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Transcript: Into Dirty Air

The full episode transcript for Into Dirty Air.
Image: Baton Rouge
Smoke billows from one of many chemical plants in Baton Rouge, La., on Oct.12, 2013.Giles Clarke / Getty Images


Into America

Into Dirty Air

Trymaine Lee: In a time of crisis, numbers matter. They tell a story. Across the country, they're telling us that black people are dying at higher rates from COVID-19. That's true in Louisiana, where numbers tell us that African Americans represent 56% of the fatalities, despite being only 32% of the population.

Numbers also tell us that some regions are struggling more than others to keep COVID-19 at bay. In the southeast part of Louisiana, St. John the Baptist and St. James parishes are among the 20 U.S. counties with the highest per capita death rate from coronavirus. That's according to analysis by The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.

But the land here, it tells a story too. Winding alongside the twist and turns of the Mississippi River, this region was once known as the German coast of Louisiana. In 1811 500 enslaved people armed themselves with muskets and ammunition and led a rebellion.

It was the largest slave revolt in U.S. history. But ultimately it fell short. Slavery would continue in Louisiana for more than 50 years. When it finally ended, plantation owners sold their land. And black people whose families had been enslaved stayed nearby. Sharecropping replaced slavery. Farms replaced plantations. And industry eventually replaced farms. With industry came something else: pollution.

Sharon Lavigne: It smelled like a rotten egg. It smelled like sewage. It smelled like so many different things, but it smelled bad. And it gets into your nostrils. Oh, it's awful.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America, a podcast about politics, about policy and the power both have in shaping the lives of the American people. This week we're going into a place called Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that today is home to more than 200 plants and refineries. It's also home to high rates of pollution, high rates of disease and it's where we are seeing some of the highest rates of death from COVID-19.

Lavigne: The industry is killing us. And on top of that, the coronavirus is killing us. So we have double whammy.

Dr. Robert Bullard: That's an economic injustice and environmental injustice and a racial injustice. And then when you add health overlaid on top, it's a health injustice.

Lee: On this stretch of land, along the Mississippi, where freedom was fought for, there's a new generation of black Louisianans fighting for their lives. St. James Parish spans both sides of the Mississippi River, about halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. It's small, with a population of about 21,000 people. Growing up in St. James, Sharon Lavigne's daddy, he was a sugar cane farmer who also raised hogs, chickens, even a bull.

Lavigne: If you would go to the fence where that bull was, and you had on red, that bull will come after (LAUGH) you. He would charge after you.

Lee: He sound like a mean something, huh? (LAUGHTER)

Lavigne: Yes, that bull was so mean. (LAUGHTER)

Lee: Sharon owns about 20 acres of family land on the east side of the river. Her family has been in St. James for three generations.

Lavigne: Oh, we could go out in the yard and play. It was the American dream. It was so wonderful. Everything was nice. The air was clean. The water was clean. We could drink water from the hydrant. We could, you know, just breathe clean air.

Lee: In the 1960s, when Sharon was in eighth grade, things began to change around St. James. Her family learned that a fertilizer plant was coming to the parish.

Lavigne: We were happy. Because my daddy was glad. And I was glad because he was telling my mama about it, how the first plant coming in, it's gonna be a fertilizer plant. And it's gonna bring jobs to St. James. And they were happy. So I was glad too.

Lee: People she was in school with began saying they wanted to work in the plant someday.

Lavigne: I thought that was wonderful, but not knowing what I know today. Well, years went by. Then more started to come in. Then I noticed a company called Coke. Now they change it to New Star and Shell Oil. Then, over the years, they got one called Plains.

Lee: New Star Energy, Shell Oil, Plains All American Pipeline, all these companies Sharon mentioned are in the oil and gas industry. And they are all still in the area. Some folks we spoke to in St. James said those jobs they hoped for didn't really pan out for black people. And over time, as more plants began popping up throughout the parish, more people started getting sick.

Lavigne: Some of 'em had stomach cancer. Some have kidney cancer. Or one of 'em had brain cancer. So many different types of cancer. And the breast cancer is the top one in this neighborhood. I know people was getting sick. But I thought that was because people just was getting sick. I thought maybe wasn't myself. I thought I was getting older and I find me at 50, I started having all kinda things wrong with my body. But I didn't think anything of it. Because I thought that's the way life is.

Lee: Four years ago, at age 63, Sharon was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis.

Lavigne: I thought it was something that just happened. Never thought it was the industry. Never in a million years. Everybody thought the industry was good.

Lee: When did the switch kinda flip and you realized that perhaps it's the stuff that y'all been breathing and the industry around you?

