WWNO skyline header graphic
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Sea Change

(Plant)ation Country

Louisiana is home to the country's largest hotspot for toxic air — an industrial corridor nicknamed “Cancer Alley.” More than 150 petrochemical plants line the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Amid the boom, many Black communities live with a disproportionate amount of pollution.

But years of protest have begun to bear fruit. We travel the Mississippi River to learn what has allowed the industry to flourish on its banks, see how the tide might turn in one neighborhood’s fight for clean air, and ask what’s next for a growing environmental justice movement as federal regulators take firmer action.

Find more information on local activists' tug of war with Denka Performance Elastomers and other environmental justice updates here.

To hear a reflection from Louisiana's former Department of Environmental Quality Secretary, Chuck Carr Brown, listen here.

Explore how the EPA is looking atenvironmental justice, their pending civil rights investigations and their updates on Denka and air monitoring at these links. Find a copy of the EPA's letter of concern to Louisiana's Department of Health and Department of Environmental Quality here.

You can find Denka Performance Elastomers website here.

A special thanks to members of the Concerned Citizens of St. John Robert Taylor, Mary Hampton and Larry Soraporu for being so generous with their time. Find their group here.

Hosted by Halle Parker and Kezia Setyawan.

Editing help was provided by Carlyle Calhoun, Rosemary Westwood Priska Neely, Patrick Madden and Eve Abrams. Our sound designer is Maddie Zampanti.

Sea Change is a production of WWNO and WRKF. We are part of the NPR Podcast Network and distributed by PRX.


Note: Transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors (including name spellings). Please be aware that the official record for our episodes is the audio version.

<<music bed>>

SETYAWAN: Imagine you’re watching a big yellow school bus pull up in front of a brick elementary school. A bunch of students hop out. Most of them are Black. Some are as young as 4 years old. Pre-kindergarten age.

PARKER: It’s a typical morning scene – but unlike most schools, a strange machine sits in the parking lot. It’s metal, about the size of a small child, with three cylinders. This is a monitor that’s sampling the air.

SETYAWAN: Behind the school, there’s a long chain-linked fence. It belongs to the chemical plant operating just out of sight. A little over a quarter mile away. Every day, it spews a likely carcinogen into the air. Sometimes at levels more than 100 times what federal officials deem safe.

PARKER: And the elementary school kids, along with people living within a mile of the plant, breathe that air everyday. <<siren ambi>> Where, from time to time, a siren wails from the plant. A test in case of emergency. And a distressing reminder of their industrial neighbor.

SETYAWAN: This is the reality in Reserve, one small, mostly Black community in Louisiana.

TAYLOR 2: They tell me that I live in a sacrifice zone, and I've been living there all my life.    

PARKER: But, after decades, that might be changing. Soon. <<bring up theme music, duck under>>

PARKER: I’m Halle Parker.

SETYAWAN: I’m Kezia Setyawan, and you’re listening to Sea Change.


PARKER: Before we get to the story of Reserve, Louisiana, it’s worth noting that, in so many ways, this town isn’t unique. Since the rise of oil and gas over the past century, the number of industrial plants has exploded along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. The builders bring promises of economic prosperity and jobs to rural areas, while downplaying the tradeoff. Toxic pollution.

SETYAWAN: That pollution affects a lot of people who live all up and down the river. But some of the worst of it is concentrated in communities of color and poor neighborhoods – in places like Reserve. Because that’s where the plants are built. It’s true in Louisiana, and all across the country.

PBS AMANPOUR: America is segregated and so is pollution.

NBC REPORTER: African Americans are 75% more likely to live near toxic pollution.

AL JAZEERA: Activists call it environmental racism.

PARKER: Activists and residents living in these neighborhoods have been fight – for years – for their right to clean air and water. A safe place to live. It’s called the environmental justice movement. For a long time, government officials – at all levels — did little – but in 2021, the federal government started to listen.

BIDEN: Environmental justice will be at the center of all we do addressing the disproportionate health and environmental and economic impacts on communities of color, so-called fence line communities.

SETYAWAN: On the top of President Joe Biden’s list?

BIDEN: The hard hit areas like Cancer Alley in Louisiana.

PARKER: Cancer Alley — that’s the nickname given to all the industrial plants along the Mississippi River. Home of the country’s largest hot spot for toxic air. And home to Reserve.

Today on Sea Change, we’re telling the story of how this new political moment could turn the tide in a six-year long fight to end pollution in one community – despite failures by the state to protect public health. It’s a complicated story, but we’ll help you through it.

SETYAWAN: We start by looking back, asking how the dark side of Louisiana’s history has allowed residents to be exploited. And we also set our sights on the future. What’s next for a movement — in a state with a history of prioritizing business… over health?

