Toxic air, racism and a virus: A deadly mix | Will Bunch Newsletter
In a mostly black, heavily polluted La. parish, folks are dying as fast as in NYC.
Welcome to my first newsletter, an exciting leap forward, but with an element of “back to the future.” Fifteen years ago, I launched my blog Attytood, back when blogging was the next new thing. A few years ago when I became more of a columnist, I gave up some of what I loved about Attytood: the conversational tone, tidbits that didn’t need a full column, occasional rants on pop culture or sports, and more. This newsletter highlights the best of what I do now but stick around until the end for the new doodads (the technical term). First, though, the main event.
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In a mostly black, heavily polluted La. parish, folks are dying as fast as in NYC
It was Easter Sunday when I got through on the phone to Robert Taylor, who’s 79 and lived all his life in a place called Reserve, Louisiana, that no less an authority than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has called one of the most polluted places in America. If this had been a normal Easter, Taylor might have still been in church when I called. But it wasn’t a normal Easter, and Taylor didn’t mince words when I asked him about his county, St. John the Baptist Parish.
“We’re dying down here,” he said bluntly, and it wasn’t hyperbole. Back when President Trump was insisting the coronavirus threat in the United States would soon disappear, folks like Taylor were warning the virus would bring death and despair to a town like his. It’s dead center in a stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and greater New Orleans lined with so many petrochemical plants that today everyone just calls it “Cancer Alley.”
The dire predictions have come true. Cancer Alley’s St. John the Baptist Parish is already one of the deadliest places for COVID-19 in America, with 40 confirmed fatalities (as of Monday) among a population of less than 46,000, and – despite the lack of testing – 558 confirmed cases. The death rate is almost on a par with New York City.
But to the folks who live here, coronavirus isn’t a numbers game. It’s personal. Taylor knows at least two elderly married couples – the Beldens and the Eddingses – where both husband and wife succumbed to the virus. And yet – in a time when people including journalists are told to stay put – the unfolding tragedy in St. John the Baptist Parish has barely dented the national consciousness. We should all be talking about it, though.
Communities like Reserve are mostly black, and economically disadvantaged. They’ve been targeted by environmental racism – politically powerless to stop the refineries and plastic plants that have enveloped them for decades, or to get action about the all-too-frequent leaks of toxic air pollution. That legacy has left a disproportionate number of folks with respiratory disease or cancer – and more likely to die from the coronavirus.
For nearly a half century, Taylor and his neighbors in Reserve have breathed poison air from a giant facility – long owned by Du Pont, bought by a Japanese firm, Denka – making a synthetic plastic called neoprene used in various consumer products. The plant has consistently blasted through recommended safety limits for air pollution from a highly toxic byproduct called chloroprene. In 2015, EPA scientists made an unsurprising finding – a census tract next to the plant has the highest cancer rate in the entire United States, some 50 times higher than the national average.
In the last couple of years, people like Taylor – who’s lost close friends to cancer and whose adult daughter suffers from a rare intestinal disease called gastroparesis that he blames on the plant – have done something The Establishment didn’t count on. They’ve fought back. Taylor and the Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist have marched to close the Denka plant and won over some local politicians. But not only is Denka still churning out plastics but the plant has continued to operate during the pandemic even as the churches and other pillars of daily life in the parish have been closed. Locals are incensed.
“To continue to combat the coronavirus while still breathing that chemical … it’s inhuman,” Taylor told me. On Saturday, he and as many as 70 other activists did the unthinkable in the time of coronavirus: They took it outside at the main parish offices in small, socially distanced groups to demand the Denka plant close for the duration of the crisis. Anything less, they’ve argued, is straight-up racism.
I agree. The coronavirus is anything but an equal opportunity killer. While the affluent flee to airy vacation homes, folks in Reserve, Louisiana, with their poisoned lungs are sitting ducks. The virus isn’t just lethal but an exposer of painful truth: America was tainted by gross inequality, racism, and reckless disregard for our environment long before the pandemic. We can take one small step toward fixing this by closing the Denka plant, not temporarily but for good.