Lavigne: In 2018. That's a shame. And I hate to say it. I hate to say it, Trymaine. I feel bad when I say that. What was wrong with us that we didn't know, that we didn't associate it with the industry?

Lee: Sharon told me that's when she started reading up. Cancer Alley is a nickname that locals say has been around for more than 30 years. Chemicals emitted from nearby plants, things like ethylene oxide and benzene, are known carcinogens. And seven of the ten census tracts with the highest cancer risk in the nation are found here. That's according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. The plants are mostly built near majority black communities. And poverty increases the closer you get to them. There's a reason companies wanna set up shop in this region.

Lee: A 2011 ad for the St. James Parish Tourism Bureau touts its location.

Lee: There's easy access to shipping lanes along the Mississippi, inexpensive to build on. And Louisiana has a reputation for being lax on environmental regulations. Industry plants with high toxic emissions must report them to the EPA. Nationally, plant emissions are down.

But in Louisiana, the number of plants that reported high emissions grew by 25% over the last three decades. We reached out to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. They told us via email that the state is in line with EPA standards for clean air and water.

And they said that, when they grant permits, their mission is to protect human health and the environment and that they balance that against the social and economic benefits of the plants. In St. James Parish alone, there are over 30 petrochemical plants.

While the population is pretty evenly split, 49% black, 49% white, the plants are largely concentrated in the 5th District of the parish, where Sharon lives. The 5th District is over 80% black. When you look out of your window, and in your community, how is the pollution actually presenting itself? Do you see it in the air? Do you see it on the ground? Like, how does it physically present?

Lavigne: When you get up in the morning, your car is covered with just little white particles. Like, if it's not humid out there, just the wind blowing, you could see it blowing in the air. When I get up in the morning to go to work, I leave my house at 6:30 in the morning. Open the door and I say, "Whoa, Lord, I could go back in the house. That smell." You wouldn't be able to live out here.

Lee: And the plants keep coming.

Governor John Bel Edwards: So I'm delighted to announce all of these extraordinary capital investment job creation right here in St. James Parish, just about two miles from the foot of the Sunshine Bridge.

Lee: In July of 2018, Governor Bel Edwards announced that Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics was planning to build a $9.4 billion plastics factory in St. James, 14 plants spread across 2,300 acres of land.

Lavigne: Lord have mercy. I literally got weak. (LAUGH) And I had to sit down. And I couldn't believe it. That was the governor I voted for. And he's gonna put this plant right next to me? Well, I just felt so sick that day.

Lee: The company, which already has a presence in Baton Rouge, has promised 1,200 permanent well-paying jobs and 8,000 temporary construction jobs at its new St. James location. And they say they are eager to be good neighbors. They funded a park in the 5th District, supported education programs, and donated to a local hospital.

They also say they believe this project poses no risk, none at all, to the community and that they plan to follow all the mission's guidelines set by the EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. But the new plant will reportedly double the amount of air pollution in the parish. It will be just one mile from an elementary school and two miles from Sharon's home. For Sharon, the idea of yet another plant coming to town is inconceivable.

Lavigne: I said I couldn't take it. I just can't. I can't live here with this plant coming next to me.

Lee: So in 2018 Sharon founded a group called RISE St. James to fight the Formosa plant. And not long after, the community discovered that the planned petrochemical complex would be built on what are believed to be grave sites for enslaved people.

Lavigne: It takes my heart out to know that these industry are doing these things, building on top of people that are buried. These are not animals. These are people. They slaved there. They lived there. They died there. And they were buried there. So at least you can respect that.

Lee: Formosa is now facing a lawsuit from RISE and other environmental and community groups who are trying to stop construction. The company declined to comment on the suit but have reportedly fenced off the location of the graves. Formosa hit pause on construction a few weeks ago in part due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus. They told us they haven't decided when things will pick back up. While construction in on hold, coronavirus is spreading in Louisiana, leaving Sharon and her neighbors in St. James facing another fight. More on that after the break.

There's an old saying that's been popping up a lot these days, that when white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia. At the beginning of April, Governor Edwards addressed what was then the coronavirus disparity in Louisiana.

Edwards: Disturbingly this information is going show you this. Slightly more than 70% of all of the deaths in Louisiana are of African Americans. And so that deserves more attention. And we're gonna have to dig into that and see what we can do to slow that trend down. Hypertension is the leading underlying condition now.

