Great reads: ‘Cancer Alley,’ un-wilding Kenya and fighting a California inferno

Reserve, Louisiana
REUTERS/Peter Forest
An image of Reserve, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac in 2012.

An especially moving, year-long examination of American environmental injustice began publication this week, interestingly and alas in a British newspaper.

Cancer Town” will be the Guardian’s look at life, suffering and death over the last 50 years in Reserve, Louisiana, a Mississippi River community of 10,000 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans; it leads this periodic selection of great recent reads on environmental themes.

Reserve and its surrounding St. John the Baptist parish sit within a riverine industrial corridor that, Jamiles Lartey and Oliver Laughland report, has long been called “Cancer Alley” by residents accustomed to losing family members, friends and neighbors in large numbers to unusual cancers and other diseases, chiefly  respiratory. To them the culprit was both obvious and, apparently, legally immune: a synthetic-rubber plant that for 50 years has been fouling the air with toxic chemicals.

Mary Hampton, who has lost two brothers, a sister-in-law and an across-the-street neighbor to cancer, told the Guardian:

Almost every household has somebody that died with cancer or that’s battling cancer. It’s the worst thing you’d ever want to see: a loved one, laying in that bed, pining away, dying. Just to sit and look at them, and know you can’t do anything about it.

You will not be shocked to learn that Reserve’s population is disproportionately African-American (60 percent) and poor (per capita income 40 percent below the national average); that many depended for wages on the facility they felt was poisoning them; that state and federal regulators’ responses to their suffering have lacked alacrity.

Still, it seemed somewhat promising in 2015 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that Reserve faced the highest cancer risk traceable to air toxicity of any place in the country: 50 times the national average. Of the 10 riskiest census tracts listed in the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment, five were in Reserve’s parish.

Some 50 industrial toxins are counted in the inventory but the principal problem is chloroprene from the Ponchartrain Works, built by DuPont in 1968 to make neoprene and now owned by the Japanese company Denka. Little has changed since the data were released.

A few months later, the EPA set up monitoring stations at six locations around the parish to monitor chloroprene emissions. The agency now stated that emissions of the chemical above 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter in the air were unsafe for humans to breathe over the course of a lifetime. The readings were devastating. Routinely, chloroprene emissions were dozens of times above the EPA’s guidance, suggesting residents living close to the plant had been constantly exposed for decades.

In January 2017, Denka signed a voluntary agreement with the state of Louisiana to reduce its pollution. But still, the high readings continued.

On one day in November 2017 at a station at the fifth ward elementary school, which sits on the plant’s fenceline, chloroprene was recorded at a staggering 755 times above the EPA’s guidance. Nearly 400 young children attend the school, breathing the air each day. It sits about a thousand feet from the plant, closer than Mary Hampton’s front porch.

The Denka plant is the parish’s third largest employer and probably its No. 2 contributor of property taxes. Across Louisiana, the making of petrochemicals provides two out of every seven jobs. The industry also provided the current secretary of environmental quality, Chuck Carr Brown, who so far has accepted Denka’s assertion that it’s technically infeasible for the plant to meet EPA health standards. (He has also accused Hampton and other activists of “fear-mongering,” but later said he was sorry.)

And EPA’s response to its own findings?

In a startling moment of candor [at a community meeting last February], the EPA regional director, David Gray, announced to Taylor and the other concerned citizens that it was “doubtful” the agency would ever set a legally enforceable standard for the toxin.

“The fact of the matter is there is a sole source of chloroprene in the United States and it’s here,” Gray said, explaining that since rule-making was such a long and strenuous process, the agency would be apt to prioritize compounds that are present in more than one community.

Another example of racism in plant siting and industry regulation? Not quite that simple, the Guardian concludes:

EPA-funded research from 2018 found that non-white Americans and those below poverty level are more likely than others to live near toxic pollution, and that the racial correlation is stronger than the economic one. “In other words, the siting of polluting industrial facilities is both racist and classist, but mostly racist,” says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

(While I’m confident that the Guardian will develop similar context in time, I’ll also commend for the moment Sharon Lerner’s February piece for The Intercept, which contrasts the EPA’s response to problems in Reserve and other Cancer Alley communities  with its attentiveness to air toxicity in the affluent Chicago suburb Willowbrook.)

Taking Kenya out of Africa

Been thinking lately about the wild places on Earth you need to see before you die, or before they do? Kenya has been high on my list since reading “Out of Africa,” and each time I run across it in preparing Earth Journal it climbs higher still.

Adam Welz’s article for Yale Environment 360 provides the latest nudge: “How Kenya’s Push for Development Is Threatening Its Famed Wild Lands.

Kenya has been a progressive example in the not-yet-industrial world for its conservation of wildlife and habitat, notably its system of national parks and reserves. It’s a low-cost enterprise with, Welz points out, a high return: International tourism grew by 37 percent last year to 2 million visitors and revenues of $1.6 billion.

Under a program called Kenya Vision 2030, however, the nation’s official policy is to build out the transportation/industry/energy infrastructure so thoroughly that within 12 years, “it will become impossible to refer to any region of our country as ‘remote.’ ” This is meant as a good thing.

The country is getting a lot of outside help — some from private investors, some from institutions you might expect to be unenthusiastic.

Many of the projects that are chipping away at Kenya’s natural heritage are supported by sustainable development funding agencies like the United Nations Environment Programme, the Global Environment Facility (overseen by the World Bank), the U.S. Agency for International Development, and others because the projects are for ostensibly green renewable energy initiatives: geothermal plants, wind farms, hydropower dams, and associated networks of pipelines, power lines, and roads.

