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In La.’s polluted ‘Cancer Alley,’ activists say new president’s guy has been MIA on climate | Will Bunch Newsletter

Biden’s baffling pick on climate change.

Joe Biden greeted Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., left, as he arrived at Columbus Airport in Columbus, Ga., on Oct. 27.
Joe Biden greeted Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., left, as he arrived at Columbus Airport in Columbus, Ga., on Oct. 27.Read moreAndrew Harnik / AP

I’m old enough to remember when Thanksgiving Week 2020 was looked to with great anticipation as a time to gather with the family and hopefully toast the end of the Trump Era in America. Well, I guess one out of two will have to do, as Big Thanksgiving has been mostly cancelled (in my home, certainly, but for my nuclear family). Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at, and keep your mind occupied until normalcy resumes.

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Biden’s baffling pick on climate change

For nearly a decade, Democratic U.S. Rep Cedric Richmond has represented what most environmentalists agree is the most polluted congressional district in America. It’s a stretch of Louisiana that runs from from Richmond’s home base of New Orleans up the Mississippi River that is lined with so many smoke-belching petrochemical plants that many now unhappily call their region “Cancer Alley.”

Think the nickname is hyperbole? The federal government’s own toxic-release inventory has found Louisiana the second-worst state overall for releasing killer chemicals into the environment, with many of the worst offending plants in Richmond’s district. His state, perhaps not coincidentally, also has one of America’s highest cancer rates, with African-Americans like Richmond and many of his constituents at particularly high risk.

In one of the communities that Richmond serves — St. John the Baptist Parish, predominantly Black — a plant making the highly toxic chemical chloroprene run for more than 50 years by DuPont and then a Japanese firm called Denka has meant, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that residents’ risk of getting cancer from air pollution is 700 times higher than the national average. When the coronavirus arrived earlier this year, many blamed the parish’s toxic air for one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the country.

So you might imagine that leaders of the growing environmental movement in and around Cancer Alley would be ecstatic when they received word that President-elect Biden had tapped Richmond for a key White House post as Director of Public Engagement, in which he will be asked to lobby on a number of key issues — first and foremost, climate change. Working at the right hand of the new POTUS will be someone who understands their problems, right?


Well, not exactly. In fact, anti-pollution and climate activists — both in Washington and back home in Louisiana — say that Richmond has been completely missing in action during their recent fights to keep newer, larger petrochemical plants from opening along the mighty Mississippi. Neither the congressman nor his staffers have attended their rallies or heated public hearings on environmental-justice issues, and that Richmond has shrugged off or flat-out ignored entreaties from constituents to join their crusade.

“There’s been no presence, whatsoever,” Anne Rolfes, the director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, one of the state’s top environmental groups, told me by phone on Monday. She noted that when fellow activists from St. James Parish — who are fighting a monstrosity of a proposed $9.4 billion plastics plant sought for their area by the Taiwanese firm Formosa — were invited to Capitol Hill to meet on environmental justice with an Arizona congressman, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, their own rep Richmond didn’t meet with them.

Richmond’s passive approach to local issues is matched by his lukewarm legislative record on fossil fuels, including voting to approve the Keystone XL pipeline — considered a cardinal sin by many environmentalists — in 2015 as well as a 2019 vote to allow would-be drillers to explore the Atlantic coastline. That Biden would hand Richmond such a critical role infuriated the executive director of the youth-oriented Sunrise Movement on climate, Varshini Prakash, who said bluntly the selection “feels like a betrayal.”

So what gives? Richmond might not say a lot in public about fossil fuels but he’s more than willing to take the industry’s campaign contributions. In a 2019 investigation, the Guardian — citing research by the Center for Responsive Politics — reported Richmond’s campaigns had, during his time in Congress, received more than $400,000 in donations from oil, gas and chemical companies, including $2,500 from lobbyists for the polluting Denka.

Two weeks ago, I wrote here that “I’ll be watching Team Biden like the proverbial hawk, and won’t hesitate to go off at the first hint of selling out.” I’m not sure if this is a full-blown sell-out, but it’s a very disappointing choice. If Biden is serious about his campaign promises to sharply reduce America’s carbon emissions, this seems like the wrong guy. For his part, Richmond said that resigning from Congress to work for the White House won’t prevent him from working for his constituents, that “I look forward to changing not only Louisiana but the entire South and empowering its citizens.”

Rolfes said that maybe Richmond’s relative blank slate when it comes to addressing climate matters gives him some space to do better for Team Biden. (Indeed, the president-elect won mostly kudos on Monday for naming ex-Secretary of State John Kerry as a special envoy on climate.)

Noting that Biden has steadily spoken more forcefully about global warming, including a campaign-trail mention of the controversy in St. James, she wondered aloud if Richmond “is going to be able to do the right thing.” There’s clearly one silver lining for Cancer Alley: It’ll get a new member of Congress in 2021. Maybe the next one will go crazy and even meet with some environmentalists!