Lee: We don't yet know the racial breakdown of St. James Parish. But the fatality rate from COVID-19 is high overall, sitting at about 7.8%. that's higher than New York City, the epicenter of the outbreak. Sharon Lavigne has watched as the virus has moved in. Tell me about how your community has been impacted by coronavirus. Do you know folks who have been directly impacted?

Lavigne: Yes, my friend Irma, she's in the hospital right now. Her little boy has the virus. And this bus driver that I knew, she was older, a retired bus driver. She died. And her two children is in the hospital right now, fighting the virus. And one of the pastors over here at St. James, he died. He was at church that Sunday. And he was telling his wife he was feeling bad. He'd been feeling bad the whole week. But he thought it was the flu. So they made him go to the hospital in St. James. And he died that Wednesday.

Lee: You know, we are seeing very high death rates from coronavirus in St. James Parish. And in nearby St. John the Baptist, which has the highest death rate from COVID of any county with a population of 5,000 or more across the entire country, which is obviously a big deal. Do you think there's a connection between pollution in St. James and the rate at which people are dying from coronavirus?

Lavigne: Yes, I do think there's a connection. Yes, I do. 'Cause we're already sick. Then the coronavirus is coming on top of our sickness.

Lee: We now know that COVID-19 is especially unforgiving for people with compromised immune systems, like people with cancer or heart conditions. And in Louisiana hypertension, otherwise known as high blood pressure, has been a factor in more than half of coronavirus deaths. A major cause of hypertension, air pollution.

Earlier this month Harvard released a preliminary study that suggests long-term exposure to air pollution is connected to the more severe COVID symptoms and high mortality rates from the disease. But instead of ratcheting up emissions rules in response to this crisis, the regulations are getting looser. And plants are still operating.

In March the Environmental Protection Agency suspended enforcement of the environmental laws, telling companies they would not need to meet standards during this outbreak. The temporary policy has no end date. That means places like St. James Parish and other communities along that Louisiana chemical corridor could be at even greater risk.

Bullard: It's still difficult to convince people that these issues are real. So.

Lee: To find out more about these risks, I turned to a man that many people call the father of environmental justice.

Bullard: My name is Dr. Robert Bullard, professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. And for the last 40-plus years, I've been working on issues related to environmental justice and environmental racism and policies and practices that disproportionately impact poor people and people of color.

Lee: And what exactly does environmental justice mean?

Bullard: Well, environmental justice embraces the principle that all communities and people are entitled to equal protection of our environmental laws and transportation and housing, energy, health laws and regulations. Environmental racism is a form of discrimination that disproportionately impact people of color.

Most people would say, "Well, everybody has a right to breathe clean air and clean water." And most people take that for granted because most people in this country don't live that life of living every day, 24/7, breathing dirty air, having, you know, trucks run through the neighborhood, dumping their diesel fumes, or having freeways and highways run through their neighborhoods.

And so the pattern of where these things go, planners call them locally unwanted land uses. We call 'em nasties. We call 'em dirty industries. They are targeted to communities of color. It's not random. It's not accidental. And it's on purpose.

Zip code is one of the best predictors of health and well-being. You tell me your zip code, you tell me what's in your zip code, I can tell you how healthy you are. Communities of color and African American communities have more than their fair share of things that other people don't want, such as polluting facilities and few of those facilities that make us healthy, such as parks and green space and full service grocery stores, good schools and those things that we know make for a healthy community. And that's what environmental justice is all about. It's about fairness, justice and equity.

Lee: So it sounds like black folks especially have had this kind of exploited relationship with big industry from times past (LAUGH) into times now.

Bullard: It's been uninterrupted. And if you look at the total impacts, it shows up in health disparities. I mean, they don't call it Cancer Alley for nothing.

Lee: With the arrival of coronavirus, health disparities are a death sentence for some people.

Bullard: And so when you talk about, you know, having communities that are with all the chemicals being pumped out, not having access to good, quality health care, high concentration of people who are uninsured, then you have lots of underlying conditions that make it right for a heat-seeking missile like COVID-19.

It's basically going to the most vulnerable places and seeking out the population that is most vulnerable. But communities on the ground for many, many years could tell you. They don't need Harvard to tell you that pollution is making people sick. And if you live 40 miles away, away from the pollution, you're healthier. You know, commonsense but also science is pointing to this vulnerability.

Lee: When you describe COVID-19 as a heat-seeking missile, and it's not a stretch to see the destruction of that missile, it makes sense when you describe it like that.

Bullard: COVID-19 is a disaster. It's a catastrophe. It's a pandemic. But disasters historically have disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable population when it comes to preparedness, when it comes to the recovery, and when it comes to trying to develop policies to address these issues. And so the struggle, you know, that's happening in these parishes, you know, like St. James and like St. John the Baptist, these people have been fighting for decades. And it's the same fight. It's the same struggle.

