Marguerite Casey Foundation awards Journalism Fellowships and Scholarships to focus on families working for equity – and to challenge how the public thinks about poverty. Grace King, a 2018 Scholar, speaks with Louisiana families organizing to fight pollution.
NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana’s economy shrank significantly in 2017, ranking it dead last among all U.S. states. Though the state’s economy has improved marginally since, the impacts from decades of poverty and environmental degradation still remain evident today.
Wetlands are being destroyed. Residents are dying from cancer. People in communities who once moved to the historic state for its diverse culture and beautiful nature are now marginalized.
Louisiana is home to 40 percent of the country’s wetlands. These wetlands are swamps and marshes, a Louisiana landmark. The iconic, natural preserves contribute to Louisiana’s unique and diverse environment.
And they are disappearing. Fast. Ninety percent of all coastal marsh loss in the United States occurs in this state, according to a report from Southeastern Louisiana University. This is due to human activity and pollution, as well as natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
Along with being an important piece of Louisiana’s history, culture and environment, these marshes represent a home for some Louisiana residents. It’s a place they grew up and prospered.
Albert “Al” Wilson makes his living from Louisiana’s natural resources in one of these wetlands called the Atchafalaya Basin. He crawfishes and gives swamp tours.
Various pipeline and construction projects threaten not only his job, but also the preservation and beauty of the basin.
“We used to have very active river shrimp communities where they would go out and harvest. There’s no longer river shrimp,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley, an organizer for the Sierra Club. “We humans have done a real good job of messing up what we found.”
Along the 85-mile stretch of river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, more than 100 industrial plants emit various chemicals. The area, nicknamed “Cancer Alley,” has the nation’s highest risk of developing cancer from air toxins, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The pollution has caused widespread health problems in predominantly low-income, African-American communities. Medical bills are piling up, and regulations on the industrial plants responsible are “suggested.”
“Everybody knows somebody who has some type of cancer,” Genevieve “Eve” Butler, who lives in Cancer Alley, said.
Pastor Harry Joseph agrees.
“You got a lot of people that are sick,” he said. “You got kids that are coming up with respiratory problems, and it’s not good for us.”
With awareness comes action from community leaders. Retired Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré is one of the many people trying to fight against the injustices impacting the low-income and minority communities in Southeastern Louisiana. It’s for the love of his state, he said.
“The people of Louisiana you won’t find better anywhere,” Honore said. “We love our culture, but we’re being challenged every day.”
WUFT News explored how environmental issues in Louisiana impact the low-income communities, leaving thousands marginalized.
These are their stories.
PLAQUEMINE, La. — As the sun peered through the cloudy sky, Albert “Al” Wilson looked back at the group of visitors sitting on his silver jon boat. He asked if they were ready, adjusted his charcoal baseball cap and switched on the outboard motor.
He was ready to show them the beauty of his home: the Atchafalaya Basin in Plaquemine, Louisiana. The basin is the largest wetland and swamp in the U.S. stretching 85 miles from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
“I’m out on the boat every single day, whether I’m fishing or crawfishing or just enjoying the nature,” Al said. “I also do swamp tours full-time.”
Al grew up fishing in the basin with his father, Dean, who started The Last Wilderness Swamp Tours to “educate and gain support in protecting this seriously threatened paradise.” They offer $40 tours year-round to show visitors from around the world the beauty and importance of the basin.
As the years have gone by, Al has witnessed the environmental to his home and livelihood firsthand.
“They built [the Bayou Bridge Pipeline] right through an area where we do swamp tours and you can’t even recognize the entrance anymore,” Al said. “It also went through part of an area that I crawfish one of the most productive areas in the entire basin for crawfish.”
Al is one of just 300 crawfishermen left in the basin, according to a report from NBC News. Twenty years ago, there were more than 3,000.
Part of the decline in the crawfishing industry is because of the natural and human destruction of coastal wetlands. A study by Southeastern Louisiana University found that Louisiana has lost more than a million acres since 2000.
“They’re spewing mud and sediments filling the swamps up, so instead of being swamps it starts to become land,” Al said. “You can’t fish in those grounds anymore. It’s essentially destroyed.”
In Louisiana, most crawfishing businesses are handed down from generation to generation. It has become a $300 million industry for the state and many of those in business are low-income, uneducated and/or minority.
Louisiana has nearly 50,000 miles of pipelines that provide natural gas to nearly all parts of the United States, according to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. LDNR said the pipelines are “an important factor in [Louisiana’s] economy.”
