Engulfed Ep. 1: St. John Fight: From Battling Cancer to Covid

Rae Walberg, Engulfed Producer

“What around here? I mean, it was like this of people dying like that. I mean, every day, every day two and three people. You hate to answer your phone, because somebody called then, somebody died,” Mary Hampton said. 

Welcome to the first episode of Engulfed, a podcast from The Maroon, Loyola University New Orleans’ student run newspaper about investigating instances of environmental injustice in Southeast Louisiana communities. 

Louisiana is home to millions of acres of bayous, marshes rich with fauna spanning from the white-tailed deer to the American alligator, and long, brackish rivers, the Atchafalaya and Mississippi that empty into the Gulf of Mexico. For some, the state is a sportsman’s paradise, a haven of sorts for catching crawfish or hunting duck. Others see the state as a hub for America’s trade economy as over 500 million tons of goods are shipped through the state on the Mississippi river every year. But for those drowning in man-made disasters like climate change, oil spills and unbreathable air, all they see are their ways of life slowly dying. 

The voices you heard to start this episode came from members of an environmental justice group based out of Reserve, Louisiana called Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish. On a Summer day in 2016, one of those members Mary Hampton noticed an usual number of cars crowding the parking lot of a local church while she was on her way home from the store. She called her priest and he told her that the meeting was related to a local chemical plant, he mentioned that it could be about a chemical spill but said he was unsure what the meeting was about. 

“So I dropped my grocery’s off and I went straight over and I found that the gym had a lot of people but it wasn’t us. Nobody told us. So the priest, he came to, I was sitting next to our priest. And he said did you know, I said, I didn’t know anything about this,” Mary Hampton said. 

The meeting was held by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency and Denka Performance Elastomer, the corporation that owns and operates the neoprene synthetic rubber plant in St. John the Baptist parish. Hampton soon realized that the meeting was called to tell residents that the EPA’s National Air Toxic Assessment had found that people in the area were at a high risk for cancer. Lydia Gerard, a Reserve resident, was thankful that her friend Hampton stumbled upon the meeting. 

“I, I would bet my last dime on it, that it was intentional that a lot of people didn’t come out. Exactly. They had it in our community where most of the exposure is or a large portion. And they were banking on the people just not paying attention and letting it go. And they could always come back and say, Well, we had a meeting, we you know, we called, let them know, they didn’t come. They didn’t have, they didn’t want us to know. But it’s a good thing that people that were really interested in that community was there. And that’s how the organization was formed,” Lydia Gerard said. 

Out of this meeting, Hampton and Gerard helped found Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish to raise awareness for the low air quality and high cancer rates in their parish. ProPublica’s analysis of EPA data estimated that the air in St. John the Baptist parish is 99% more toxic with cancer-causing chemicals than other parishes along the Mississippi River. The group has been particularly vocal against Denka Performance Elastomer as the rubber manufacturer emits chloroprene.  Studies have linked chloroprene exposure to high rates of liver cancer in humans and other animals, and the EPA classifies it as likely carcinogenic.

Robert Taylor, another member of Concerned Citizens of St. John feels frustrated with the response from government officials. Chuck Carr Brown, the Secretary of the LDEQ once accused critics of Denka of  “fear mongering” for raising concerns about  the dangers of chloroprene. 

“Nobody’s looking at this plant that could sit here and destroy people like that at that level. And the government attribute that directly to our exposure to chloroprene. At those ungodly levels, that they are dumping it on us that EPA is allowing, DEQ is allowing it, Louisiana Department of Health, I will look nobody’s doing anything about it. And then when the poor people suffering and struggling, and stand up to try to clear the mess off their face and get it out of the lungs of their children. They’re attacked by their own people,” Robert Taylor said. 

Denka is one of the 150 chemical plants and oil refineries that occupy an 85-mile long stretch from New Orleans to Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River, a stretch of land now known as Cancer Alley. Kimberly Terrell is a Research Scientist at Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic. Terrell described Cancer Alley as a place where Black and low-income people are “burdened with cancer risk” and respiratory diseases because of industrial pollution. 

“I would say the the siting of the plants are clearly discriminatory, right? They they are not located in in a random pattern. And yes, many are located along the river for, you know, logistical purposes for transportation. But even if we look within the industry within the River Corridor, they’re they’re not uniformly placed. They’re clustered in Black communities. And we see that pretty clearly in St. James Parish, where even the land use planning of the parish protects white churches and white schools, but doesn’t have those same buffer areas around Black churches and Black schools,” Kimberly Terrell said. 

Fifth Ward Elementary School, a kindergarten through fourth grade school with a ¾ Black student body, is located a mile away from the Denka plant. Activists say that the school’s proximity to the plant is evidence of the environmental racism Terrell is referring to. Concerned Citizens of St. John even fought to relocate the school. 

“We fought for Fifth Ward for five years to get them kids out because the emissions was so high. Even the Department of Health says nobody should have been in there. They kept those kids there. The school board, we were at the school board meeting when we had private meetings with them with everything with this. They didn’t believe nothing we said either,” Mary Hampton said. “But you’re right here, only black school in this community. That’s next to a plant.” 

