Who drills the oil? Who refines the oil? Who makes the cars? Who makes the ships? Who makes the planes? Who mines the coal? Who drives the trucks? Who drills the oil?
“I can’t put my finger on Lake Charles,” said Diana. “I know I’ve lived many different places now and I’ve only been here four years, but I just don’t know what this place is about.” Diana is originally from New York, near where the infamous Love Canal superfund site, used to bury 21,000 tons of toxic waste, is located in Niagara Falls. It is a sunny Saturday afternoon in Calcasieu Parish and a few of us are sitting on a neighbor’s porch, discussing Lake Charles and the petrochemical economy of southwestern Louisiana. For now, the conversation is focused on the culture of the city, the deep roots of its residents, the mercurial nature of the community to those people who feel perpetually outside of its unspoken norms. “There’s certainly a reluctance to change down here. It’s much easier to kick back with a beer and a boudin link. The industry provides people with steady jobs down here. Real employment is a lot better than it is in much of the rest of the U.S. right now,” I’m told by another woman. A third neighbor opines: “Who’s going to make that water bottle you’re holding? Who makes that bike you ride possible? It’s a tough question, but that’s what people say around here. Louisiana’s a third-world country. They want us poor down here so we can keep making the plastics and refining the oil.”
My teammate Ben and I bike to the nearby Market Basket, a mile away, for some groceries. On our way – old houses with shoddy roofs, a few train track crossings, many vacant lots, some of which still contain the concrete foundations of houses. Just before a turn, a perpetually rain-soaked Church’s Chicken sign that reads “Happy Father’s Day” and some shuttered businesses greet us. The Market Basket, though somewhat worn in its architecture, is boldly lit from the inside, bucking the perpetually hazy blue-and-grey Lake Charles sky. Inside, a few people greet me briskly but courteously as I scan the store shelves – why do so many items contain MSG? Picking up milk, a man with a nearly indecipherable accent turns to Ben and I. “Y’all don’t got no parents?!” he inquires. One of the many beautiful things about the state of Louisiana is the focus on family and ancestors that’s largely absent from the rest of the United States. People live next door or down the street from their mother, father, sister, brother, cousin, grandparents. It’s Father’s Day, and as sons of Lake Charles, we have a responsibility. Or maybe he just thinks we’re orphaned.
Mike Tritico belongs to Restore, a group of concerned Lake Charles citizens that have been working, in conjunction with other regional and national groups, to fight petrochemical company environmental and human rights abuses in southwestern Louisiana for decades. On an afternoon tour of the city, he guides us down to various points of the lake; the site of a stolen “no crabbing” sign by polluted water, the interstate bridge that transports oil and chemical products produced across the lake all across the country, the city’s downtown waterfront. At the waterfront, he tells us that Lake Charles is the nation’s third largest port. Notable exports include, of course, petrochemicals (Lake Charles leads the nation in fossil fuel exports) and emergency food aid to foreign nations. Sarah, another one of our team members, keeps asking who is responsible for the flares and visible pollutants across the lake. Mike points the facilities out, one by one, as the sun sets on the waterfront. One’s a coal-fired power plant, another’s an oil refinery, another’s a second oil refinery. And so on, and so on, and so on.
On Monday morning, the eleven of us, led by Mike, biked out to the communities of Westlake, Mossville, Bayou D’Inde and Sulphur, west of the lake. All four of these communities are located near or adjacent to several massive chemical and petrochemical facilities and within close distance to PPG, the nation’s leading producer of polyvinyl chloride, (PVC) used primarily for vinyl siding. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, the risk of dioxin emissions puts PVC as one of the worst materials for human health impacts. As we bike through Westlake and Mossville, Mike tells the stories of cancer casualties: a high school football team, old neighborhood families. We get our first glimpse of Mossville after passing an enormous industrial park and crossing over railroad tracks busy with oil trains. Mossville has mostly returned to dying trees and vacant lots. A few houses remain within plain sight of a refinery and the rest of the industrial park, but as Mike describes, industry has murdered or driven away most of Mossville’s inhabitants due to pollution-related illnesses. A world court case currently exists arguing that the siting of such a large number of chemical industries adjacent to Mossville, which was in its life an almost entirely African-American community, is racist. Mike, however, notes the disappearance of a poor white community in nearby Bayou D’Inde, adjacent to the PPG plant. While Mike is recorded on a driveway at the entrance of a chemical plant, a security guard informs us that we are on private property and asks us to leave. Who owns Mossville? News is surfacing about the potential acquisition of the land by a South African chemical company for natural gas production and conversion to gasoline.