In this episode, we travel up and down the Mississippi River with Halle to find out. Halle takes it from here.


<< car ambi >>

PARKER: Reserve is a 40-minute drive from New Orleans. It sits on the bank of the Mississippi River.

GOOGLE MAPS: Take the next right onto to Cardinal Street.

PARKER (in car): So I just went through Laplace, … and now I'm going on a windy road just along the levee. I'm passing by a lot of little houses, very like countryside.

PARKER: I’m driving down what’s called the Great River Road, which is next to the Mississippi and runs for about 70 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. In some parts, it’s beautiful– these bucolic country scenes: farmland covered in sugarcane lines the street. But that’s interrupted with stretches of industrial plants, also here because of the river.

PARKER: (in car) And I'm approaching a plant. … It's made up of a bunch of different, like steel structures. There's some orangey lights. … It’s actually, now that I can see the label on one of the storage containers, it's the Denka plant. 

PARKER: This is how I know I’ve made it to Reserve: when I see the Denka Performance Elastomers plant. It’s a chemical plant. The one that this story is all about.

It sits on about 250 acres on one edge of the community. The company has the rights to 600 acres, and a lot of the rest of that land is leased to a farmer who grazes his cows as well as burros, oddly enough. Those mini donkey-like animals from Africa.

PARKER (in car): And while you're driving, you're actually going underneath these pipelines, um, that are lifted above the road and then go across from the facility over the levee and down toward where they load the material onto barges.

PARKER: Denka produces neoprene, the stuff used to make things like wetsuits or beer coozies… although most of it is used by the automotive and construction industries for everything from hoses to roofing. It’s heat resistant, waterproof and durable. But neoprene's key ingredient is also a pretty toxic chemical, called chloroprene.

Quick history here/lesson: The plant didn’t always belong to Denka, which is a Japanese chemical company. The American chemical giant, Dupont, first built the plant in the 1960s. Dupont actually invented both neoprene and chloroprene. And at one point, Dupont actually owned two plants manufacturing neoprene, the one in Reserve and its main facility in an area of Louisville, Kentucky known as Rubbertown.

But in 2008, the Rubbertown plant shut. down. Why? Because of immense political pressure from local officials and residents who feared the pollution coming from that plant.

So, that’s why this plant, in Reserve, is now the only neoprene plant in the United States.

And Robert Taylor lives about a half mile from it.

TAYLOR: Good morning.

PARKER: Hey, how are you doing? I’m Halle.

TAYLOR: Halle?

PARKER: Mm-hmm.

TAYLOR: Okay, nice to meet to meet you, I’m Robert. 

PARKER: Robert stands about 5’ 10,” wears glasses. He’s a slim, Black man, and for 82, his skin remains relatively uncrinkled. He moves slowly but deliberately. The same way he pursues his work as the executive director of the Concerned Citizens of St. John. He founded the group six years ago to pressure the state and the company to cut emissions – in Reserve and across St. John the Baptist Parish.

We hop in his truck. << car door closing, beeping sound>> And we go on a tour of Reserve. First, we head even closer to the plant. It’s not a long a drive. just two streets over is the plant’s fenceline.

TAYLOR: I just wanted to let you see that the fence behind these homes, that's DuPont Denka running all along here. 

PARKER: Robert’s had to deal with this for so long, he names both companies to describe the plant now run by Denka.

PARKER: So this is literally the fence line community. 

TAYLOR: This, oh yeah. 

PARKER: This street. 

TAYLOR: Yeah, this street here. And well, this, this is fence line right here, but the fence line moves with the community.

PARKER: We keep driving, following the fence as it winds through the neighborhood. Most of the homes are modest, all single family homes. It’s quiet. We take another turn, and then see an elementary school building — the one I told you about with the air monitor outside: Fifth Ward Elementary School.

TAYLOR: That's Fifth Ward there. 

PARKER: Oh, okay. 

TAYLOR: See, and that's where the property turns and goes around the playground. 

PARKER: This school and it’s playground are closer to the Denka plant than almost anything else in town. The plant is just beyond a treeline. About 400 students go to school here, pre-kindergarten to 4th Grade.

TAYLOR: Every day, we are busing black kids from all over the parish to this elementary school. 

PARKER: And like Robert says - most of the kids are Black. Same as Reserve. The school long precedes the plant- so does the neighborhood. When Robert went there in the 1950s, it was a high school. Now it’s all little kids. Most are younger than nine.

And depending on which way the wind blows, they’re breathing air that can have 30 to 180 times more chloroprene than what’s considered safe. according to data from the air monitors the Environmental Protection Agency — or EPA — set up at the school, and around the parish.