The most recently-completed project is the Bayou Bridge Pipeline expansion, which created a pathway for crude oil to run through the state from Lake Charles to St. James.
Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the pipeline, said the pipeline will provide “Louisiana refiners with more efficient and sustainable access to North American crude oil as well as market diversification for North American producers.” In other words, a way to provide oil and gas to most parts of the contiguous United States.
Energy Transfer Partners also said the pipeline generated more than $420 million in wages through construction jobs.
Pastor Harry Joseph of the Mount Triumph Baptist Church in St. James tried to halt construction of the pipeline in 2017. He said projects like this one end up hurting low-income communities more than helping them.
“A lot of us don’t get the jobs,” Joseph said. “All the people that’s prospering is those that are in higher places.”
Many members of his congregation do not have the necessary skills, transportation or ability to pass a drug test, he said. Instead, the jobs tend to go to richer, out-of-state workers.
“In many ways, we’ve sacrificed, but we have not benefited from this bounty of wealth that’s created here,” said Russel L. Honoré, the retired lieutenant general for the U.S. Army who led the military response to Hurricane Katrina.
Honoré currently leads the Green Army, a group in Louisiana dedicated to giving low-income communities a voice in the fight for environmental justice.
“We’ve got all this wealth and the politicians brag about the number of jobs they brought in,” Honoré said. “If we’re doing so good, why are we so poor?”
SORRENTO, La. — For Gene and Genie LeBlanc, paradise was the 176-acres of land Gene’s family owned in Ascension Parish.
They built their dream wooden cabin overlooking a field of yellow wildflowers. It was the perfect place to host Bible study and family holidays.
“It was heaven on earth,” Genie said. “You can go up the four wheeler and go hunt and fish, entertain, whatever.”
That was important to Gene, too.
“I wanted to raise my children and my offspring in an environment where we could ride four wheelers, hunt and fish like I’d done as a child,” he said.
Genie and Gene LeBlanc spent their life savings to build their forever home. A wooden cross hangs prominently over the structured living room. Paintings and religious quotes fill the wooden walls they built themselves.
For an industrial plant worker, Gene felt fortunate to have finally saved enough money to build themselves their dream retirement spot.
“We thought we were living in total seclusion,” Gene said. “This is the best place I ever lived — other than, the fact is, you can’t breathe here.”
The LeBlancs live next to Colonial Landfill, a 287-acre landfill that accepts residential, commercial and nonhazardous industrial waste. Genie said the waste releases a toxic odor.
WUFT News left multiple messages for the landfill’s manager over a three-month period, but none were returned.
“We have burning eyes, burning throats,” Genie said. “It feels like your chest is on fire. There is weakness, instant headache.”
Those symptoms are all too familiar to Genevieve “Eve” Butler, a computer technician who lives 30 miles south of the LeBlancs in Freetown.
“I’ve had my face peel pink twice just from being caught in the rain,” Eve said. Butler is a breast cancer survivor and battled a thyroid problem, neither of which she said runs in her family.
Gene, Genie and Eve live in the heart of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, an 85-mile strip between Baton Rouge and New Orleans littered with chemical plants and pollution. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency said Cancer Alley has the country’s highest risk for developing cancer from air toxins; it’s a risk five to 20 times greater than the national average.
‘These Citizens Are Suffering’
Wilma Subra has worked in Cancer Alley studying environmental pollution and its adverse effects on communities since the 1970s.
Thousands of pages of research line nearly every inch of a two-bedroom home in New Iberia, Louisiana, that Wilma called her office. Each stack is a different project, she said.
“I always know where everything is,” she said. “I drive people crazy because they say, ‘How do you know?’ I can walk right up to it, I know how far down it is, and I can pull it out.”
She pulled out a 49-page document summarizing the history and current contamination of the 12 parishes in Cancer Alley.
“You can’t just say, ‘This is a risk of one chemical,’ you have to be able to say, ‘This is the risk of all of the chemicals that are being released,’” Wilma said. “The citizens are suffering; they’re being exposed to all these chemicals.”
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory found 32.2 million pounds of toxic chemicals were released in the Cancer Alley area.
“You have a community that is impacted by four different plants emitting 25 to 35 different chemicals,” Darryl Malek-Wiley, an organizer for the Sierra Club, said. “Nobody knows what the long-term impact of that is going to be other than we do have a higher cancer rate in some areas than others.”
The Fence Line Community
In the early 1870s, Genevieve “Eve” Butler’s great-grandparents were among the first settlers of Freetown, Louisiana.