Yo, do this

  1. Imagine The Trial of the Chicago 7 with the proto-reggae beat and lilting accents of London’s thriving, Caribbean-rooted Black community, and you’ll have a sense of the first installment of the top British director Steve McQueen’s stylish new anthology series Small Axe, which premiered recently on Amazon Prime Video. The first of what will be five overlapping short films about the community where McQueen — director of the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slavewas raised, “Mangrove,” looks at the true story of a Black restaurant owner in London’s Notting Hill section who was constantly harassed by racist cops and finally arrested; his subsequent trial during the end of the ‘60s overlaps the courtroom drama in Aaron Sorkin’s Chicago 7 flick. Yet again, the past has never looked so timely.

  2. Speaking of the United Kingdom, this colonist surrenders! In a year of political upheaval, there’s just no toppling The Crown. Inspired by the Thatcherite and Princess Di hoopla of Season 4 of the Netflix drama, I’ve joined family members and many others, based on what I’m seeing on social media, in trying to catch up with Season 1, as Queen Elizabeth ascends to the throne in the early 1950s. With a Mad Men-ish attention to period detail, the Queen’s permanence against decades of political and social strife feels like England’s way of telling us Yankee upstarts to keep calm and carry on.

Ask me anything

Question: So we switched from state legislatures electing senators to popular votes. Before our modern era have we ever considered 86ing the electoral college? — Kevin Simoneau (@realksims) on Twitter

Answer: Yes! Multiple times, and it once came very close to happening because of a racist demagogue presidential candidate. No, not that one! I mean Alabama’s George Wallace, who in 1968 won 46 Electoral College votes in the Deep South as a third-party candidate and nearly threw the contest into the House of Representatives, where the one-time segregationist could have played kingmaker. Over 1969-70, a bipartisan amendment to end the Electoral College (both then-president Richard Nixon and 1968 runner-up Hubert Humphrey endorsed it) overwhelmingly passed the House but it died in the Senate because of (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) a filibuster by Southern senators. Today, Republicans who’ve lost the popular vote seven of the last eight times would never sign off on such a plan, unfortunately. (For even more reading on whether the Electoral College should stay or go, read this pro/con put together by the editors on The Inquirer’s Opinion desk.)


My year-end review article for the remarkable events of 2020 includes President Trump’s impeachment acquittal, Mitch McConnell blocking election-security measures, and a Democratic primary season in which Pete Buttigieg narrowly (and disputedly) wins Iowa and Bernie Sanders takes California, but black voters bail out Joe Biden in South Carolina — as he will ultimately win the nomination. The Trump candidacy stays surprisingly close even as a major hurricane slams the Gulf Coast and a sharp economic downturn erodes his support in the Upper Midwest. It ends with a contested election result and the president tweeting “Fake news!” You already knew all of this, right?

But here’s the thing: I published it on December 22, 2019 (illustrated by a picture of a long voting line!). In a preface, I wrote “I’m still hoping 2020 won’t be America’s worst year — I saw the horrific assassinations and chaos of 1968 through the eyes of a child, and I also hear 1861 was no picnic — but there’s real reason for concern.”

Of course, this is me we’re talking about, so I got a lot of stuff wrong, and it’s also hard to evaluate a piece that was partly meant as satire. (The Dallas Cowboys winning the Super Bowl? C’mon, that would never happen.) Russian election tampering was barely noticeable and Putin didn’t alter vote tallies, and the Democrats didn’t stage a brokered convention in Milwaukee where Biden tapped Buttigieg as his running mate. Heck, there was no convention in Milwaukee, thanks to the coronavirus that made 2020 a very different and much worse year than any of us could have imagined last December. I don’t plan on making 2021 predictions but I will say it’s a relief to have a stable president in Biden who’s picking highly qualified and experienced people for his Cabinet. Because whatever unpredictable insanity strikes next year, it’ll be handled better with competent folks in Washington.

Inquirer reading list

  1. The transition has begun, as I made clear in my Sunday column in which I looked at what is shaping up as a defining battle of the new Biden administration: Whether to cancel some or even most of America’s gobsmacking $1.7 trillion student debt. The move would stimulate the economy and lift an arguably unfair burden off millions of under-35 Americans, but would it also become a political rallying cry for conservatives who’d claim the working class is bailing out cosmopolitan college grads?

  2. Next, I argued that Trump’s days of coup plotting — which culminated in open encouragement of state legislatures to ignore legitimate vote tallies and re-install the president — might be laughably bad, but it’s also worse than Watergate and ought to be seen as a crime. Even as the plot collapsed Monday with Michigan’s election certification and the General Service Administration’s transition OK, there should be consequences and better laws to prevent this from ever happening again.

  3. With Biden’s January 20 inauguration assured, it’s a time to breathe and start thinking about other things — including the remarkable humans who walk among us. One of them is Mackenzie Fierceton, who survived a rocky, unsettled childhood of foster homes to earn a degree at Penn and now has won an exclusive Rhodes Scholarship, where she’ll study at Oxford how other kids can avoid the same struggles. The uplifting story by Pulitzer-winning Wendy Ruderman is another reason why you should support local journalism and subscribe to The Inquirer. It also makes a great Christmas present for a family member.