Fighting to Survive in Louisiana’s Death Alley

Interview with Death Alley Activists

By Bob Lee

The People’s Tribune recently interviewed Pat Bryant and Robert Taylor, who are among those fighting environmental poisoning by the petrochemical industry in what is known as “cancer alley” or “death alley” along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Below are excerpts from their comments. A shorter version of this article appeared in the May 2019 print issue. The Coalition Against Death Alley will hold a march May 30-June 3 from Reserve to the state capitol at Baton Rouge. For more information, see the Coalition Against Death Alley Facebook page.

Pat Bryant, a member of the New Orleans-based civil rights group Justice and Beyond, and of the Coalition Against Death Alley:

Peoples Tribune: Can you give me an overview of how you see the situation?

Pat Bryant: I really am hunkered down in the area we call used to call cancer alley, but now call death alley. Because a number of members of my organization were telling me we have beaten the cities, and we beat the housing authority, we’ve beat our targets. But there is one target we don’t know how to deal with, and that’s these chemical companies that are killing us. They told me we’re dying of cancer and other diseases. And so I began to study how these things operate beginning with the federal rules and regulations and what these companies are permitted to do. And I saw that this was wide-scale poisoning. In Louisiana, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans we have over 200 companies that are permitted to put anything they want, just about, in the air, land and water. It’s a zone of national sacrifice and the regulation is so lax that that companies from Japan and China and everywhere want to come here and locate on the Mississippi River, because there’s a volume of water that will take all of the effluent into the ocean and there’s so many contributors that that they would not be detected.

And what they put out in the air—I have not seen a cumulative tally of what’s being put out in the air, but it’s choking. We’ve got chemicals that we find in Canada in the high places that only are made down here. So this stuff doesn’t stay here. It travels all over the world. And we’re killing people down here fast. There are so many funerals. Many of the leaders that I started with 30 some years ago are dead now. They’ve gone on to their makers, but they put up a good fight against these companies and we still struggling after 30 years. And the state of Louisiana is still bringing these companies in and offering them free taxes. They come in and they kill our people—for jobs, supposedly—and they get rewarded by not paying taxes. The logic escapes me. In St. John the Baptist Parish, in tests of residents in that parish, they found this deadly chemical chloroprene in each person tested. This company [DuPont Denka] is operating at many times what is allowable under its permit.

 

PT: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

PB: Well, this march [coming up May 30] awakens the creativity of all the artists and activists to the extent that we can demonstrate how to put pressure on unwilling and sometimes hostile targets like the governor, like the president. We learned this many years ago in what was called the civil rights movement, and what those of us who were in it called the freedom movement. And when the fight is for freedom, there’s a new dynamic that takes place; it’s not just a fight against a chemical company or a fight against a landlord, but when it’s your freedom at stake, you have to bring whatever you need to finish the job. We are demonstrating how to effectively target and build community support and involvement. Also, in October, we’re doing a two-week march from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. And it’s going to be a slow journey, and we are going to educate the people about their politics. Their politics is the main reason that they are in the street, and people from all around the world will be watching this. So we hope that you guys will become allies, and let people know that freedom, the freedom of these people is at stake. Not the freedom of capitalism, not the freedom of the bureaucrats, not the freedom of the Democratic Party, but the freedom of these people whose grandfathers and great grandfathers were slaves.

Robert Taylor, executive director of the Concerned Citizens of St. John’s Parish, which is part of the Coalition Against Death Alley:

People’s Tribune: Could you of give me some general background on what’s been going on there and what you folks are involved in right now?

Robert Taylor: I guess you understand what’s happening in what they call cancer alley, which is that little stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, about 80 miles of river. There are nearly 200 petrochemical plants here. We have a real serious problem with the results of all of these processes taking place. The community that I live in, in St. John the Baptist Parish, is a little town called Reserve. There’s this plant, DuPont. Sometimes they’re DuPont Denka, sometimes they’re Dow DuPont. They’re these slippery critters and change names and titles the way it suits them. But they are bombarding on our little community 29 different chemicals, which are the results of their manufacturing processes. The number one chemical at issue is chloroprene. They emit 99% of the chloroprene that is done in the US.