“It was the first diverse community between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and from that, there were several streets and a community was laid,” Eve said. “You had a community hall, a benevolent society, land was set aside for school and a church, you know, things that you would find in a community.”
Her family has lived in the same area for more than a century. Eve remembers growing up surrounded by birds humming, crickets chirping and things growing wild: flowers, blackberries, pecan trees.
Today, she said her town is notably quieter. There are no grocery stores nearby. She no longer hears cricket or sees fireflies.
“If the insects are leaving, it’s time for us to leave, too,” Eve said. “You’re not going to have a good life living here.”
While plantation owners sold their land to industrial plants in the 1960s, freed slaves and their descendants were able to keep their small homes along the plantation’s edge, Wilma said. No one had a property title, and Louisiana Civil Code prohibited the industry from purchasing land without one.
“And so they built the industrial facility and the African-American community became the fence line community,” Wilma said. “Many can’t move because they don’t earn enough money.”
But for Eve and her family, the cost of moving is worth a better quality of living and sacrificing her family’s land.
“I don’t want to drink benzene, I don’t want to take a bath in formaldehyde,” she said. “I don’t want to have to breathe ammonia and I certainly, certainly don’t want my grandchildren or my children living someplace that’s going to cause them harm, shorten their life.”
She said she plans on moving to Tennessee for the clean air like her daughter and brother.
Good or Bad?
Louisiana’s economy is — and has been — struggling in comparison to other states. Louisiana’s politicians have offered tax breaks and in some cases, relaxed regulations, to petrochemical industries looking to start their businesses in the state.
Since the 1960s, Louisiana refineries, chemical manufacturers and related industries have become critical to the state’s economy. Louisiana Economic Development said collectively they are responsible for more than $206 billion in annual shipments.
The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association said the energy sector employees more than 260,000 employees across the state. Those jobs are critical to Louisiana’s economy.
As of March 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked Louisiana sixth in terms of highest unemployment rates for states in the country. If Louisiana were to stop offering tax breaks or enforce regulations, companies could threaten to take their business elsewhere and create more marginalized communities.
In the case of the landfill next to the LeBlanc home, Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality said the “social and economic benefits of Colonial’s facility outweigh the environmental impacts.”
The petrochemical and energy industry is essential to Louisiana’s economic recovery. Still, the residents living on the fence lines said there needs to be more balance.
“We have to find a better way of doing things in our state,” Pastor Joseph said. “I feel that we can come together with our local government and if they just listen, if people listen, it will be a better world.”
Fighting for Change
BATON ROUGE, La. — When Marylee Orr’s son Michael was born, he was diagnosed with a respiratory disease.
She decided to take matters into her own hands.
“The air was unhealthy when he was born,” Marylee said. “Now he’s well and whole and I’m very, very grateful and try to pay that forward every day because he could have had some very serious health issues.”
For the last 30 years, she’s dedicated her life to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), an organization for which she co-founded and now serves as the executive director.
“LEAN revolves around people and about their struggles, their health, preserving the natural resources in protecting their health,” Marylee said. “We just talk about the disproportionate impact to low-income minority communities.”
She said she believes the solutions lie in empowering those less fortunate rather than advocating on their behalf.
“We go in and help them find a voice all the way from their local community,“ she said. “If we don’t preserve their voices, they’re going to be lost.”
Marylee said she fears outside companies with deep pockets are constantly overpowering the voices of people living Louisiana.
Campaign finance data shows oil and gas industry companies were frequent donors to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ 2015 gubernatorial bid. In total, donation database Vote Smart estimates the industry contributed more than $138,000.
Edwards supported the Bayou Bridge Pipeline and industrial expansion, though he has begun to question their environmental impacts.
“It’s tough. This is a lot about power and money and people,” Marylee said. “The people are you. The people are us. The people are me… They’re people who want to have a future. They want to live.”
She said hopes her work allows future generations of Louisianians to live with their families and breathe easier.
“Sometimes the definition of success in Louisiana is different than it would be in other places,” Marylee said. “It’s a very complicated space.”
‘If you don’t fight, you die’
Darryl Malek-Wiley remembers being intrigued by a Sierra Club meeting in Wilmington, North Carolina. So intrigued, in fact, that he decided to become a conservation leader and dedicate his life to fighting against environmental injustice.
That was in 1972.
He now lives in New Orleans to help marginalized communities get records from the Department of Environmental Quality, become informed about the issues affecting their health, craft press releases and form their own opinions.
