HJNO Mar/Apr 2020

POLLUTER’S PARADISE 22 MAR / APR 2020 I  HEALTHCARE JOURNAL OF NEW ORLEANS   still beholden to white landlords. “The town was black, but white-owned,” said Reginald Grace, a career counselor who grew up in Sunshine. His mother was the only teacher at the only school for black children in St. Gabriel before 1955, a one-room schoolhouse now being re- envisioned as a museum. Schexnayder grew up in New Orleans but was sent to live with her grandpar- ents in St. Gabriel at 17. The city girl had no trouble falling in love with country life. “Some people still lived in those plan- tation houses, and there was nothing but cornfields around them,” she said. “I remember that coming in on the train. It was so pretty to see the cornfields blow- ing in the wind. We didn’t have cameras to take pictures, but that stays in my head.” Her grandparents’ tin roof was rusty, and the outhouse never ceased to terrify her. Still, “we didn’t think we were poor,”she recalled. “We ate every day, and didn’t eat just anything. We had good meals.” Schexnayder misses the gravel roads, which kept traffic slow. She misses the quiet nights, unmarred by the blight of industry. “No fumes to be smelled back then,”she said. “It was just night air. It was clean.” Louisiana in the 20th century under- went a slow economic transformation. Politicians eagerly embraced the change from farming to industry, offering gener- ous tax incentives in hopes that manufac- turing would raise the state out of poverty. During the first wave of development, in the 1940s, the chemical plants were clustered around Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Over the decades, they began to spread further, occupying the stretch of river between them. During the 1950s, chemical manufac- turers looking to set up shop avoided heavily populated places. The hulking plants they built tended to be near major- ity-black communities like St. Gabriel. “Given prevailing racial attitudes, those communities were, in effect, invisible,” said Craig Colten, a professor of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State Univer- sity who has published research about the state’s chemical industry. Plants with emissions above certain thresholds are required to report them. According to EPA data, the number of industrial plants in Louisiana that reported their toxic releases grew from 255 to 320 in the last three decades, an increase of 25%. Nationally, however, the number of plants that reported dropped by 16% over that period. Folks in St. Gabriel and similar riverfront communities once hoped industry would at least bring employment — better paying and less backbreaking — than the work they had grown up with. “We thought we’d get better jobs, but they brought their own people here,” said Wil- lis, the former longshoreman, who worked as a dirt and gravel hauler most of his life. “They’d say we can’t pass their tests; that we’re on drugs.” A 1995 employment survey conducted by the city of St. Gabriel just after incorpo- ration found less than 9% of the full-time industry jobs in St. Gabriel were held by local residents. Yet jobs were always promised when each new plant was proposed. Over time, residents have come to view such promises with skepticism. St. Gabriel Mayor Lionel Johnson believes there’s a reason companies don’t want to hire workers who live too close to their plants: They might care too much about pollution. “If they live locally, the workers would be much more cautious and aware of what’s happening at the facilities,”he said. “They’d know it has a direct impact on themselves and their families.” If plants aren’t hiring locals, it’s likely because the candidates aren’t qualified, said Greg Bowser, president of the Louisi- ana Chemical Association. “Working at a chemical facility is a big undertaking,”he said. “To receive a job offer, it is necessary to have the proper training at a reputable center of learning.” Whether or not plant managers are hir- ing people from the surrounding commu- nity, it’s clear that the profusion of plants has never translated into prosperity for St. Gabriel. Today, the town’s annual per-capita income is $15,000 — nearly a third below the state average, and about half the national average. The poverty rate, 29%, far exceeds the state rate of 20%. The lack of vitality is impossible to miss. The fewwood-frame houses left in town are mostly boarded up and covered in vines. “All over, it was houses here,”Grace said, motioning at a dilapidated section of Car- ville. “Real houses — not these trailers. When houses fall apart [now], nobody has money to do repairs, and they put in a trailer.” He points at empty concrete slabs and foundations where bars, restaurants and schools once stood. Today, the town’s de facto gathering spot is Fred’s, a truck stop with small diner and a windowless casino. “Like Raindrops but Yellow” The old custom of sitting outside on sum- mer evenings fell out of favor long ago, res- idents said, thanks to nighttime chemical releases — sometimes so thick they’d fall as a golden mist. “It’d look like raindrops but yellow,”Grace said. “We’d have to hose our yards clean.” In the lawns, people would often find dead birds. The move toward activism started in the late 1980s, when a St. Gabriel pharma- cist began keeping a tally and found that as many as one in three local pregnancies ended in miscarriage. Her findings were hotly debated, and industry representatives said they were being scapegoated. A subsequent Tulane study challenged the pharmacist’s findings; that study, in turn, came under fire.