And on the particular community where I am because of the proximity that plant is to our community, the levels of that stuff is so extreme. We have an elementary school that’s about 1500 feet from the [plant] fence line and those children are exposed to 300 to 400 times what the Environmental Protection Agency has established as a safe level of exposure for human beings. And it has gone as high as 500 or 600 in what they call peaks. But it’s very regularly at 300 to 400 times. And this is on children.

And we know the science now, they are aware, they’ve informed us of the particularly egregious effects on young developing bodies of that chemical. And in spite of that, the government agency and other agencies here, even EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, it’s been three years since we discovered this, and they still have not removed or done anything to protect these children from that. These children are still sitting in those classrooms—I call them gas chambers—every day. They’re on a playground, 1500 feet from this plant. We’re trying to get some legislation passed to get them to at least come and test these playgrounds and test these areas where these children are, and looking for more than just that one chemical. Because they’re emitting 29 chemicals. We need to know what are the effects of those things? What is the cumulative effect when you make a soup or a cocktail out of 29 chemicals? And these people’s attitudes at this plant—they told us that we need to prove what we are saying. They’re very belligerent and they have little concern for the lives of the people in the community who they are causing these problems with.

It’s been an ongoing battle and it’s been an eye opener for me in terms of the attitudes that these plants have with regard to the victims of their profiteering. They’re making billions of dollars and they tell us that we need to prove that what they’re doing is harming us. The government is aware of all that research and they give us their information. According to the EPA, the people in the census tract that I live in, 708 in Reserve, we’re at a 1500 times greater risk [for cancer] than the national average. I mean, that’s unbelievable. How could they allow us to be even 10 times the national average at risk?

According to the EPA, we were at 800 times the risk as a result of the chloroprene emitted by DuPont. Now they’re allowing a plant called Ivoniks to emit something called ethyl chloride, a known human carcinogen. And that brings us up in Reserve to 1500 times the national average, and the government is allowing that to go on. To me, that is plainly genocidal. I can’t think of anything else. You’re going to wipe out this population if you’re going to allow them to be at that sort of exposure rate.

You would not think that in a civilized country in the 21st century a government agency would say, as they said to us at a meeting, we’re sorry, but we’re not going to stop them. They are killing you. We got all our evidence after years of testing and investigation that’s peer-reviewed, EPA says you guys are going to suffer cancer at 1500 times what the national average is, as a result of these two plants. And we are not going to stop them. We have nothing we can do that we are going to do to help you. So we’re left to fend for ourselves in the United States of America.

The DuPont Denka conglomerate, they have actually just taken over our community. I was walking near their property on what I know is public property In Reserve—on the river we have levees to protect us from the river. They’ve been there forever, before there ever was a DuPont Denka. And the last time, a week or so ago, that I went on the levee, Denka [company security] came up and tried to act like they were police, and I refused to let them intimidate me. But then they called the sheriff’s department and the sheriff’s department came up and took up the intimidation tactics, telling me that that is DuPont’s property.

And I know that the levee does not belong to DuPont. Can our government give something like the levee, which is for the public’s protection, can they give that to what is supposedly a foreign company now? Because supposedly DuPont sold out 80% to this Japanese company, Denka. And if you walk on that levee anywhere near Denka DuPont, man they come at you. I was told by a local police officer—he had harassed me and this lady that was here—they had us almost an hour up there, jacked up. And the cop told me, the reason we need your ID, Mr. Taylor, is because if that plant gets blown up tonight, I’m coming to get your ass.

Now, I was born here in Reserve right near that levee in 1940. I’ve lived here all my life. I raised my family here on my own, went to school here. He told me that if that plant gets blown up tonight, we’re coming for you. That’s why I got your ID and I just want you to know. If anything goes wrong at that plant over there, we’ll come and get you. Because I was walking on the levee.

My lawyer advised me to go and get an incident report so that we can report these officers. We were accosted by about five officers. We had three of the parish vehicles there—uniforms—Denka, and the Pontchartrain Levee Board. And the Pontchartrain Levee Board guy actually told us that that levee belongs to DuPont.

