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Environmental Racism in Louisiana

Posted on 12. Apr, 2018 by

Topics like global warming and climate change can sometimes seem ambiguous and hazy – problems of the future whose full impact we can’t currently comprehend. As a result, it can be difficult to know what we as individuals can do in the here and now to protect the environment and the people living in it.

Some impacts of environmental damage are not nearly as nebulous as others, however. Pollution and environmental degradation are impacting people right here, right now, and these impacts tend to affect people of color and poor people disproportionately – a concept known as environmental racism. One well-known example of this is the dirty, lead-ridden water of Flint, Michigan, a city whose residents are mostly black and often poor. Switching Flint’s water source to the Flint River – the act which resulted in Flint’s water crisis – was a cost-cutting measure. Would the crisis in Flint have come about if it were a majority white city? What if it were a wealthy city?

A house lit up for Christmas next to a Murphy Oil Corporation factory in Meraux, Louisiana, a town in Cancer Alley.

Environmental racism isn’t just relegated to water pollution. It can rear its head in a variety of ways, and the state of Louisiana is a big offender. In Louisiana’s Cancer Alley (a stretch of land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge which is home to more than 150 plants and refineries), cancer rates jump high above the national average, and the majority of those affected are poor and historically black. The town of Diamond, for example, was founded by survivors of the largest slave revolt in US history in 1811, but its inhabitants had to be relocated by Shell after slogging through decades of exposure to toxic materials. Others, like the towns of Morrisonville and Sunrise that were originally founded by freed slaves hundreds of years ago, were completely bought out by petrochemical corporations, with residents paid to leave to make room for factories.  Residents of this area, who usually don’t have the resources to move out and whose protests are often ignored, can be made sick by the huge amount of toxins released by the petrochemical industry and other factories.

Claiborne just before the construction of the I-10 bridge.

Environmental justice issues don’t have to be centered around health – they affect all facets of people’s lives, including housing. In the 1960s, the I-10 bridge was built over Claiborne Avenue – a street once home to the longest single string of oak trees in the country and lined by well over a hundred businesses in the historically Black New Orleans neighborhood of Treme. After the bridge’s construction, property values were driven down and the number of businesses in the area dropped by about two-thirds. At the time, a similar highway had been proposed to run through the predominantly white French Quarter, but residents were able to prevent it’s construction. However, in the Treme in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, all objections to the I-10 bridge were ignored, with devastating consequences to the neighborhood’s culture and economy.

In New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, an entrenched history of housing discrimination means that predominantly Black neighborhoods bore a disproportionate brunt of the impacts of Hurricane Katrina. Since the Civil War, the government, banks, and realtors  “assigned” certain geographic areas to black people – areas which tended to be low-value and flood-prone, and which grew to become modern neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East which were hit heavily by the hurricane. As a result, 53 percent of black residents  reported they lost everything after Katrina, compared to only 19 percent of white residents. Black people were also significantly more likely to have faced life-threatening challenges in the wake of the storm. In the aftermath of Katrina, the Road Home Program was established in order to help New Orleans residents rebuild their homes. Homeowners were allocated grant money based on either their home’s market value or the cost to rebuild, whichever amounted to less. African American homeowners were much more likely to qualify for grants based on their homes’ market values, which often fell dramatically short of covering the cost to rebuild. GNOFHAC sued the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Louisiana Recovery Authority arguing that the Road Home Program discriminated based on race and the case reached a settlement for 62 million dollars. Road Home was successfully amended in 2011, but due to the discriminatory program that lasted six years after the storm, fewer African Americans were able to move back into the city than whites after Katrina.

Protesters in the room during city council vote on New Orleans East Entergy plant.

On March 13th, 2018, New Orleans City Council approved the construction of a $210 million natural gas power plant in a predominantly minority neighborhood and FEMA-designated flood zone in New Orleans East, despite protests from a coalition of New Orleans East residents, community activists, and environmental justice groups. The Entergy plant is meant to prevent power outages, but opponents cite the potentially harmful effects on the environment and public health while pointing out that Entergy’s reliability issues are related to distribution failures, not lack of power, and must be resolved internally – not by simply throwing money at the problem.  Though the plant has been approved, residents have vowed to continue to fight for the health and safety of their neighborhoods and opponents filed a lawsuit Tuesday, alleging that the council violated due process by not considering alternatives to the plant.

To stay up to date with this fight, visit www.nogasplant.com, and follow the plaintiffs in the case, groups that have spent almost two years protesting the idea of a new power plant: Alliance for Affordable Energy, the Sierra Club, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and 350-New Orleans.

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