‘Playing Outside in Poison’

There are no perfect people, and we can’t do it alone. This is the basis of a new coalition in Louisiana that’s reframing climate change as a fundamentally moral issue. For the pastors, rabbis, and imams who make up the Greater New Orleans Interfaith Climate Coalition, climate justice is not simply a matter of debating public policy; it is an urgent call to fight alongside the frontline communities being battered by some of the United States’s worst polluters. 

Louisiana has already lost a Delaware-sized piece of land to rising seas and continues to lose a football field’s worth of land every 100 minutes. 

“When our children are at their most fragile,” Taylor noted. “They are playing outside in poison.” Without immediate action by the parish to move the youngsters out of harm’s way, she warned, “these kindergarten students won’t make it into their twenties.” 

The state also has the ignominious distinction of hosting four of the nation’s top ten petrochemical polluters, for which it pays a terrible price. It’s home to a murderous eighty-five-mile “cancer alley” yawning its toxins and fetid stenches across the river parishes from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.

On March 7, the interfaith coalition held a prayer brunch where members of the clergy discussed what congregations in New Orleans are already doing to confront climate injustice, and heard from frontline communities about the devastation being afflicted upon them with every breath they take. 

“In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency came to our community to advise us that we had the highest risk of cancer due to chloroprene in the United States,” Tish Taylor, an activist from St. John the Baptist Parish in southern Louisiana, told the gathering. 

Chloroprene, a chemical used to create synthetic rubber, has been found to cause lung and kidney cancer—and its level in areas of St. John’s Parish is twenty-five to 100 times the EPA’s “Safe” standard. 

“Those emissions have been coming at us for the last fifty years and continue to come from the Denka DuPont plant in LaPlace,” Taylor added, referring to the largest town in St. John’s. “Every household has lost loved ones to cancer or autoimmune disease, and now they’re getting younger and younger because their exposure starts earlier.”

Alarmingly, less than 1,500 feet from the plant is an elementary school, which has students from kindergarten to fourth grade. 

“When our children are at their most fragile,” Taylor noted. “They are playing outside in poison.” Without immediate action by the parish to move the youngsters out of harm’s way, she warned, “these kindergarten students won’t make it into their twenties.” 

Taylor’s group, the Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish, has been sounding the alarm for four years: “we’ve begged, pleaded, screamed and demanded that our communities come together with our public officials to save our children.”

Pastor Gregory Manning convened the Greater New Orleans Interfaith Climate Coalition to bring more religious leaders to the frontlines in situations like Denka DuPont, or in St. James Parish, where permits for fourteen petrochemical plants have already been granted to Formosa Plastics. The Taiwanese corporation was recently termed “a serial offender” by a federal court in Texas,  in connection with a $50 million settlement for water pollution destruction in Lavaca Bay, the largest settlement in the history of the Clean Water Act. 

Formosa has a track record of laying waste to the lands unlucky enough to be selected as sites for its factories. In Baton Rouge, where Formosa operates a PVC resin plant, the company has violated the Clean Water Act continually since 2009. In Vietnam, it fouled 125 miles of coastline, spoiling 100 tons of fish and demolishing the economies of four coastal provinces. 

If allowed to go forward, Formosa would spew ninety-five tons of known carcinogens each year in every district throughout St. James Parish. Its operation would emit a staggering fifteen tons of hazardous pollutants into the air each day, and each year 7.7 tons of ethylene oxide and 36.58 tons of benzene, both verified carcinogens. Cancer risk from industrial pollution in St. James Parish has skyrocketed by 600 percent in the last ten years. 

The aim of the interfaith coalition—which encourages clergy members to join the struggles of frontline communities—is to raise the moral dimension of the fight for climate justice. By highlighting the misdeeds of big polluters and the environmental impacts of fossil fuel extraction, and by educating about available alternatives and energy-saving practices (like washing the dishes instead of clogging the landfill with disposable dinnerware), they’re mobilizing their congregants to take action in their personal lives, to green their congregations, and to collectively confront power to build better, more racially equitable public policies across Louisiana. 

“The enslaver got the best of the hog, and the enslaved had to forage for what they could make good use of,” Pastor Manning told The Progressive. “Today, the new enslaver has said, ‘You want land? You’ll get what we give you even if it’s tainted and we’re poisoning you and gassing you.’ But now we say no, God gave this to all of us. And you’ve stolen it from us before, and we won’t allow you to do it to us again.”

For Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, the interfaith coalition couldn’t be coalescing at a more felicitous moment. This week, the New Orleans City Council will continue its deliberations about enacting a Renewable Portfolio Standard to bring the city to 100 percent renewables by 2040.

Burke told The Progressive she hopes the coalition will help advance a renewable portfolio that excludes nuclear energy and that “considers the future of the city—the ways so many of us need lifting up, need dignified work, need a resilient place to live.”

There are also moral considerations in passing on costs to ratepayers for building a superfluous new gas plant or for the unreliable Grand Gulf nuclear plant in Mississippi, to which New Orleans pays $100 million per year. “The Grand Gulf plant has not been acting reliably and is now out and expected to be out for seventy days,” Burke said. “We pay for it whether it’s on or not.” 

A heated battle by grassroots groups opposed to Entergy’s new LNG gas plant is ongoing after the utility was found to have paid actors $60, lunch and a tee-shirt to usurp limited seats in public meetings and pretend they supported the gas plant; $200, if they had a “speaking role” in public comments. The district court threw out their approvals and sent Entergy back to the starting gate. If they do prevail at city council, ratepayers may get stuck footing the bill for an estimated $685 million in costs over the next thirty years. “This is some of the most expensive pollution around,” Burke said. 

More than fifty percent of households in New Orleans either live below the federal poverty line or are “asset limited, income contained”—in other words, struggling.

Moving swiftly forward is paramount to Pastor Manning, who came to New Orleans nine years ago and remains haunted by stories his congregants have told him about what they endured in the aftermath of Katrina.

“I think of those bodies lying on the floor of the Superdome every time I’ve gone there for a game,” Manning said. 

He worries that in a blink of an eye, both history and tragedy could be repeated.

“We are blessed every summer that a new storm doesn’t happen,” he said. “But this hurricane season could very well be the season that it does happen. And we are not prepared for it. There is no reason why it will not be poor black folks sitting on that bridge again in ninety degree heat, stranded and calling for food. We have to get ahead of it.”

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