I think it’s awful what they’re doing. So this must be not a company town, this must be a company parish. This parish must obviously belong to DuPont, if anytime the sheriff will come and tell me that, because I was on the levee, I’m now a terrorist, and if anything happens to DuPont, they are coming to get me.

How can these deputies can come out and harass and intimidate and threaten? And the only reason he’s going to accuse me of terrorism and of doing damage to that plant is because I was doing something I have been doing all my life. I’m 78 years old. I grew up in this river area in Reserve. And that’s where the majority of our recreational time has been spent, before there was even a DuPont here. The levee and the river area there, the public area, that was our recreation. When I was growing up, there weren’t any black swimming pools; we swam in the river. Now, this guy is telling me that the levee and all of that now belongs to DuPont. And if I go up there like I did then, DuPont pounces on us, and right behind them here comes the local Sheriff Department.

You know it happened a little over a week ago, but I know that if I live another 10 years, that will ring in my ear. When that officer of the law looked at me standing in my hometown where I have lived all my life, he’s not even from here and tells me that I am now a terrorist and on the terrorist list; that if that plant get blown up, I’m coming to get you he said, pointing his finger in my face. That’s the reason I got your identification, cause I was walking on the public levee in my black skin, and that that is a crime punishable by—well, what do they do to terrorists who blow up chemical plants or blow up anybody? That depends on who that terrorist is. The Ku Klux Klan has been blowing up black people and lynching and murdering for a hundred years and he has not seen fit to go get any of them, but he’s coming to get my black ass if something happens to that plant because I was walking on the levee in Reserve, where I was born and raised.

And when the sheriff finally caught up with us after he went through his rigamarole—he wouldn’t talk to me, just this young white woman I was with. He was asking her, Where do you know him from? What is he to you? These are the questions they were asking that lady. They weren’t concerned about protecting DuPont then, they were about protecting something else. This lady couldn’t believe it. She said what has that got has to do with this?

PT: That’s outrageous. These corporations are taking over the whole country.

RT: That’s the way it seems. But I think we are going to try and fight for our rights to life and liberty and to be able to breathe fresh air, for our children to have a chance to live.

PT: I understand that there was a march that was planned to go on in early April and that it had to be rescheduled because of the weather. Has that been rescheduled yet?

RT: Yes, we’ve rescheduled that to take place May 30 through June 3. It’s actually going to start in Reserve in the vicinity of that elementary school and the DuPont Denka plant, because we definitely want to bring attention to that situation. It will start in Reserve on May 30, and then each day we’ll be in different communities up the river, going up the river, ending with a rally at the state capitol on the last day of the march.

PT: And, what are you asking for specifically? Are you trying to get the legislature to pass some specific legislation?

RT: You know, after about 50 years of this invasion of our communities and what they have labeled it, I think it’s been since 1987 that everybody has accepted the definition and description of our community and this area as cancer alley. And they know why the cancer rate was so high. It was because of the chemical plants. I don’t know how people think about somebody who dies from cancer. I’ve lost quite a few relatives in the last 30 years to cancer.

But if you are aware that these petrochemical conglomerations, these monstrosities, are causing this unnaturally high rate of cancer and death, it would seem to me that you would be curbing that, you would be reducing that, to give people a chance at life. But they are still building petrochemical plants. St. James Parish next door to me has 32 chemical plants in that one little community, and they got three on the drawing board. They got one they’re about to start building, a giant. They’re planning more in St. John’s Parish, even in view of the horrific results of planting these things in these poor, mostly black communities. The people are helpless against these giants, and the [plant owners] are heartless, cruel people. They are aware of what they are doing to these communities, and they treat us with such disdain and a complete disregard. They seem to not have any human values that they can attribute to us. I wouldn’t think the American psyche would allow these people to pile 6,000 souls up and gas them to death slowly.

But nobody cares about the little town of Reserve. Nobody’s going to stop, and nobody’s doing anything to stop it. So it is going to be wiped out, and it’s a largely black, poor community. [A cancer risk] 1500 times the national average—that is ungodly and that is inhuman. And is that really America? Is that the way America feels about its citizens?

