Kate Orff, “Ecological Atlas to ‘Petrochemical America”

Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a trail of 150 petroleum factories creates a glaring backdrop of smokestacks behind the Mississippi River and a perpetual fog along the banks. Courtesy of its flat ground, an abundance of carbon-rich decay, and the Mississippi’s inflowing fresh water, Louisiana has been home to one of the most rampant petrochemical industries in the nation for the past century. In 2015, the EPA confirmed that Reserve, Louisiana had the most polluted air in the region already known as “Cancer Alley”–a place that’s home to 45,000 people with 50 toxic chemicals polluting its air, including benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and formaldehyde which are known carcinogens.

Why This Matters:  In Reserve, residents face a cancer risk of 50 times the national average due to the manufacturing of the toxic chemical chloroprene. Additionally, the proliferation of many petrochemical refineries in Louisiana took place on the sites of old sugar plantations, which were settled by poor and predominantly African American populations. Louisiana’s Black communities have had to suffer the cost of producing chemicals that we all rely upon but they alone have to pay for with their health. This is a prime example that in the United States, your zip code and socio-economic status determines your life expectancy–the gap in life expectancy between rich and poor in America is more than 20 years.

Putting it into Perspective:

Designer Kate Orff’s “Ecological Atlas to ‘Petrochemical America’” (illustrated above) serves as a map revealing the concentration of petrochemical factories and the ways in which they’re polluting the communities where they operate. At the Pontchartrain Works facility in Reserve, though there are more than 50 toxic chemicals that contribute to health risks, chloroprene, which is the primary component of the synthetic rubber neoprene, is the biggest culprit of toxic pollution. This product is used all over the world in the manufacturing of tires, wetsuits, medical equipment, and countless other products—and the Louisiana plant is the only place in the U.S. that produces it.

Rampant Pollution, Few Efforts for Change:

  • After the December 2015 EPA report, the EPA set about to monitor chloroprene emissions. It was determined that emissions of the chemical above 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) in the air were unsafe for humans to breathe over the course of a lifetime.
  • In November 2017, a station at the fifth ward elementary school, it was recorded that the chloroprene in the air was755 times above the EPA’s guidance. The school is located only a thousand feet from the plant and maintains a population of 400 young children.
  • In an interview with CNN, Robert Taylor, a 77-year-old environmental activist from Reserve and founder of Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish, examines why the majority Black community’s cancer risk is more than 700 times the national average in his video from AJ+ titled “Breathing While Black”.
  • Mary Hampton, a resident of Reserve interviewed by the Guardian, states that “Almost every household has somebody that died with cancer or that’s battling cancer”.

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