Yesterday, I went down to the riverfront to get some fresh air and enjoy the gorgeous day. It was warm, sunny, and very few people were out at this time of the day — it was mid-afternoon on a Friday. Although I had my mask with me, I was alone, so I pulled it off as I observed the river before me — and I choked.
The air had a horrendous smell and as I looked across the river to the chemical plant in Port Allen, I saw a haze over the water coming from the plant. That haze was made visible under the brilliant light of the sun. I immediately put my mask back on. The air smelled like a mix of fecal matter and food. The few people I encountered at the river made the same observations — the air was just foul.
Petrochemical plants, mills, and the like often make the air smell bad when they are producing whatever they produce. I remember visiting St. Simon’s Island in Georgia years ago and in the small town of Brunswick the air was pretty hard to breathe due to the paper mill there.
Although the haze was very subtle and hardly visible without the sunlight, this particular mill isn’t the only source of toxic air. There are several refineries and chemical plants along the Mississippi. In fact, the area I live in has a nickname: Cancer Alley.
Toxic Emissions Are Set To Rise In Cancer Alley
In 2019, Nola.com reported that in several parts of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, toxic emissions are set to rise thanks to several new plants. That article interviewed Hazel Schexnayder, who saw her tiny hometown of St. Gabriel transformed from old plantations, shacks, and cornfields into a field of towering chemical plants with white plumes and roadside ditches that oozed with blue fluid. The article mentioned that the air smelled like a mix of rotten eggs and nail polish remover and many of Haze’s neighbors were suffering from a myriad of health issues, from miscarriages to cancer.
“I bet you money there are 20 plants right now just around St. Gabriel.” — Hazel Schexnayder.
The article noted that Hazel was off by 10 petrochemical plants — there are 30 of these large plants within 10 miles of her home, with 13 being within a 3-mile radius of her home. The world’s largest manufacturer of polystyrene, which is styrofoam, is one of those plants. Her town, St. Gabriel, is less than a 30-minute drive from Baton Rouge.
The article also shared the story of Reginald Grace, who grew up in a small town called Sunshine. Grace spoke of a nighttime chemical release that would be so thick it would look like a golden mist. “It’d look like raindrops but yellow,” Grace said. “We’d have to hose our yards clean.” People would often find dead birds in their lawns after these chemical releases.
Exxon’s Explosion Last Year & Covid 19
Scalawag Magazine shared the story of Ryan Ealy and Yolanda Freeman and the night of February 11, 2020. I remember that night also. That was when the Exxon refinery, which is less than 5 miles from me but just a few blocks from Ealy and Freeman, caught fire. Ealy’s wife was worried they might have had to evacuate, while Freemon thought it was an explosion. Freeman recalled the explosion vividly. “I have little whatnots on my shelf in my room,” she told Scalawag. “We heard something explode and some stuff fell. Actually, we thought something had hit the house, like a vehicle.”
Yet I remember officials claiming that there was no explosion even though I’d heard it, too. “You can just see the brightness in the sky at Exxon. It burned a couple of days,” Freeman said of the fire. What Ealy and Freeman found odd was that there were no evacuations, special precautions, or even warnings. “They fire off a horn and do an emergency test every Wednesday at 12 o’clock,” Ealy said. “Why didn’t they fire off their horn?”
The article also noted a horrific statistic that isn’t commonly mentioned in the news:
“The parishes with the highest per capita COVID-19 death rates are all contained within Cancer Alley. It makes sense — air pollution damages the lungs and lung damage causes a greater risk of death from the virus.”
It also noted that from Baton Rouge down to Plaquemines Parish there are over 200 plants emitting toxic and hazardous pollutants at levels that require state reporting to the EPA. Particulate matter and nitrogen oxides are among this pollution. Ealy and Freeman live in a neighborhood that is nestled against the fence of the Exxon refinery.
I love being by the river. I don’t like seeing the plants there or pollution. I don’t like seeing the evidence of how we are destroying this planet, and the lives of many humans. I could close my eyes, breathe with my mask on, and not smell the chemicals, and just pretend for a moment that it’s not real.
But I’d just be contributing to the problem by not speaking out — even if writing this article is all I’m doing, it counts. Collectively, we have got to do better. How many deaths caused by toxic air will it take for the people working in those corporations to realize that something is truly wrong with what those corporations are doing?