ditches flow right through the neighborhood. The public was not notified. “No one told us anything,” Pastor James told me.

When asked about an evacuation route, St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel told a local television station that the parish had been working on it. "We had two different plans. Of course we had one industry [that] bought up that property so we couldn't make it through there," Roussel said. 

The parish could require that the land be made available for an evacuation route. But Timmy Roussel said, essentially, that industry’s insatiable need for property is greater than the community’s need for safety. He said it publicly, to a news camera. This is worth pondering, for it reveals both deeply flawed priorities and a lack of concern about such priorities. How else to explain such a senseless public statement? 

After Pastor Joseph spoke about an evacuation route, he told the seven members of the parish council that he was ready to answer their questions. No one asked a question. The council members also failed to ask questions of two representatives from Shell who spoke that night. Shell officials were seeking a renewal of Shell’s 10 year property tax exemption. With no discussion, Shell received the exemption on a unanimous vote, 7-0.  

Pastor Joseph knows that industry is all powerful and that the council does not support the community, but he went to the council anyway and faced them. This is resistance. 

The juxtaposition of Pastor Joseph and Shell was painful to watch. It made the inequity glaringly obvious. Scenarios like this play out again and again in Louisiana, across the Gulf Coast, and around the country where industry has a chokehold on government.

Resistance as experienced in a march through the streets is joyful. Here in Louisiana, resistance can be excruciating. Across this country, far from the marches, people like us defy derision and worse as we exercise our right to resist. We need a witness.

Editor's note: According to Lousiana Bucket Brigade, there have been 13 petrochemical accident reports in the St. James Parish area thus far in 2017.

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Anne Rolfes is the founder of Louisiana Bucket Brigade.