The long, smelly bike ride to Bayou D’Inde leads us past the enormous PPG complex to a house on the edge of the titular bayou. At the house, we meet a man named Harold, whose house is the only remaining property in Bayou D’Inde. Harold, after telling us about the degradation of the bayou water and the loss of his community, invites us inside for food and sodas. Their hospitality and kindness is evident as we learn about their kids, their travels, their time spent up North. Talking to Harold’s wife, Annette, the usual subjects come up: God, the North, and the South. When Annette asks me my honest opinion of the North and the South, I boldly state to her, “I wish the North were better able to slow down and live for the little things, and I wish the South wasn’t so systematically oppressed. “ Almost immediately after saying it, I feel vaguely stupid and tactless: the Northern carpetbaggers never left the South. We think these scars heal but they just don’t, they just don’t. Never before in my life had I felt so aware of what my privileged childhood in suburban Washington, DC has made me into, or how much running away from it for so long has taught me. No matter how far I run, I am always on the edge of power. My privilege is inescapable – and with every passing humid southern day, it is harder and harder for me to keep from a toxic hatred of the grownups that pervaded my childhood – the people who allow Harold’s bayou to wither away, the people who finance their children’s educations by allowing the market forces that pollute Lake Charles and the bodies of its people to continue. Before we leave, Harold and Annette take us to the large and bountiful fig tree on the side of their property. “Eat as many as you want,” they insist.
For the entirety of the duration of our time in Lake Charles, I kept thinking about the legacy of other company towns I had been to in the United States: the old blue-collar whaling towns of southeastern Massachusetts, the coal counties of southern West Virginia, and, most of all, the ruins and promises of America’s most infamous company town, Detroit. Remember when our country ran on whaling? Fading old New Bedford, Massachusetts used to be one of the most important whaling towns in the world. In West Virginia, where a few of my childhood friends now live and work as community organizers, the practice of coal extraction through mountaintop removal is eliminating mining jobs and robbing people in mining communities of their land. What of Michigan? Obama bailed out the car companies. Who makes the cars? Canada, Mexico, China, Taiwan. The rust belt still manufactures, but its manufacturing base has disappeared along with its quickly fading population. Just ask Detroit, where innovation in community agriculture and sustainable design is starting to happen, but only after over a third of its population fleeing in the past half-century, leaving the city with a poverty rate over 40% and the highest rate of functional illiteracy of any city in the nation. Or nearby Flint, Michigan, also an old car manufacturing town, with a population loss even greater than Detroit’s, one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation and the nation’s highest per-capita violent crime rate. The Lake Area is a world center of petrochemical industry. The oil still flows in Louisiana, though it ranks near the bottom in per-capita income, quality of education, and many other quality of life measures. What will happen to Calcasieu Parish when oil goes the way of whaling or domestic manufacturing? The need for changes, the fear of change. There are few places in the United States where both are so viscerally apparent.
Just about everyone in Lake Charles has or has had cancer. The evening Mike led us to the downtown Lake Charles waterfront, the last conversation of the day, the first of twilight, is about cancer. “Ask anyone on this boardwalk if they or anyone they know have cancer. I will personally guarantee you all of them will say yes. I’m a three-time cancer survivor.” Mike turns to our neighbors on the tour, and both of them list the people they know that have been or are going through cancer. The following day, by a Westlake oil refinery, we witness the abandoned remains of a high school football field. The last team to play on that field died wholly of cancer, except for the team coach. The team coach is now an aging cancer doctor. At Bayou D’Inde, Harold again sounds the drumbeat of mortality: “Of the eight people living on my property, seven died of cancer. One of stroke.” In Louisiana cities, beautifully ornate, expansive graveyards sit side by side with valuable real estate. They echo the presence of mortality in a culture that always chooses to remember the past, to remember roots, to live with the death that exists side-by-side with life and celebration in a place that has long faced extreme weather, pollution-related illnesses, and the nation’s highest homicide rate, double the national average. Yet, in spite of the beauty of each individual gravestone, to those, like me, who are foreign in Louisiana, it is easy to misunderstand both the necessity and power of mourning. I now find myself hoping with every passing day that each victim of cancer in the state of Louisiana is remembered with the bittersweet, cinematic beauty of a New Orleans jazz funeral, recalled by the brackish water that is so important to South Louisiana, remembered by the grace and prayer of those who loved them and love them still. As Louisiana must, remember the dead. Don’t run from ghosts. Don’t forget to mourn. From the past and afterlife alike, there is beauty to be found, there are lessons to learn. I still don’t know much about Lake Charles. I do not wish to misinterpret ritual or tradition. But for me, so much of Louisiana, and of Lake Charles, is about this remembering, about celebrating life saved and fighting to live, and about remembering, praying, loving those who could not be saved and from whom we still have so much to learn from.
This post is dedicated to Mike Tritico and to all of the heroes, cancer casualties and cancer survivors of Lake Charles. It is also dedicated to the communities of Mossville and Bayou D’Inde, two vivid examples of the erasure of communities worldwide by resource extraction industries such as coal, oil, and natural gas.