An Exxon Mobil commercial was making the rounds during March Madness. The ad is basically a series of video portraits of proud, diverse Americans touting their sturdy jobs with Exxon.
It's true, Exxon provides a lot of good jobs, many of them in otherwise poor areas of the country, such as Baton Rouge, LA.
The jobs are good and we all use oil and gas products. But the harm Exxon Mobil and other petrochemical companies render upon their neighbors in places like southern Louisiana belies their public relations message of an all-around positive community benefit.
I've gotten to know some people and communities in Louisiana who can attest directly to Exxon Mobil and other petrochemical industry players' repeated, often blatant abuse of the simple rule: Love thy neighbor as yourself.
The neighbors affected by the oil industry's politically insulated refusal to clean up after itself are mostly working class people with little legal or political clout. They are not environmental activists bussed in and paid by agenda-driven organizations. They are third-generation fishermen, line cooks, single moms, mechanics, a former Army General, even oil company employees.
These are true stories of the petrochemical industry's reach across fencelines and through bayous into the lives of regular Louisianans who just want the industry to be an honest neighbor.
Many of the plants abut historic neighborhoods, mostly of low-income residents. Regulations for airborne and ground-level emissions and spills are in the legal framework, but determining punishable toxicity levels is difficult scientifically and even more challenging to enforce considering the legal and political climate favorable to well-funded industry.
The Standard Heights neighborhood of Baton Rouge's north side has been almost completely bought out by Exxon Mobil, whose giant plant looms next door. After a few spills, explosions and frequent reports of suspicious ash-like materials falling from the sky onto residents' homes and cars, Exxon has bought out many of the homeowners, razed the houses and planted a few trees. It's one of the only mitigation approaches that can work, as long as the industry is willing to pay fair prices for the homes. But leaving your neighborhood, for many residents, is more complicated than a price tag.
Denise Moore has lived in her house for decades, since when the neighborhood was full of small single-family bungalows like hers. Now she's the only house for blocks. Everyone else took Exxon buy-outs, their houses razed.
Denise works in a restaurant nearby and if she moved she'd have a long commute to work. Plus, it's quiet and pretty, like living in a big park with grass and oak trees. Exxon offered her $18,000 for her house a few years ago but that's not enough to buy something new. Not surprisingly, "market rate" in an empty neighborhood next to a dangerous chemical plant is not very high.
So she and her son stay, enduring the bad smells coming from the Exxon plant visible through a chain link fence 100 yards away.
General Russel Honoré was the man in charge of the military response to Katrina. He famously walked onto a downtown New Orleans street during the chaos and ordered his own soldiers to "put your guns down, dammit! These are American citizens."
Honore is now retired and he's turned his fiery Creole outrage onto what he sees as blatant injustices being perpetrated onto the citizens of Louisiana by petrochemical companies. He acts as a megaphone to, in his words, "raise the noise" for low-income communities struggling to air grievances against companies polluting their communities and using the industry's widespread political clout to sweep malfeasances under the rug.
Willie Fontenot spent 27 years working as a community outreach liaison in the Attorney General’s office, a sort of live conduit between residents and the state government.
Willie is legally blind. Some of his close relatives married each other, resulting in a rare condition that affects 20 percent of offspring. “We’re a family of eight kids so statistically we’re right about on track,” Willie says.
“My job with the attorney general’s office," he says, "was to go out and help people figure out what was the problem and how to deal with it. Usually, these folks didn’t know their next-door neighbors or their parish council member or city official. Did they know anyone at the newspaper? At City Hall? Did they know how to find property ownership records in the court office? I helped them make the right friends. Today they call it ‘environmental justice.’”
Huey Long's legacy looms large over Baton Rouge in the form of the 450' tall phallus of a state capitol he built. The populist former governor (Dem), elected in 1928, forged an odd path with oil and gas, hammering them with taxes to fund his aggressive social programs, but setting a don't-ask-don't-tell policy when it came to regulations.
Politics and oil mix as easily as bourbon and absinthe in Louisiana. Long's gone but his tacit agreement that the state not bite the hand that feeds it has remained the precedent in the state, especially into the 21st Century with a string of industry-friendly governors.
But in 2015, Democrat John Bel Edwards won a surprise victory over ethics-embattled David Vitter. Edwards campaigned hard in neighborhoods like Standard Heights where the people felt overwhelmed in the face of their industrial neighbors.
As Governor, Edwards is threatening to sue industries that break laws. Currently, individual parishes (Louisiana version of counties) are supposed to sue but local pressure from oil companies often deters them from moving forward, fearing reprisals, firings, sometimes death threats.
“When I first come here, they (Exxon) offered me about $35,000 for the shop,” says Standard Heights auto mechanic Jake Spears. “I said, look at me: I’m not hungry and I’m not completely broke. I bought this place for $80,000. The tools and tires, everything in here belongs to me except that Coke machine. Coca-Cola owns that. I’m 79 years old, but I don’t want to quit. At this age when you sell, you gotta have enough money to relocate or retire, and right now I don’t need to try to rebuy nothing. I’m too old.”
“You know yourself,” Spears says. “With a big company like Exxon, you can’t fight a case so you gotta go along with them. I’m not down on Exxon because I use their gas, so what can I say? We need it. I wish they could straighten up the odor thing, but I don’t know. The only thing I see, we gotta live with it till we die. I’ll be here till 5. Every day of the week except Sunday.”
Standard Heights is mostly abandoned now. A former resident shows me where her house once stood before they sold to Exxon and moved out, sending her extended family to live in other neighborhoods. The few residents who remain wonder if the cancer and illnesses in the households are related to the odors and white dust that frequently falls from the plant.
As I'm speaking to resident Rose Christopher, her husband pulls out a recent letter from a law firm. It informs the Christophers and other potential plaintiffs that a class-action suit against Exxon won't be tenable. Each resident will have to sue individually, which essentially kills any suit, considering the legal fees it would take to fight Exxon's legal prowess.
Jody Meche is a third-generation commercial crawfisherman out of Henderson, LA. He plies Atchafalaya Basin bayous in a swamp boat, baiting and checking the same long narrow chicken-wire traps his dad used.
The crawfish need moving water to bring oxygen and nutrients into the deep corners of the bayous. Oil and gas companies get permits to build levees and road abutments through the swamp for their equipment. The permits require that the companies remove any obstacles to flow, but in many cases the companies ignore the stipulation and simply move on once their work is complete. The levees and roads block the natural flow of water in the bayous, suffocating the crawfish habitat. These years, Jody's barely getting by on his harvest.
Jody says he has nothing against the oil and gas industry, he just wishes they'd clean up after themselves. They have the money to do it, but they lack the integrity to clean it up since the state agencies don't enforce their own permitting laws.
John Ruskey is a river guide and educator based in the Mississippi Delta. He recently completed a mile-by-mile guide for non-motorized travelers of the Lower Mississippi and Atchafalaya River. Ruskey's dedicated his life to bringing people to the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers, hoping that a personal connection to the waterways will engender a stronger voice for conservation.
The Spaniard Dean Wilson moved into the Atchafalaya Basin in his young 20s. He went to a friend's property with only a spear, machete and canoe. He was preparing for a longer trip into the Amazon, but he fell in love with the Atchafalaya bayous and he stayed, moved into a house on the bayou and founded the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper as a way to organize against illegal cypress logging in the basin. He successfully curtailed that practice (pressuring big box retailers to agree not to purchase cypress mulch harvested from the basin). Now he's a one-man watchdog for oil and gas abuses deep in the Atchafalaya backwaters.