Big Oil already devastated Louisiana. Now comes Trump and COVID-19.

Fossil fuel pollution and the industry’s newly approved projects are making the pandemic more deadly for Black and Brown communities in the Bayou State.

It was a decade ago when a fateful combination of lax federal oversight, an oil company’s negligence, and the risks of offshore extraction ended in the explosion of a massive drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana. The BP Deepwater Horizon spill killed 11 workers and leaked more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, devastating coastal wildlife, fishing economies, fragile wetlands, and the marshes that guarded against storm surge during hurricane season. Ten years later, most of the rules and protections put into place after the spill have been largely undone by the Trump administration.

Deepwater Horizon served as something of a public unveiling of the damage Big Oil’s operations were already doing to Louisiana’s coastal communities. Along the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, industry giants like Exxon, Shell, Koch and others have installed more than 150 oil, gas, plastic and petrochemical facilities. Thanks to unprecedented rates of death and disease caused by the resulting pollution, the cluster of predominantly low-income, African American neighborhoods there are known by a morbid moniker: Cancer Alley. 

The opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway on the Mississippi River.

In the only parish tested by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, residents were found to have been exposed to cancer-causing chemicals at levels up to 765 times those considered safe by the EPA. The area houses 7 of the 10 census tracts with the highest cancer risk in the country, along with extremely high instances of reproductive and developmental disorders, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and various respiratory illnesses — all of which have been linked to the chemicals and emissions from fossil fuel production. 

The industry’s pollution is now even more dangerous because its consequences align with the known risk factors for COVID-19. This month, VICE reported that the area had some of the highest death rates from coronavirus nationwide.

Even before Harvard University published a study proving the link between high levels of lung damaging PM2.5 (a microscopic pollutant released during the combustion of fossil fuels) and increased fatalities from coronavirus, environmental justice reporter Yessenia Funes was on the case. “Poor air quality plus COVID-19 may prove to be a deadly mix for communities already suffering at the hands of a global economy that relies on the burning of toxic fossil fuels,” she wrote for Earther in March.

Funes was sorry, but not surprised, to have been proven right — about both higher death rates for individuals in highly polluted areas and about who would experience those fatalities the most. “What we’re seeing is another piece of the story around the continued abuse that communities of color face at the hands of fossil fuel projects, and COVID-19 is just worsening an already problematic situation,” she told me. “The risk has always been death, but it’s a more immediate death than would have been the case otherwise.”

Days after Harvard’s study came out, the Trump administration rejected government scientists’ push to tighten regulations on air pollution. With Black and Brown communities in Louisiana exposed to a drastically disproportionate amount of PM2.5 and so many other pollutants, it follows that African American residents account for 70% of COVID-19 fatalities in the state — even though they make up only 32% of Louisiana’s population. Sure enough, those fatalities seem to be clustered in Cancer Alley.

Oil refinery on the Mississippi River near New Orleans, Louisiana.

Executive director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade Anne Rolfes says that despite how clear the connection is, elected officials and industry representatives are attempting to throw responsibility back on residents themselves. “They are being blamed and told it’s obesity, it’s diabetes, it’s hypertension, it’s somehow your fault — but the Harvard study controls for all of that,” she told me. “What about air pollution’s contribution to those diseases? What about getting stressed out because you have a big polluting facility next door, or your ability to get outside and exercise, which is severely inhibited when the air quality is poor?”

Instead of pursuing public health solutions, the federal government is working to unravel a record number of public health and safety regulations. State elected officials have greenlit the construction of even more plants — including a massive petrochemical compound that would be the largest new source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. 

Formosa’s “Sunshine Project,” the $9.4 billion-dollar petrochemical and plastic production complex, would double the amount of toxic chemicals released into the air in St. James Parish, home to a variety of other industry experiments including the Bayou Bridge pipeline and the final extension of the highly contested Dakota Access Pipeline. The project is slated for an area just over a mile from an elementary school, on several known slave burial grounds.

Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of the local organization RISE St. James, began organizing her neighbors to protest the compound and other industry expansions after seeing her friends and family members die from pollution-caused illnesses. “They promised us jobs,” Lavigne, who still lives on her grandfather’s original 40 acres, told Rolling Stone in an interview. “Instead they pollute us with these plants, like we’re not human beings, like we’re not even people. They’re killing us. And ­­­that is why I am fighting.”

Community members rally in St. James Parish to demand an evacuation route for residents in the area from the continuing construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Credit: Greenpeace

The Bayou State is already experiencing dangerous heat, coastal flooding, and extreme weather as a result of the severe climate disruptions made worse and more common because of Big Oil. Nearly 1,200 people were killed in Hurricane Katrina, which covered 80 percent of New Orleans in water and cost more than $100 billion in damages, primarily wreaking havoc on the region’s low-lying Black residences. Between 2005 and 2019, Louisiana experienced nine hurricanes and even more tropical storms. 

“Here in South Louisiana we pay the price for increased flooding,” Rolfes says. “Despite our immense vulnerability, our state continues to permit these huge facilities, and that’s a problem.”

In the face of our current pandemic, the state designated Formosa’s petrochemical complex an “essential” project, and construction began on the very first day of the community’s COVID-19 lockdown. Hours before home quarantine began, construction preparations were blocking one lane of a two-lane highway in St. James.

There was always a “a free ride culture for industry” in Louisiana, Rolfes says, but the coronavirus crisis has made the dangerous entitlement of oil and gas giants clear as day. 

File:A MOUNTAIN OF DAMAGED OIL DRUMS NEAR THE EXXON REFINERY - NARA - 546000 (cropped).jpg

A mountain of damaged oil drums near an Exxon refinery in Baton Rouge.

“The American Petroleum Institute sent Donald Trump a letter on March 20th asking for health and safety standards to be rolled back, and by March 26th it was done,” Rolfes says. “It’s clearly a request that the association had on its wishlist and they just pulled it out at the time of a national crisis. It shows you the really stark contrast in access and who’s being protected here. There are communities along Cancer Alley who have begged the EPA for help for six years and not gotten it, and API gets its way in 6 days.”

A day after the largest drop in the price of oil in U.S. history, Trump vowed to bail out the oil and gas industry. As for whether workers or impacted communities might see any of that aid: “Oh, no,” Rolfes replied with certainty. “That stays at the top.” 

Her point is all too true, and it bites. Even with oil prices at their lowest point, Big Oil’s profiteering is at its peak —  exploiting a public health crisis while leaving vulnerable communities to foot their deadly bill.


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