Polluting industrial facilities operating in close proximity to Black public schools seems to be a trend in Cancer Alley.  In nearby St. James Parish, the proposed Formosa Plastics chemical plant was zoned to be a mile away from a school, ironically also named Fifth Ward Elementary School, which has nearly 100% Black student body. The Formosa plant would’ve emitted Ethylene Oxide, a chemical linked to increased risks of lymphoid and breast cancer. 

Activists also point out the ties between pollution in Cancer Alley and Louisiana’s slave-holding past. As sugarcane plantations moved out, industry began to take its place along the Mississippi River. Now, many of the people who suffer the most from industrial pollution in Cancer Alley are the direct descendants of the enslaved Africans who worked on those plantations. It’s also common for industrial plants to occupy the same plots of land where enslaved people once lived and worked. Denka, for example, is located at the site of a former plantation.

“There were two plantation Bellport and Sunnyside plantation where Denka/DuPont is and most of the, a lot of the people that were field workers lived there. ​​But it was a sugarcane plantation also. And they, somebody had bought it and they started moving the people out now we had no idea what was coming there. None whatsoever,” Mary Hampton said. 

When Hampton was a child, her family relocated to St. John The Baptist Parish for her dad’s job at a local sugar mill. Hampton said that many of the things she grew up with slowly disappeared after industries moved into the area following a white flight from her neighborhood. 

“We had even lightning bugs. We came out playing with lightning bugs, you go out there, you get lightning bugs you rub it on your clothes. And it would shine at night and you run around playing with lightning bugs on you. You know and things like that, picking figs and picking blackberries. We had all of this asked about everything. Just don’t, you can’t grow anything anymore. Still never know why. Everything’s in the air, it was bad. You want water. Sometimes water will be so bad. You can smell the chlorine, the chlorine smells like Clorox. We didn’t know it was chlorine in it. We know it was something in it because it was smell but we had to drink it. You know. And I mean our life coming up was terrible,” Mary Hampton said. 

In 1969, DuPont de NeMours, a chemicals company that made synthetic rubber used for koozies, among other things, moved into the site the Denka plant now occupies. Residents in the area were told that the chemical plant’s arrival would improve their quality of life. 

“And all you heard was, you know plants come in, there’s going to be jobs. So everybody’s excited about that. You don’t know who’s coming, what they’re making, what they’re emitting or anything like that. You  didn’t even think about emissions. All we thought about as far as the plant goes for emergencies was there might be an explosion, but you didn’t think about, you know anything else yet and you thought they were gonna be jobs. We didn’t get the jobs,” Lydia Gerard said.

In 1983, the plant had an explosion that injured 21 workers, including eight of them who were seriously injured with burns. Hampton remembers a class-action lawsuit coming out of the explosion where people in the area surrounding the plant received $100 each. But this was only one FASET of DuPont’s controversial legacy. In 2015, DuPont sold its Reserve plant to Denka because of concerns that it could not afford to offset it’s emissions of chloroprene, according to reporting from The Guardian. Though Denka’s track record with chloroprene is not much better. Here’s Kimberley Terell, the research scientist we heard from earlier.

“In this case, the pollutant of concern is chloroprene. And the challenge, the thing that makes the Denka situation unique, is that chloroprene is a very, very unusual pollutant. And Denka is the only facility in the United States that manufactures chloroprene. And one of only, I think, nine facilities that emit it, right, because some other facilities, they don’t produce it, but they handle it, you know, as as a feedstock to produce other things. So, because there are so few communities exposed to this very, very toxic pollutant, which is, you know, known to cause cancer, the there, there isn’t a lot of, or I should say the EPA has not paid a lot of attention to this,” Kimberly Terrell said. 

The EPA found that the risk of developing cancer in the community surrounding Denka is 50 times the national average. And Terrell said the plant’s emission levels are dramatically higher than what the EPA considers safe. 

Residents of Reserve, like other areas in Cancer-Alley have been devastated by the toll cancer has taken on their communities. And many, like the members of Concerned Citizens of St. John, can name several loved ones who have died from cancer.

The kids are sick, the people are dying. I got five people in my family or six that died with cancer run by gun jello. My daddy died. My daddy, My daddy bought this property when the white people moved, he bought this. He told us he is going to leave his legacy, left at the depths of my daddy died with cancer. My brother next to him, his wife, died with cancer. My brother next to me, he died, with cancer. He lost his wife at a young age. My son, 57 years old, with cancer. My daughter lost her husband seven years ago. We cancer. My brother died that he got cancer, Bobby his wife have in kids have immune diseases. As far as his parents had cancer. Lydia’s husband died with that. So this is what we’re faced as a community because of the treatment that we have been all our life, that we knew nothing about that we could not fight,” Mary Hampton said.

But cancer wasn’t the only health-related tragedy St. John’s residents were up against. in 2020 COVID-19 came into the picture.