Researchers have identified at least 23 sites in Kenya with potential for geothermal power generation, including some in or very near national parks and reserves, like Mount Longonot and Lake Bogoria. Wind farms are going ahead in an area south of the capital, Nairobi, even though expert consultants say they will almost certainly kill significant numbers of threatened and legally protected birds.

Among the most threatened avian species are various vultures — bearded, white-backed, Egyptian, Ruppell’s — whose unlovely appearance and habits are key to the health of Kenya’s undeveloped grasslands as well as its cattle country. Someone or something has to get rid of carcasses before they spread disease to animals and people; the vultures do it quickly and, of course, gratis. Unfortunately they are slow to reproduce, and to recover from habitat loss.

Alongside development initiatives that are part of official government policy are others that are plainly illegal — not that the law is necessarily an impediment. Welz encountered many instances of obvious or assumed bribery, and was told obliquely of others by informants mindful that “bad things happen to those who uncover corruption in Kenya.”

There’s the example of the Standard Gauge Railway project, a multibillion-dollar project financed and built by Chinese interests, despite clear violations of laws against running a railroad through a national park; opponents went to court and won some early victories.

Despite the court-issued stop orders and ongoing court cases, the railway’s Chinese contractors, protected by armed [Kenya Wildlife Service] rangers, moved into the park in February 2018 and construction of the line has proceeded rapidly since. “The government just blatantly broke its own laws,” says Jim Karani, legal affairs manager for Wildlife Direct, a Kenyan nonprofit. …“If the government can do that right in front of us, to Nairobi National Park,” another conservationist told me, “what hope do less well-known parks have?”

Welz also recounts a visit to one of these: the popular Hell’s Gate National Park, offered to tourists for its cliffs and gorges (one described as a “gateway to Hell” ) as well as its eagles and vultures.

Few tourist guides mention that Hell’s Gate lies at the heart of Kenya’s efforts to become a world leader in geothermal power generation, which means that visitors entering the park via its Olkaria entrance, as I did during a media tour last month, are immediately confronted by infrastructure: Warehouse-like power plants, networks of roads, pipelines snaking over hills, industrial signage, and thickets of power lines. Towering plumes of steam rise from condensers and wellheads scattered to — and over — the horizon. Machine noise is inescapable. A small group of Maasai giraffes browse nearby, a reminder of the area’s legal status as part of a national park.

Fighting the Camp Fire inferno

Speaking of Hell, you probably remember Paradise, the Northern California town virtually erased last November by the worst wildfire in state history (also the sixth-worst in U.S. history, and the costliest natural disaster anywhere in the world in 2018, a year in which American catastrophes claimed three of the top 10 spots).

Not so far from the wreckage of Paradise remains the mostly intact community of Helltown, which owes its salvation to four knuckleheads — three of them completely untrained all of them utterly unequipped — who violated every evacuation order, every rule of safe firefighting, and numerous principles of common sense to save their homes.

Their story is told in “The Hotshots of Helltown,” prepared for GQ by Robert P. Baird, a Brooklyn-based journalist who grew up in the area, knew a couple of the guys, and brings a unique insider/outside perspective grounded in his knowledge of “a chunk of the state that shares little with the California of popular imagination.” Populated by farmers and hippies and Trumpistas, he writes, and proud of any glancing association with something famous beyond its borders, it is “not the sort of place that makes international news when things are going well.”

Having revealed the arc of the hotshots’ story, I’ll describe Baird’s piece no further; would be a disservice to both writer and reader, meaning potentially you. Instead I’ll offer three excerpts to indicate why you really might want to give it a half-hour:

It was a dark night in early November, a new moon, and as the three friends looked out from the dusty rim of Butte Creek Canyon, in the foothills just outside Chico, California, they could see fires dotting the whole length of the landscape at their feet. Dharma LaRocca, Jeb Sisk, and Jason McCord had grown up down there, in a hippie community called Helltown that had once been a gold-mining camp. Now in their 40s, the men knew the territory better than anyplace else on earth. But as they watched the blaze curl like lava among the sycamores and hundred-year-old cottonwoods, they couldn’t help imagining they were someplace faraway and exotic. Hawaii, maybe, or Mars.

*

None of the three men had come prepared for the task they were about to undertake. Jason, who co-owns a fertilizer company, was wearing a blue North Face jacket and sneakers. Dharma and Jeb, a finish carpenter, were in hoodies and jeans. Sam, [an off-duty firefighter] in Carhartts, hiking boots, and a ski cap, gave them an impromptu lesson in firefighting. Wildland fires move by spotting, throwing embers ahead of themselves that blossom into flames. Left unchecked, those spot fires spread until they connect back with the main body of the blaze, effectively pulling the whole mass forward. But the time spot fires would need to ignite gave the men a crucial opening. If they could stamp out the embers—or, failing that, scrape a circle of bare earth to isolate them—they might be able to check the fire’s advance.

Sam told his friends to keep their backup plans at the front of their minds. They should always know where the fire was, where the wind was blowing, and which direction they’d need to run to keep themselves safe. Jason should keep his truck away from power lines and pointed downhill. If things got bad, the men could huddle under the span of the Steel Bridge till the danger passed. If things got really bad, they could jump in the creek.

*

By two, the men were flagging. The soles of their boots had melted from stamping out fires, and their clothes were pocked with burn marks from embers. They had no water; the only liquids they had on hand were two half-bottles of wine from Dharma’s family vineyard and a few kombuchas.

For six hours the men had held the line at Centerville Road, and for six hours the fire had showed no signs of abating. But just as they were wondering how long they could hang on, the winds started blowing in their favor. All night Dharma had been thinking of his wife, Kelly, who was buried in the Centerville Cemetery near a friend named Callie, who had died of a stroke at 27. “Callie and Kelly gave us a little love,” he told the other guys. “They’re looking out for us.”

(That proved to be but a break in their struggle, not the end.)

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