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Poor communities bear the brunt of Louisiana’s toxic pollution, but wealthy ones aren’t immune

This article was produced in partnership with the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, of which The Times-Picayune and The Advocate are members.

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Once a sleepy stretch of cane fields and plantation houses, Louisiana’s river corridor has been remade over the past century into a petrochemical powerhouse.

When chemical companies looked to build along the Mississippi, areas next to black neighborhoods were typically the first to see the swap of sugar cane for smokestacks.

After World War II, “you started to see the aggressive push of industry into rural, predominantly black, plantation lands,” said Craig Colten, a Louisiana State University geography professor who has written books about the state’s industrial development.

But Louisiana’s love affair with oil and gas, while disproportionately affecting black communities, has hardly spared white communities.

Ascension Parish is perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s annual Toxics Release Inventory, plants in Ascension Parish emit greater quantities of toxic chemicals from industrial stacks than anywhere else in the country. While this method of measuring releases doesn’t factor in the toxicity of each pollutant, it signals relative levels of total chemical activity across regions.

Unlike most industrial parishes, Ascension is among Louisiana’s whitest and most affluent. It’s also the third-fastest growing parish in Louisiana. Families flock here for affordable new housing, low crime rates, a booming business climate and some of the state’s best schools. In all conventional measures, Ascension Parish is thriving.

Winding river, changing demographics

Though today’s Ascension Parish challenges some Louisiana archetypes, it hasn’t always looked this way.

In the 1940s, according to Colten, petrochemical facilities began popping up on long, narrow plots that were once part of plantations. These included two such stretches in Ascension Parish, where black families that had settled nearby were either displaced or exposed to increasingly toxic air.

Indeed, in the Ascension Parish communities of Geismar and Donaldsonville, the neighborhoods closest to clusters of industry are still some of the most heavily black and poorest sections of the parish.

In the 1980s, white flight began to reshape Ascension Parish. School desegregation had begun in earnest, Colten noted, “and whites started leaving Baton Rouge to avoid integrated schools.” Interstate 10 provided easy access to the burgeoning suburbs to the south.

This growth changed the parish demographics, but not the advance of industry.

Over the last decade, toxic emissions in Ascension Parish have increased by 109%, to 28 million pounds in 2018, according to analyses by ProPublica and The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. Elsewhere in Louisiana, only St. Charles Parish saw such a jump. The number of plants in Ascension Parish required to report their emissions also increased from 17 to 21 over that period. Some of the air in Geismar near these new developments is estimated to be more toxic with cancer-causing chemicals than 99.6% of the area throughout the seven Mississippi River parishes between Baton Rouge and St. Charles, according to our analysis of EPA data.

Right now, another major new plant and two major plant expansions are in the works in Ascension Parish.

‘I just live my life’

Most Ascension Parish residents interviewed for this story were unaware of their parish’s air pollution, or that more industrial development is headed their way. Still, few were concerned.

Tara Allaine, 67, a retired neurodiagnostic technician, has lived in Ascension Parish for 25 years. In 2016, she moved to a new home in Gonzales’ Pelican Crossing neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the rust-red chemical retaining ponds of the LAlumina LLC aluminum facility.

Settlement negotiations have been underway since 2013 regarding a series of citations from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for repeated dust emissions from the “red mud” ponds, which contain heavy metal content considered to be a health concern by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almatis Alumina, which formerly owned the facility and received these citations, did not respond to phone or email requests for comment.

“Of course, the people selling us the house, you know, said it was nothing,” Allaine said, referring to the proximity of the “red mud” ponds. “I don’t know if it’s affected us or not. I guess we’ll find out.”

The neighborhood is still growing, with French Artist-style home plans advertised starting at $240,000. Real estate agent Bob Connor says his clients are aware of the nearby plants and, for the most part, they’re not bothered by them.

“Cancer Alley? Yeah. Everyone who lives and works around here is aware of it, and it’s not an issue for people,” Connor said.

In fact, he attributes most of the real estate demand to the nearby plants. More than 4,000 people work at Ascension Parish’s chemical plants, according to the Louisiana Chemical Association, and a number of them live in Pelican Crossing, Connor said.

“I can’t even imagine the neighborhoods would be selling if it wasn’t for Shell, BP, BASF,” Connor said.