“We’ve known for a long time that pollution can increase people’s risk of respiratory disease, that research is not new. It’s been ongoing for decades. And there’s a whole, you know, body of scientific studies that support that connection. You know, not just with COVID, but with tuberculosis with blanking on it now, but with, you know, previous emerging respiratory viruses as well. And it’s really a very logical connection, right? Your lungs are the first point of contact for pollutants entering your body. And your lungs represent the largest surface area of your body that comes into contact with with outdoor air, you know, once you breathe it in,” Kimberly Terrell said. 

As a researcher, Terrell was interested in a Harvard study from the beginning of the pandemic which concluded that long-term exposure to air pollution exacerbates the effect of COVID-19 and she conducted her own study. Her report from May of 2020 found that eight out of the ten parishes with the highest COVID-19 death rate per capita were in Cancer Alley. Her research showed death rates three to six times higher than Louisiana’s median COVID-19 mortality rate in these parishes. 

At one point in April of 2020, St. John the Baptist Parish had the highest COVID-19 per capita death rate in the entire country, according to analysis by The New York Times. 

“We know that that pollution is a risk factor for deaths from COVID-19. We know that from you know, lots of studies across the nation, and internationally, plus a whole foundation of research showing that pollution increases your risk from respiratory disease. And then we also know from our own research that in Louisiana, you know, when we look neighborhood by neighborhood, it’s the same neighborhoods that are overburdened with pollution, where people are disproportionately dying from COVID,” Kimberly Terrell said. 

Hampton was overwhelmed by the high COVID-19 death rate in her community. She saw her own sister and brother-in-law die within a week of each other. 

“What around here? I mean, it was like this of people dying like that. I mean, every day every day two and three people in the you hate Answer your phone, because somebody called him killed. Somebody died,” Mary Hampton said. “I was lucky. Bobby went to California. He got it. He was sick for a long time. We thought he was gonna lose him.”

Robert Taylor, one of the members of Concerned Citizens of St John the Baptist Parish we interviewed, nearly lost his life to COVID-19. He believes that his time living in the midst of the Parish’s rubber manufacturing industry made him especially vulnerable when COVID began spreading through Louisiana 

“And I had everything. I had the double pneumonia attack both to my lungs. With that plus the pulmonary thing. I had blood clots in my lungs and in my head. You know? I was, my system was so compromised. That thing was there. I’m just fortunate everybody to tell me how lucky I am. To have not only the age factor, but coming from the environment that I came from, you know, people at that hospital were amazed,” Robert Taylor said. 

Activists and scientists alike believe St. John the Baptist Parish’ initial high per capita death rate is linked to half a century of chloroprene emissions from Denka and Dupont.

Denka’s Spokesperson Jim Harris told the Maroon via email that he denies that the parish’s high COVID-19 death rate per capita were aggravated by industrial pollutants and said that they have been linked to underlying conditions like hypertension, chronic lung disease, obesity and quote “not industrial emission.” He also pointed to a COVID-19 outbreak at a LaPlace veterans home from April of 2020. The LDEQ’s Press Secretary Greg Langley told The Maroon that he isn’t aware of a correlation between COVID-19 and industrial pollutants but said that the question wasn’t with his department. 

“I haven’t even seen any industry or, or, or state agency, even acknowledge the link between pollution exposure and risk of death from COVID-19. And, you know, we, so often we see the conversation kind of switched to other risk factors, especially, you know, obesity, smoking, diabetes, and those are important, right, those are important to an individual’s risk. But pollution exposure is also important,” Kimberly Terrell said. “And from a social justice perspective, it’s really important to make the distinction between voluntary and involuntary risk. If you decide to smoke, you know, if you decide to eat certain foods, that is something that is more within your control, then if I decide to build a plant next to your home and release, you know, pollutants that are known to harm your lungs.”

Terrell and Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic filed an emergency request on behalf of Concerned Citizens of St. John in May 2020 to cease the operation of the plant. 

Both Harris and Langley told the Maroon that Denka’s emission levels comply with the state standards. 

“I would say they were consistently within the department,” Greg Langley said. “They lowered their emissions by 85%. In agreement with us, and that was, that reduction was based on their emissions inventory, from 2014, to 2020.”

But these efforts are not enough for the Concerned Citizens of St. John and they petitioned for Denka’s chloroprene levels to be reduced to 0.2 micrograms, which is a level that was recommended by the EPA. But in late September of 2020, the chloroprene emissions at Fifth Ward elementary school were measured at 6.35 micrograms per cubic meter.

There’s no place there’s no one in St. John the Baptist Parish that’s in a safe environment from chloroprene, chloroprene is poisoning everyone that comes into St. John Parish. You guys know that one plant is poison is allowed to poison a whole parish, no that plant needs to go and they are not planning to change, you can see that they are not planning, even when they tell us okay, we’re going to reduce to 0.2 they are not going to do it,” Robert Taylor said. 



Thank you for listening to the first episode of Engulfed. Come back next time as the Maroon pieces together the impact of coastal erosion on Southeast Louisiana, how it’s threatening indigenous communities’ ways of life and what it means for Louisiana’s present and future.

Today’s podcast was written by Rae Walberg, Executive Produced and Edited by Brendan Heffernan and collaborated on by Domonique Tolliver. 

I’m Domonique Tolliver, we’ll see you next time.