But I mean if it was six people, how could you just cold-bloodedly decide that the profits of this corporation justifies taking the lives of any people? And what we have here is these people have to make a decision. They know that what’s happening to those young children over there is the effect of that, and it’s far more damaging than it is on the adult population and their lives. But they have decided that, there is no place in St. John the Baptist Parish that has a safe level of chloroprene; no place in the entire parish that’s free of chloroprene at levels that’s above what EPA deems is safe for human beings. So considering that, they decided, might as well leave the children where they are, not tell the plant to stop poisoning them; that’s never even considered. No, no, they’ve got to make the concessions, the poor black people, they have to move out, or do whatever they have to, to protect themselves, but DuPont is not going to reduce production. And I can understand that if you reduce production that’s going to affect your bottom line, your profit margin is going to be negatively impacted. And reducing would help some, but EPA has established the safe level and they say it is 0.2 micrograms per meters cubed. So why aren’t they made to adhere to that, if that’s a safe level? The state health officer here in Louisiana, Dr. Guidry, he said to our council at one of the meetings that there is no safe level for human beings to be exposed to chloroprene. He said human beings should not be exposed to any chloroprene at all.

For us to be exposed at the level that we are is just unbelievable. In this Christian society, in this modern civilized world today, to poison these children at the levels that they’re allowing, to me is unconscionable.

PT: And so are you asking the state legislature to intervene in this somehow, or asking the EPA to do something?

RT: Well, we’ve asked EPA. We were working closely with the regional office, the one in Dallas that has jurisdiction over us. They were trying to help as best they can. But they’re a region, a division of the national, and the policy that’s coming out of the national is that they’re not going to force these corporations to lose money by talking about saving the lives of the population that’s being affected by this. They know what a safe level is, but they’re not doing anything to make these people adhere to it.

And to me that’s a policy that the people need to reject. We want to reach out to the world. Obviously we have an issue taking place here. And I know it’s not just happening in St. John’s Parish. I just read a story written in the newspaper about the tale of two cities, by Sharon Lerner. They told about what happened when a middle class white community was invaded by these companies and put upon, and in six months they had shuttered that plant.

It’s called a tale of two cities: one black and poor, one middle class white. And the responses to those situations were stark, it was so vivid that they weren’t going to tolerate this in a white community, they weren’t going to tolerate those companies doing that to America’s white population. That’s the big message that we got from the tale of two cities. I’m standing here now, as we talk, in front of our house, listening to the sounds from that plant, smelling the odors, and knowing that that is killing me and my neighbors, those that haven’t already died, so many of us, but that they would not tolerate this level of this type of stuff in other communities.

We are hoping the state legislature will do something. We’re taking steps now. Matter of fact, I’ve been invited to speak before the legislature tomorrow on some issues concerning this, on some bills that environmentalists have been working on to help deal with this. And we are putting together our plans, too. This march is just the beginning, since we found out that the government is not preparing to help us to stop this. We appreciate the fact that they’ve informed us and given us the information about what is actually happening to us. But the agency is the “Environmental Protection Agency,” and they’re not going to protect us? The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, they know what the environment here is doing to us. And the head of the Louisiana DEQ attacks me and my organization. He came in here and went before our governing body, the parish council, as well as the school board, and warned the people that I was a fear-mongering trouble maker, and my organization was spreading misinformation, and that nobody down here should listen to us, they should stay away from us. This is the head of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Chuck Carr Brown. And his thing is to regulate the petrochemical industry, not the citizens of the state of Louisiana. He’s not charged with coming in and telling the people in our community that we are thugs and criminals, that we are outcasts, that we are doing something wrong; and he’s doing that in defense of DuPont, a company he’s supposed to be regulating. He’s trying to regulate the citizens of the parish; he’s telling us to shut up and just suck it up and die from it. Don’t you dare criticize DuPont. That’s his whole position when he comes here. He bragged before our council about what a great company DuPont is, and how we should be thankful to DuPont.

That’s got to be illegal, that’s got to be unlawful, for this guy from his high, lofty perch to do that. Of course he was appointed by a governor that won his governorship because he got 72% of the black vote. And our group has sought to have an audience with this governor for three years and he has neglected us, he has refused to see us. He has failed to at least hear our pleas. We’ve made three trips up to the capitol and as far as we get is his outer office and to speak to some of his assistants, who informed us that the governor is not available.