“It’s to help them understand that they’re not a powerless community; they have power and they just need to figure out how to tap it and move forward,” Darryl said. “I try not to be their voice, but I try to be the one behind helping them get their voice.”
He spent 10 years helping rebuild parts of the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. He fought passionately against the construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Now, he spends a good portion of his time trying to save those living in Cancer Alley.
“We have these gigantic facilities and they’re emitting a whole range of different chemicals,” Darryl said. “If you don’t fight, you die.”
Darryl said he thinks giving a voice and knowledge to the marginalized communities will help them advocate and push for changes.
“I fight because it’s something in me that says you know I need to help folks,” he said. “It is all about is helping people understand what’s going on.”
‘We’ve got to change’
Retired Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré served in the United States Army for 37 years, three months and three days.
He commanded the military’s relief efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which he said was one of the largest deployments of U.S. military within the 48 contiguous states.
Today, he is still goes by General. But now, he leads his own army with a different goal. His group, the Green ARMY, works to advocate for environmental change in impacted areas of Louisiana.
In this role, he unites existing organizations — such as LEAN, Sierra Club, Bucket Brigade — to fight against injustice together.
“I got involved with the Green Army to try and use my voice, to use the skills I learned in the military, to try and analyze the problem, try to come up with a solution,” Honoré said.
He goes from community to community, taking pictures of the environmental destruction and finding ways to help improve the quality of life for those living nearby.
In the case of the LeBlancs, Honoré spent an hour listening to their symptoms, inspecting their air monitoring equipment and looking for ways to help. He said he will bring them a water testing kit and coordinate with Wilma Subra to make sure the state is receiving their data.
“If it was not for men like Russel Honoré and other people that will put their neck on the line for the good of the people, I’m sure it would be a lot worse,” Gene said. While the LeBlancs are still waiting for a resolution, they said they have hope.
Honoré is a prominent figure across Louisiana, and has used his status to help make a case for the marginalized communities. He said he and the Green ARMY helped lobby for eight bills in the Louisiana state House this legislative session, including one that could help the LeBlancs.
“People have a human right to clean water and clean air,” Honoré said. “It’s absolutely a crying shame to see how these companies are allowed to emit toxic air and toxic water.”
‘We Need to be Upfront in Letting Our Government Know’
In the heart of St. James Parish, sounds of hymns and prayer fill Mount Triumph Baptist Church every week. Pastor Harry Joseph preaches from his Bible, just like he’s done for the past eight years.
As time went on, he noticed members of his congregation were starting to get sick with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses in an unusual way.
“It hurt because I’m a leader,” he said. “I just started speaking out because when my people hurt, I hurt and when they suffer, I suffer.”
He started attending City Council and local government meetings to explain what was happening and ask for help, he said. However, that effort was useless.
“It’s a majority of Black American, you know African American people and there’s a lot of suffering, so as a leader and as a pastor I felt that we need to be upfront in letting our government know how we feel,” Pastor Joseph said. “But our government don’t even hear us.”
Pastor Joseph said he does not believe the petrochemical industry will leave, so instead he is fighting for the industry to compensate his congregation members and allow them to move elsewhere.
“We [are] just hoping that somebody just break something and start getting some people out of here,” he said. “This chemical stuff that we’re dealing with down here, it’s not good for our health. It’s not good for our bodies.”
Still, some families have lived in Cancer Alley for more than a century. Pastor Joseph said he fears leaving is not an option for everyone.
“They got their family here. They got their roots here,” he said. “Some people might not never want to leave.”
Pastor Joseph said he cannot leave if his congregation stays. However, he wants to see change in local leadership, new environmental policies and respect and compassion for each other.
“We destroy people for a dollar,” he said. “Money can’t buy you health and money can’t buy love, and these are the things that we’re failing to do is to love one another and to help one another.”
Pastor Joseph said despite the adversity they’ve faced, faith keeps them strong.
“We got our leader and our help and we just continue maintaining our faith and trusting God,” he said. “I feel God will get us out of this.”
Grace King is a multimedia journalist for WBIR 10News, the NBC affiliate in Knoxville, Tennessee. She is a 2018 recipient of a Marguerite Casey Foundation Journalism Scholarship. She also is a graduate of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications in Gainesville. Follow her on Twitter at @gracelking. This special report first appeared on April 29, 2019 on the website of WUFT News, the PBS and NPR outlet serving counties in North Central Florida. Meredith Sheldon contributed reporting and editing. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America.