Lee: This struggle, where environmental gaps and health care gaps meet a raging pandemic, is playing out all across the country.

Bullard: Disproportionate death rates happening in Chicago and Detroit and New Orleans and in other places, it's not random. It's not isolated. It's not coincidental.

Lee: According to state data, in Illinois African Americans make up 15% of the population, but 38% of the known COVID deaths. In nearby Michigan, the state's population is 14% black. But African Americans are 40% of those who died from coronavirus.

Bullard: Air pollution and pollution in general is segregated. And so is America. And when you get that segregation, and you get that overlay, then you get a disproportionate share of illness and deaths.

Lee: So what about folks who say, "You know, I just don't buy this racism argument. You know, I wanna see the numbers. Give me something that I can actually chew on."

Bullard: Over the last three and a half decades, numerous studies have shown that race is still the most potent variable for explaining who gets polluted, who gets dumped on, who's living next to what type of facility that's creating lots of pollution. For example, the 1987 toxic waste and race study, completed by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, showed where hazardous waste facilities are located.

It's not based on how much money you make or whether or not the community is homeowners or renters, whether or not the property values are high. It was race. And that 1987 study found that over a third of the residents who live within a two-mile radius of these facilities were African American and people of color. Twenty years later, colleagues and I, we updated the 1987 study. And we basically found the same thing, that race was still the most potent variable. It was not income. It was not education, not class, none of those. It was race.

Lee: Dr. Bullard told me that African Americans who make $50,000 to $60,000 a year are more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods than whites who make just $10,000 a year. Pollution is just one factor in disparate COVID deaths. But of course there are many others.

Black people are over concentrated in jobs like mass transit and service-sector work that require interacting with the public. Less than 20% of African Americans have jobs that allow them to work from home. And decades of segregation kept millions of people of color living in more densely populated areas.

Black people are also more likely to have diabetes, asthma and heart disease, ailments that make coronavirus especially deadly. And when we look beyond COVID-19, we know that there are difference in how black health is managed. Black people tend to receive inferior health care.

They have to be sicker before being referred to a specialist. And even black women with college degrees are more likely to die in childbirth than white women. Understanding the systemic nature of these racial disparities in the economy, housing and health care demystifies the numbers we're seeing with COVID-19.

The coronavirus death rate in black communities isn't about chance or about individual shortcomings. It's about overlapping systems that have failed black people over and over after. And over and over again what we've seen is that those systems don't change without a fight.

In 1811, that fight was from the enslaved people along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. In 2020, it's from the black people who have inherited that land. Dr. Bullard, what advice would you give for folks on the front line in their communities, who are fighting against these big corporations and these big facilities.

Bullard: This is not a sprint. You know, and I tell people this is like a marathon relay. You run your 26 miles, and then you pass the baton to the next group, the next generation to run that 26. It is possible to win.

Lee: In St. James the spread of coronavirus has slowed the work Sharon is doing to ward off new industry.

Lavigne: The work has slowed down so much. We have conference calls now. And a lot of the members, they don't wanna come out because of the virus. So but I'm the one that's going out. I know I shouldn't be too, but I'm going. But I put on my mask and my gloves. And I thank God we're still okay. Thank God for that, you know?

Lee: But she's not willing to walk away from the land her parents fought for, her grandparents fought for, and generations fought for before them.

Lavigne: I don't wanna move. This is my land. And I'm not gonna pack up and give them what they want. I don't think so. And I always said we were here first. So why should we have to give up everything we have to satisfy them? I don't think so.

Lee: For now Sharon hold onto her vision for what St. James Parish could one day return to.

Lavigne: I love outside. I love outdoors, just being out there. So I do pray and hope that St. James can come back to the way, if not exactly we were, but almost like it was. Trymaine, if you ever come to Louisiana, come down and see St. James. I wanna show you our little land.

Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Lavigne: When everything calm down. Uh-huh (AFFIRM). If y'all tell me, I'll make some gumbo.

Lee: Yes, ma'am. (LAUGHTER) I'll be there. Before we go today, we wanna let you know about a new way to get in touch with us. If you've got feedback, questions, or if there's a story you think we should know about, you can email us That's IntoAmerica@NBCUNI, short for "universal,". com.

We really wanna hear from you about what's happening in your community. So don't be shy. You can always find me on Twitter. My handle is TrymaineLee. That's TrymaineLee, all one word. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.