Other homebuyers do consider air pollution when deciding where to settle down. Jon Bergeron, 32, owns businesses with locations in Ascension and Livingston parishes. He and his wife thought hard about where they wanted to raise their infant son when they relocated from Hammond, 50 miles east of Baton

“We talked for probably 45 minutes one night, ‘Why do you think they call it Cancer Alley?’ I had never heard of Cancer Alley, so I Googled it,” Bergeron said. “And we went back and started looking at houses in Denham” in Livingston Parish.

In part because of lower health risks from air pollution, the couple now live in Livingston Parish.

For most people in Ascension Parish, however, the pollution and attendant cancer risk of living in the river corridor is an acceptable cost for achieving a certain lifestyle. Bergeron said a friend of his recently made $60,000 in two months working at a plant in Ascension.

“I mean, I don’t worry about it, anything like that,” Allaine said of the plants. “I just live my life.”

Shallow roots

Lifelong Ascension Parish resident and former LSU economics professor George Armstrong thinks that when people move from Baton Rouge to Ascension, they often leave their work and social lives in the city, returning for weekend activities and family events.

That’s one reason Ascension lacks the deep-rooted network of environmental activists seen in nearby parishes, Armstrong said. In Iberville Parish, the majority-black community of St. Gabriel banded together to incorporate in 1994 to gain some power over industry. In St. James Parish, members of Rise St. James hold marches and protests at plant openings and public hearings. In St. John Parish, chemist Wilma Subra regularly speaks to a rapt audience of neighbors about health risks of pollutants from the nearby Denka plant.

Ascension Parish saw a burst of environmental activism in the 1970s, when a group called Mothers Against Pollution filed, and won, a lawsuit over air pollution against a company called Industrial Tank. That 1979 state Supreme Court case established a state obligation to protect local natural resources.

In recent decades, however, Ascension Parish’s fight against the petrochemical industry’s plans for growth has been waged largely by a small, motley band of retirees, Armstrong among them. The group calls itself Together Ascension and is a lesser-known branch of the grassroots organization Together Louisiana, both of which take on causes like tax fairness and access to medical care.

Armstrong’s Together Ascension colleague Henrynne Louden, a former pediatrician and the first black woman to graduate from Tulane Medical School, is a determined and passionate advocate for children’s well-being. But she and Armstrong are struggling to rally their neighbors against the onslaught of polluting industry.

“I’ve never had a sense of community mobilization [against industry] here,” Louden said. She thinks many Ascension Parish residents see the industrial boom as progress, rather than as a powerful interest that must be regulated and held to account.

The art of distraction

In communities dominated by petrochemical plants, it’s not unusual for elected officials to also work as plant employees.

Troy Gautreau, for instance, serves as vice president of the Ascension Parish School Board and as a supervisor at Methanex, the largest global producer of methanol. In his school board role, he has voted to approve numerous tax exemptions for local plants, though he says he’s never voted on one involving Methanex.

Still, to Together Ascension, he symbolizes the cozy relationship between industry and politics in the parish. Gautreau sees things differently.

“‘Together Ascension’ won’t be happy until they have collected every nickel possible from our businesses and thus drive them out,” he said in an email to Ascension schoolteachers. “New businesses will open shop in neighboring parishes because they will welcome them with open arms and support the [tax] exemptions, however their families will live in Ascension because they want their kids in our school system and we will be left with the cost to educate them without the tax benefit.”

This is a position often held by officials in river corridor parishes: that industrial development is a prize to be won, one replete with jobs and economic advantages. But Armstrong says this perspective doesn’t take into account the long-term tolls on infrastructure, public health and the environment.

The Rev. Ritney Castine, who ministers to a mostly black congregation at Trinity AME Church in Gonzales, said he sees little appetite among his congregants for criticizing industry or organizing against it. People see the plants as their region’s lifeblood, he said.

“I sure do get the sense that many of the folks who are born and raised in Ascension, and particularly the elected officials, are all-in and are open for business when it comes to bringing in continued plants and plant expansions,” Castine said. “People tend to welcome industry because they’re used to it.”

Castine emphasized that he believes industry has provided real opportunities. He’s seen young men put themselves through college by holding down summer jobs at the plants, and he thinks the plants have helped create a black middle class in the area. But he also thinks they are getting away with too much.

“The community deserves to know about the risks, and to be heard,” he said from his church’s sunlit sanctuary. “I’m not sure they know about the costs to our health, to the environment, to our nature and our quality of life.”

Read the article in The Advocate