NEW ORLEANS (NNPA) — As BP’s deepwater well continues to discharge oil into the Gulf, the economic and public health effects are already being felt across coastal communities. But it’s likely this is only the beginning. From the bayous of southern Louisiana to the city of New Orleans, many fear this disaster represents not only environmental devastation, but also cultural extinction for peoples who have made their lives here for generations, especially African Americans.
This is not the first time that Louisianans have lost their communities or their lives from the actions of corporations. The land loss caused by oil companies has already displaced many who lived by the coast, and the pollution from treatment plants has poisoned communities across the state ?especially in “cancer alley,” the corridor of industrial facilities along the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge.
“The cultural losses as a consequence of the BP disaster are going to be astronomical,” says Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR) co-director Nathalie Walker. “There is no other culture like Louisiana’s coastal culture and we can only hope they won’t be entirely erased.”
Walker and co-director Monique Harden have made it their mission to fight the environmental consequences of Louisiana’s corporate polluters. They say this disaster represents an unparalleled catastrophe for the lives of people across the region, but they also see in it a continuation of an old pattern of oil and chemical corporations displacing people of color from their homes.
Harden and Walker point out that at least five Louisiana towns – all majority-African American – have been eradicated due to corporate pollution in recent decades.
The most recent is the Southwest Louisiana town of Mossville, founded by African Americans in the 1790s. Located near Lake Charles, Mossville is only 5 square miles and holds 375 households. Beginning in the 1930s, the state of Louisiana began authorizing industrial facilities to manufacture, process, store, and discharge toxic and hazardous substances within Mossville. Fourteen facilities are now located in the small town, and 91 percent of residents have reported at least one health problem related to exposure to chemicals produced by the local industry.
The southern Louisiana towns of Diamond, Morrisonville, Sunrise, and Revilletown – all founded by former enslaved Africans – met similar fates. After years of chemical-related poisoning, the remaining residents have been relocated, and the corporations that drove them out now own their land. In most cases, only a cemetery remains, and former residents must pass through plant security to visit their relatives’ graves.
The town of Diamond, founded by the descendents of the participants of the 1811 Rebellion to End Slavery, the largest slave uprising in U.S. history, was relocated by Shell in 2002 after residents had faced decades of toxic exposure. Morrisonville, established by free Africans in 1790, was bought out by Dow in 1989. Residents of Sunrise, inaugurated near Baton Rouge by former enslaved Africans in 1874, were paid to move as the result of a lawsuit against the Placid Refining Co. In the mid-1990s, chemical producer, Georgia Gulf Corp. poisoned and then acquired
Revilletown, a town free Africans had started in the years after the Civil War.
“We make the mistake of thinking this is something new,” says Harden. She adds that the historic treatment of these communities, as well as the lack of recovery that New Orleanians have seen since Katrina, makes her doubt the federal government will do what is necessary for Gulf recovery. “Since Obama got into office,” she says, “I have yet to see any action that reverses what Bush did after Katrina.”
Harden says Louisiana and the U.S. must fundamentally transform the government’s relationships with corporations. “We’ve got to change the way we allow businesses to be in charge of our health and safety in this country,” she adds. As an example, Harden points to more stringent regulations in other countries, such as Norway, which requires companies to drill relief wells at the same time as any deepwater well.
Jordan Flaherty is a writer with the “Louisiana Weekly.”