What Next

A Polluted Town Fights for Its Right to Breathe

St. John the Baptist, Louisiana has by far the highest risk of cancer from air pollution in the nation. Why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?

For years the residents of St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana thought their town was simply the victim of bad luck. Suffering more than their share of illnesses, almost everyone in this town knows someone who has died of cancer.

On one side of town the Mississippi River winds and makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico. on the other, a plant belches chloroprene, the main ingredient in this synthetic rubber known as neoprene. For St. John, much of the trouble has come from this factory that opened its doors in 1964. At first it was owned by DuPont, and later it was sold to a Japanese company called Denka. Now it is the last remaining factory in the United States to manufacture neoprene. If you ignore the fumes, the town itself is really pretty sweet.

Today, the community has by far the highest risk of cancer from air pollution in the nation, and year after year, living in St. John has gotten riskier and riskier—a 2018 Environmental Protection Agency report showed that the town’s risk for cancer was 50 times the national average.

So, what’s being done about it?

“Pretty much nothing,” says Sharon Lerner, an environmental reporter at the Intercept.

Lerner traveled down to of St. John the Baptist Parish shortly after President Donald Trump was inaugurated. She spoke with me about her reporting this week for What Next. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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When I spoke to Lerner, she told me that most of the people who live in St. John are black and have roots in the community that go back generations.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Lerner says. “The factory is on land that used to house a plantation. The residents who are affected by it and live directly up against—literally against the fence, there’s a chain-link fence separating them from the factory—they are the descendants of slaves who used to work in the plantation. Some of them still talk about it as the plantation because even after slavery ended, it housed a plantation.”

Residents of St. John have been harmed by this factory, but have not benefited from it.

“What’s sort of mind blowing about this town is that although they’re getting all this pollution, most people do not have the jobs [at the factory], and in fact, have wanted them,” she says.

When Lerner traveled to St. John she met Robert Taylor, a 78-year-old musician who has lived in the community for a very, very long time.

“He’s lived in that area for his entire life and he’s been through a lot,” Lerner says, explaining that for years, because of racist policies in Louisiana, Taylor wasn’t allowed to go through the front door of clubs he played in.

“Somewhere over the past few years, while he was in his 70s, he went from being this guy who’s kind of a musician and sitting back and watching the end of his life, to someone who’s basically taken to the streets because he is so upset about the pollution there,” she continues. “It has struck him and pretty much everyone in St. John in a deeply personal way. His wife had breast cancer and has multiple sclerosis. He has a daughter, Raven, who is essentially bedbound now. She’s, I think, 50. She has been unable to work. She has had this ridiculous stream of surgeries. She has a very rare autoimmune condition.”

A community in Kentucky has also been impacted by gastroparesis, the very rare disease that Raven has. That town is also near another neoprene factory that was run by DuPont. In fact, that’s where Raven ended up seeing a specialist and meeting the other people who had it. And many others in the community have other ailments, like cancer.

“Everyone you talk to down there has this similar kind of story,” says Lerner. “It’s just there’s a lot of disease, and I think for many years they just accepted it as the way it is.”

In 2015, an EPA report came out that essentially acknowledged everything Robert Taylor was feeling, and he formed a concerned citizens group.

“They almost instantly realized, ‘We need to fight this,’ ” says Lerner. “I mean that’s what you would do, right? If you and your kids are breathing in carcinogens at a crazy level, what would you do? You would bring it to the authorities. You’d bring it to the attention of anyone really who would listen so that it could be stopped, right? Robert Taylor says this over and over again, ‘I just want to stop being poisoned.’ They have protested. They’ve tried to go to the school board. They’ve tried to bring it to the attention of local lawmakers.”

Members of the St. John community tried to take collective action. The only problem? No one would listen to them, even as the local elementary school showed elevated levels of carcinogens. Since the petrochemical industry is the source of many jobs, people look at these companies as the backbone of their economy. And they’re afraid of backlash.

Across the country, people in Willowbrook, Illinois were also getting sick.

“I thought it was really interesting—I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is the same problem, really. Different chemical, same problem,’ ” Lerner says. “In Willowbrook, the issue was ethylene oxide. The source of it was very clear. It was a plant called Sterigenics, which uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment.”

The people in Willowbrook were getting sick, too—everything from respiratory problems to bone spurs and cancer. They also formed a community group and were able to get results.

“They ended up getting the head of the air division of EPA to go meet with them,” says Lerner. “I believe it was six months between when they formed the group and when the state of Illinois closed the factory.”

Lerner says the contrasts between Willowbrook and St. John are really glaring, even though the efforts are so similar. In both communities there are motivated citizens forming an action plan and lobbying on behalf of their community. I asked Lerner: Why do you think things went so differently in Willowbrook? She let out a deep sigh before she answered.

“I mean one of the really obvious factors here is race, and another is income,” she says.

In Willowbrook, the community is mostly white and middle class, while the predominantly black St. John faces a poverty rate of nearly 20 percent.

“It should be said as many times as I can say it: Nobody should be having this pollution in their community,” she says. “I feel [Willowbrook was] absolutely right to do everything they did. I’m thankful that they got the response they did. They were rightfully outraged. They brought it to the attention of their legislators, and they fought like hell. These guys organized, but they also had access to attorneys and journalists. What happened in Louisiana—they formed their group, and nothing happened.”

In addition to race and income, in St. John, the local legislators are likely getting money from the petrochemical industry. It’s a major source of jobs for the state. Robert Taylor told Lerner he thought he knew why the petrochemical company came here.

He said they felt: “If we find a place where it’s just going to be negroes, we can set up business there. We can set up shop there because nobody cares about them.”

Now, Lerner says that Robert Taylor isn’t interested in being anyone’s friend anymore.

“I think he feels free to say exactly what he thinks at this point,” she says. “I think it’s actually really useful for this fight to have someone say exactly what he thinks. I don’t think he’s wrong.”

Since she began her reporting, two of Lerner’s sources have died. I asked her to tell me what happened, and whether the Environmental Protection Agency would step in in Louisiana.

To hear her answer and the full conversation, listen to What Next in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, TuneInStitcherOvercastGoogle Play, or wherever you listen. 

Podcast production by Mary Wilson, Jayson De Leon, and Ethan Brooks.