But he appointed this monster over DEQ, who comes here and attacks me. I was born and raised here. I worked hard as a poor black man to build my home here. That’s a great accomplishment I think for somebody. I know I’m proud of what I did. I was able to provide my family with this and I want my children and my grandchildren to be able to enjoy this. And this man comes down here and called me a troublemaker, a fear-mongerer, and tells my neighbors and my friends that they shouldn’t pay any attention to me, that we’re liars and spreaders of misinformation. How could this be?


PT: And so do you have much expectation that the state legislature will do anything?

RT: I really don’t, not at the present. Up to this point, they haven’t given any amount of significance or importance to the voice of the poor black people. But we’re going to be motivated now. We are going to organize. And I think that’s what it’s going to take to get them to realize that it’s a new day now. We are aware of the genocidal intent of this government on our people here and we are no longer going to just lay down for it. This march is the beginning of the stuff that we have to do in order to protect ourselves. And they’re not going to be able to just ignore us anymore as has been in the past.

That’s what my fervent hope is, that’s what I’m planning and working for. Part of that is the formation of this Coalition Against Death Alley. I think this coalition is going to effective because it’s uniting all of the communities up and down the river. We want to unite all of them in the state of Louisiana, and eventually all of the poor, disadvantaged people, all of the people who these plants and the sell-out politicians who sell us out to them have decided that we’re expendable. We want to unite all of these people, and that’s all over the country. And if this is where it’s going to begin, there are other people who are suffering; we are going to reach out to them. We have to get them to understand that as the group that is designated as expendable, we need to come together, and put aside any petty differences. And that’s just not black people, because there are poor white communities right here in Louisiana that are suffering the same thing. And I think once we can get the people to realize that our salvation lies in our ability to organize, to unite, and put up a united front and fight against what is taking place….What do we have to lose? They’ve written us off; they’ve thrown us to the wolves.

They’re taking taxpayers’ money to fund construction of chemical plants. One of the largest petrochemical operations in the world, Louisiana is planning to give them a $1.5 billion tax break, and at the same time they are taking $1.5 million of money out to assist them in their construction of this plant. These people got more money… I just don’t understand it. And we just need to make sure the poor peoples of these communities understand fully what their government is doing to them. They’re going to give this company $1.5 billion in tax relief. I can’t think of a more obvious welfare check than that for a trillion dollar corporation. Then they’re going to actually take a million and a half dollars of the cash that’s there to help them? I just don’t understand. I can’t understand the thinking of these politicians.

People need to know that when it comes to voting, that you’re not just supposed to give your vote away because you like the guy or because he looks like you. It’s got to be based on is he working, is he actually representing you and your interests? We need to start programs to educate people and get them to understand, so that we can change this and take some control over our destiny out of the hands of these uncaring people.

PT: Have there been similar marches in the past?

RT: Oh yes. There have been marches in the past. There was a successful march in the early nineties to stop a plant here in St. John the Baptist Parish and they actually succeeded. Of course they had to go to jail and you know, the sheriff locked them all up, but eventually they prevailed. But now it’s 20 or 30 years later and those guys are back again. They’re back with their plans to build other plants here in St. John again. I think their plan is to depopulate these areas because the plants need them. They’re very profitable for these plants. They need this region, this river, the highways, the railways, all that infrastructure that is in place and it’s highly profitable for the petrochemical companies, for more reasons than one. They use the river as a cess pool—they dump these chemicals, they are allowed to by the state.

They do deep well injections. They go all the way down to the aquifer, to the fresh water underground. And they dump tons of this stuff into the Mississippi River, which is the water source for the river area peoples. And what they dump in the air is the same thing—tons and tons of poisonous chemicals. Most of them, we can’t even pronounce the names of them, we don’t have any idea what they are, what the effect of them is, and the effect of the mixing of all of them. It’s a truly horrendous situation that the poor unfortunate people find themselves in, at the mercy of these politicians and these petrochemical entities.

