“It feels a little like a sci-fi movie when you are told that one of the byproducts being released is an agent that we used against our enemies in World War I.”
Meanwhile, in law school, I was learning something of the dismal science of the actuary and the economist in assigning value to loss of life and limb. The Livingston derailment is still widely regarded as the worst disaster of its kind in Louisiana, but it might be pointed out that, adjusted for inflation, Eunice was a significantly costlier incident. Many factors could play into that calculus, including an increasingly litigious society. Following the money, as usual, is revealing. The National Transportation Safety Board Report is completely silent as to the companies that produced the spilled chemicals in Eunice, but the June 7, 2000 issue of Chemical Week reported that “Dow Chemical is among several chemical companies that had chemicals on board.” A Union Pacific spokesperson noted that the company carried catastrophic insurance for such incidents, but naturally refrained from saying what the threshold was. The median household income in Eunice, a town of 11,000 at that time, was around $21,000. The town’s population has since declined by ten percent, and while I’m not suggesting cause-and-effect here, Cancer Alley, which helped give rise to the term environmental racism, is dotted with towns that have been evacuated and displaced, some of them permanently, because of spills and disasters.
Among them is Morrisonville. As encyclopedia entries note in baleful past tense, Morrisonville was a historic Black settlement, founded in the 1870s by formerly enslaved people, tucked in an oxbow of the Mississippi south of Baton Rouge. Dow Chemical established a plant nearby that soon leapt its green buffer, so that the small settlement was overshadowed by a Moloch-like refinery, replete with dozens of flare stacks and storage tanks. After another incident in 1989, and faced with permanently contaminated groundwater, the company began a buyout program. When New York Times reporter Keith Schneider went to Morrisonville to report on the new buyout strategy, he met Rosa L. Martin, who told him with level eye, “Dow doesn’t pay for attachment to land, for the inheritance that is in this community.” Martin, the article noted, was living with her husband, Jack, “in a modern brick house so close to the plant that hissing compressors and commands over the plant loudspeakers can be heard inside.” By 1993, with the last local resisters relocated, the town that had held on for generations as a place distinct from Baton Rouge (not to say refineries) became, like many other historically Black places, a post-place community, to be carried on in the stories or reunions of its diaspora, if at all.10
Nearby, on Christmas Eve of 1989, a “thunderous” blast that could be felt fifteen miles away erupted from the massive Exxon refinery on a nearby stretch of the river two miles north of Baton Rouge. With 3.6 million gallons of fuel oil instantly ablaze, the power grid disrupted, and waterlines damaged, firefighters resorted to pumping water directly from the Mississippi River. A four-square-mile area around the plant was closed, but no evacuations were ordered. When Keith Schneider asked Exxon’s Walter J. Eldredge if the buyout project was related to the accident, Eldredge responded that “the project was started before the accident and was intended to beautify the area.”
“I don’t believe that,” said Curtis Brown Jr., 18, who lives with his parents, a brother, and a sister in the Standard Heights neighborhood south of the refinery. “They’re scared of another tank blowing up or gas coming over here. When that tank blew up, I thought an airplane had fallen on the house. People were running down the street holding their heads.”11
After Eunice, I could relate to that feeling, too. In June of the following year, the residents of New Sarpy, not too far upstream from New Orleans’s Louis Armstrong airport, witnessed more great balls of fire when Tropical Storm Allison struck alight a storage tank with a 300,000-barrel capacity. This was the mother of all dumpster fires and still holds the title for the largest fuel tank fire in US history. The story’s themes are familiar: chemical odors in town, gradual expansion of the refinery’s footprint, frequent change of ownership. Some residents who lived next to the plant were told, in the now familiar phrase, to shelter in place. Small wonder that a few years later some town residents were begging the refinery for a buyout. It is now the site of the still-larger Valero St. Charles Refinery. In this grim better-than-nothing calculous, a buyout is considered a good ending to the story; being stuck on the human archipelago in the encroaching industrial soup is a guarantee of continued want and illness.12
Also around the same time as my visit to Louisiana, problems at the Marathon Refinery were driving a wedge into the historic waterfront of Garyville as the refinery literally and figuratively spilled into surrounding communities and pressed outward. Ever since it started in the 1970s, the refinery, which now sits on 3,500 acres and is touted by Marathon to be the third largest in the United States, has been growing on the grounds of the former San Francisco Plantation property. The company’s website copy notes that the property “is the last grassroots refinery built in the U.S.” Imagine building your own speculative refinery as a venture and then selling it to a multinational corporation—and calling it a grassroots effort. Paul Hawken—entrepreneur, environmentalist, and author of Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation (2021)—has pointed out that the corporate fervor for coopting the rhetoric of environmental and social justice movements comes about precisely because it threatens their dominance.
To be sure, Garyville has never exactly shied away from extractive businesses. Its earlier claim to fame was that the town sawmill processed (flensed is perhaps a more fitting verb) a 1,300-year-old cypress believed to be the oldest tree in Louisiana. The entire course of my study of environmental law bore home the insistent, maddening irony that wetlands grew “externalities” like duckweed, as places irresistibly inexpensive, yet biologically priceless beyond compare. Cognizant of the cost-benefit balance of human efforts to achieve better living through chemistry, it is a dilemma that sits heavy with me each time I turn an ignition key, apply shampoo to my hair, or fill a prescription. Many of the people in these communities understandably choose to remain. We like to think that we live in a mobile age, but even in 2015, the average American lived only eighteen miles from their mom. Geography and kin really are destiny.13
In his book The Repeating Island (1966), Cuban novelist Antonio Benítez-Rojo shrewdly observed that “we can speak . . . of a Caribbean machine as important or more so than the fleet machine [that powered empire]. This machine, this extraordinary machine, exists today, that is, it repeats itself continuously. It’s called the plantation” (8). The far-reaching consequences of the plantation ensure that the Marathon refinery is just another iteration of the machine, new “geographies of exploitation”: on the ashes of San Francisco plantation has risen a new plantation.