Petrochemical Companies are Burying Black History. The Building Industry Can Help Resurrect It.

Bill Walsh | February 2020 | Newsletter

In Louisiana, the factories that make the chemicals and plastics for our building products are built literally upon the bones of African Americans. Plantation fields have been transformed into industrial fortresses. A Shell Refinery1 sprawls across the former Bruslie and Monroe plantations. Belle Pointe is now the DuPont Pontchartrain Works, among the most toxic air polluters in the state.2 Soon, the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group intends to build a 2400-acre complex of 14 facilities that will transform fracked gas into plastics. It will occupy land that was formerly the Acadia and Buena Vista plantations, and not incidentally, the ancestral burial grounds of local African American residents, some of whom trace their lineage back to people enslaved there.3 

Formosa has earned a reputation of being a poor steward of sacred places. Local residents have petitioned the Governor to deny permits for the facility, citing a long list of environmental health violations in its existing Louisiana facilities, including violations of the Clean Air Act every quarter since 2009.4 The scofflaw company was found to have dumped plastic pellets known as “nurdles” into the fragile ecosystem of Lavaca Bay on the Gulf of Mexico for years – leading to a record $50 million settlement with activists in that community in 2019.5  

In the Antebellum South, formerly enslaved people often homesteaded on lands that were part of or near the plantations they once worked. They established communities of priceless historical and cultural worth, towns such as Morrisonville, Diamond, Convent, Donaldsonville, and St. James. Donaldsonville, Louisiana, is the town that elected Pierre Caliste Landry, America’s first African American mayor in 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War. This part of Louisiana holds many layers of complex and deep African American history.

But in the last 75 years, since World War II, these communities have been overrun by petrochemical industry expansion enabled by governments wielding the clout of Jim Crow laws to snuff out any opposition or objection. Towns like Morrisonville and Diamond have been bought up to accommodate plant expansion. Residents have been forced to move out, their history and heritage literally paved over. It wasn’t until 1994 that the River Road African American Museum was established to preserve and present the history of the Black population as distinct from plantation representations of slavery.  According to Michael Taylor, Curator of Books, Louisiana State University Libraries: “Only in the last few decades have historians themselves begun to appreciate the complexity of free black communities and their significance to our understanding not just of the past, but also the present.”6

Charting a New Way Forward—Together 

Virtually every building product we use today contains a petrochemical component that originates from heavily polluted communities, frequently home to people of color. As the green building movement searches for ways to enhance diversity, inclusion and equity, how might it address the legacies of injustice that are tied to the products and materials we use every day?

Architect, Zena Howard, FAIA, offered insight in her 2019 J. Max Bond Lecture, Planning to Stay, keynoting the National Organization of Minority Architects national conference. Howard, known for her work on the design team for the breathtaking Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, most often works with people in communities whose culture and heritage were “erased” by urban renewal in the 1960’s. In Greenville, North Carolina, she looked to people from the historically African American Downtown Greenville community and Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church Congregation to guide the planning and design process for a new town common and gateway plaza. The goal was not to “replicate” the lost community, but to bring its history and present day aspirations to life in the new design. In Vancouver, British Columbia, the development plan for a neighborhood founded by African Canadian railroad porters included an unprecedented chapter on “reconciliation and cultural redress.” The key to such efforts, according to Howard is co-creation and meaningful collaboration, whose Greek roots, she notes, mean “to labor together.”

How might we labor together to address environmental injustice when evaluating the overall healthfulness and equity of our building materials? The precedent of “insetting” suggests an approach.

Insetting has been pioneered by companies whose supply chains rely upon agricultural communities across the globe. According to Ceres, insetting is “a type of carbon emissions offset, but it’s about much more than sequestering carbon: It’s also about companies building resiliency in their supply chains and restoring the ecosystems on which their growers depend.” 

In previous columns, I’ve addressed concerns about the social in industrial communities, e.g., proposals that perpetuate disproportionate pollution impacts when buying offsets rather than addressing emissions from a specific facility. Applying the “insetting” approach we might ask our materials manufacturers—and the communities that are home to the building materials industries—what steps can we take to encourage manufacturers to “labor with” communities seeking environmental justice, such as those along the Mississippi River? Can we, together, resurrect and restore their history, reconcile and redress historical wrongs, and build a healthier future for all?

Black History Month Readings

To learn more about the history and present day conditions of Cancer Alley, see these excellent articles from The Guardian and Pro Publica: https://www.ehn.org/search/?q=cancer+alley

For more on toxics and environmental justice from Sharon Lerner, the journalist with The Intercept who reported on the appropriation of the burial grounds in St. James Parish, see: https://theintercept.com/staff/sharon-lerner/

You can watch to Zena Howard’s J. Max Bond lecture, Planning to Stay, here: https://vimeo.com/378622662

You can learn more about the River Road African American History Museum here: https://africanamericanmuseum.org/

 

References 

[1] Terry L. Jones, “Graves of 1,000 Enslaved People Found near Ascension Refinery; Shell, Preservationists to Honor Them | Ascension | Theadvocate.Com,” accessed February 18, 2020, https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/communities/ascension/article_18c62526-2611-11e8-9aec-d71a6bbc9b0c.html.
[2] Oliver Laughland and Jamiles Lartey, “First Slavery, Then a Chemical Plant and Cancer Deaths: One Town’s Brutal History,” The Guardian, May 6, 2019, sec. US news, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/06/cancertown-louisiana-reserve-history-slavery.
[3] Sharon Lerner, “New Chemical Complex Would Displace Suspected Slave Burial Ground in Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley,’” The Intercept (blog), December 18, 2019, https://theintercept.com/2019/12/18/formosa-plastics-louisiana-slave-burial-ground/.
[4] Louisiana Bucket Brigade, “Sign the Petition,” Change.org, accessed February 25, 2020, https://www.change.org/p/governor-edwards-stop-the-formosa-chemical-plant.
[5] Stacy Fernández, “Plastic Company Set to Pay $50 Million Settlement in Water Pollution Suit Brought on by Texas Residents,” The Texas Tribune, October 15, 2019, https://www.texastribune.org/2019/10/15/formosa-plastics-pay-50-million-texas-clean-water-act-lawsuit/.
[6] LSU Libraries, “Free People of Color in Louisiana,” LSU Libraries, accessed February 18, 2020, https://lib.lsu.edu/sites/all/files/sc/fpoc/history.html.