We want to see what the world agencies think about this. This is a human rights tragedy that’s taking place, and these profiteers do not care. And now there are these people here who are aiding and abetting them to say that these communities can be wiped out. They go in and they buy out some of the communities. In the case of St. James Parish, the little town of St. James, they bought out the whites and they left the blacks there. The blacks are still begging them to bargain, because they’re willing to leave. Because when they look around, they’re surrounded by these things [chemical plants], but they won’t even buy out those little poor black communities. They’re going to just let them die out, they are just going to kill them. They can tell that story much better than I can, but it’s really forbidding when I look up and down the river, what’s going on. And it wasn’t until I got involved with it here in St John’s Parish that I became aware of the commonality of this, of how pervasive it is up and down the river communities here.

And the fact that the majority, for whatever reasons, the vast majority of the victims are poor black people, the communities that are being affected. That’s when I first heard the term “environmental racism.” I’m not quite sure I fully understand that, what all that might imply. But I do understand that in the community where I’m sitting right now, I can look around me, I can remember. I’m 78. I bought this property here when this land didn’t have a hard surface street. It was a dirt road. And we bought these lots, me and the people in this block here. We built these homes ourselves here. And since then the community has grown, we’ve got all the modern stuff in, we’ve got decent, comfortable homes that are paid for by now. I built this house, in 1968 I moved in here. So we paid for our homes. We’ve worked and sacrificed, and then they dumped this plant on us in 1968. We didn’t know anything about what that meant. We had no choice. They didn’t ask us would you guys like to have this chemical plant in your front door, right on the top of your houses and stuff. We had no idea.

We saw the whites leaving. We didn’t know what that was about. And so we are that proverbial low-hanging fruit; they knew they could come in here. And these people over here [the plant owners] say, well, you all approved that we’re doing this, that’s what DuPont said to us—you all approved that we’re causing the cancer in your neighborhood. They didn’t say, let’s see what we can do to help. Let’s see if there is something we’re doing that’s causing a problem for you. Are we really breaking laws. Louisiana has all kinds of trespass laws. Well nobody should be able to take away our right to enjoy our property.

Whenever they decide to let loose those chemicals, I’ve got to get up and go inside. I can’t sit out here on my balcony and enjoy a nice day. Or if it should start to rain or something in the middle of the day, you’ve got to run, you have to get inside, or you have to get in your car and leave. It is horrible, the conditions under which we are forced to live.

PT: How long have you been involved in this fight?

RT: Actually, since mid-summer of 2016 we formed this organization. When we found out about the levels of chemicals that were being put up on us, it just shocked the people. I called a meeting along with my pastor and the one local politician who actually was working to represent his constituents. And along with the help of an organization from Baton Rouge, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. They helped us accumulate this information. Miss Wilma Subra, who’s a scientist or chemist [helped us]. She tracks it all and gets the information off the website that the EPA forced [DuPont] here to do. That’s when they came in, in 2016 and forced DuPont to monitor and then to put it on the website. And when we began to get it off the website and Miss Subra put it down for us on paper in a scientific way and brought it to the community, that’s when DEQ’s director accused us of spreading misinformation. And that was an out and out lie. We have every document from then til now that we distributed and made public here and it came directly off DEQ’s website. And he was going around the state, telling people we’re spreading disinformation and misinformation and lies, when every paper that we have we got from them.

We were meeting two times a month for almost three years, until they stopped monitoring—it had the level they want. Now we only have these public meetings once a month.

All of those agencies that work with and for the US government agency, the EPA, these people did all this stuff, all of their tests, and right now, DuPont is challenging them. DuPont Denka, the Japanese company, says that the American scientific community is completely wrong in all the assessments they made, that that stuff doesn’t make sense, that the science is bad. They not only come in and attack our private communities and bombard us, but then when our government says, look what you’re causing, they tell our government [that they’re wrong]. They [DuPont] are right now in the process of asking the government to reconsider all of the information and the data that they’ve approved, because they say it’s inadequate. It’s not correct. It’s faulty and they’re challenging them. This is about the fourth challenge I think that they’re making where they are challenging the credibility of the scientific agencies in the United States.

And the American people don’t feel alarmed at that? That these foreigners could actually come in here, not only just dump down on our American citizens, but then they attack the government; they say that what EPA is doing is wrong, the science is faulty. And nobody’s doing anything about it.

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