For Robert, it’s astonishing.

TAYLOR 1: I really can't find the words. I'm flabbergasted you know at what these people are being allowed to get away with.

PARKER: But the plant might not get away with it for much longer. This school and the neighborhood are at the center of a historic civil rights investigation. And a new federal commitment to slash air pollution. And this groundbreaking investigation could change everything.

I’m going to tell you more about that later, but right now, the most important thing to know is that this investigation, well, it could push the state to relocate Fifth Ward’s students to a school that’s safer.


That could be difficult though. Driving around with Robert, I see that the Denka plant, isn’t the only petrochemical plant that residents are forced to live with. Just within the town’s boundaries alone, there’s the Denka plant, two grain elevators and a massive Marathon Petroleum oil refinery.


The pipeline infrastructure, the tall grain silos and countless storage tanks — they tower over over the small houses nearby. It’s not something you only see in Reserve. I see it all the time when I drive along the Mississippi River. Which raises the question, how did Denka – and all of these plants – get here? What’s made this region along the river so attractive for chemical manufacturing? And why are they so often concentrated around areas like Reserve? Areas that are Black?

It’s not just happenstance. Like so many things in the South, it turns out this too is linked to slavery. To find some answers, I hop back on the River Road and take a trip upriver to a museum called Whitney Plantation. It’s the only plantation museum in Louisiana dedicated to the stories of the people who were enslaved there.

I met with its executive director, Ashley Rogers.

ASHLEY: Maybe we should get away from people. 

HALLE: Yeah. <<duck under net track>>

PARKER: We move away from the crowds and walk down a gravel path toward the edge of the museum grounds. A few wooden cabins line the path on either side.

ASHLEY: We're currently in the middle of the quarters, the slave quarters.

PARKER: Beyond a fence, there’s a sea of sugarcane – tall, leafy green stalks dance in the wind. Ashley tells me about the sugar plantation’s 200-year history, half of which happened after slavery ended..

ASHLEY: Whitney Plantation was established in 1752, and it operated until 1975. So it's a very interesting property actually, because it's exactly evenly divided between slavery and freedom. 

PARKER: Across Lousiana, Ashley says, sugar planters were king, and that was largely what the land was used for… even decades after the end of slavery.

Plantations were everywhere here. So I ask Ashley when did plantation country start to become chemical plant country?

ASHLEY: There's a lot of industrial development that begins around the turn of the century. Oil is the first, like big disruptor. <<duck under if needed>> 

PARKER: Oil. First discovered in Louisiana in 1901, in a community called Evangeline, in southwest Louisiana. From there, the discovery supercharged the development of chemical plants.

ASHLEY:  It just kind of sets off this whole, you know, scramble, really.because once you have oil, it's like you need all this other stuff.

PARKER: You need storage tanks. You need pipelines. A lot of infrastructure to actually get the oil to market. All being built… really fast.

ASHLEY: And so this is where the petrochemical industry comes in. It's like figuring out all of these different derivatives that they can make from crude. And that starts here near the river, quick.

PARKER: In 1909, Standard Oil builds the first refinery in Baton Rouge — right next to the state capitol building. It’s now owned by Exxon Mobil’s Baton Rouge refinery, and it’s the fifth-largest oil refinery in the country.

ASHLEY: They subdivided that from a plantation. So that's the first one. 

PARKER: Ashley says Standard Oil bought the Doherty Plantation for $225 an acre — an astronomical sum of money at the time. And other plantation owners started cashing in.

ASHLEY:  You have plantation owners who are set to be the first people to capitalize really.

PARKER: Then that just grows from there and spreads throughout the river corridor. 

ASHLEY: Yeah. So, between 1909 and 1945, there's over a hundred plants that get built in that time period. I mean, it's just like, rapid fire. 

PARKER: The timing isn’t an accident: This transition happens just as the big plantations have begun to fail. In part, because they lost cheap labor. Like Ashley’s saying, this leaves big tracts of land ripe for purchase right along the Mississippi River. We keep walking along the gravel path.

ASHLEY: Everybody who owns land on the river is a plantation owner which means if you need a thousand acres, you might just have to talk to one guy.

PARKER: It was convenient, Ashley tells me. Beyond all that land, access to the river itself, and its promixity to the coast, is a huge asset. The Mississippi, so close to the Gulf of Mexico, is a gateway for transporting these industrial products around the country.and the world.

But the most crucial factor that allowed the industry to flourish was the same thing that supported the plantation economy for so long: government support.

ASHLEY: When you start to dig into how these sugar planters operated, it doesn't sound that different from our modern relationships with industry. 

<<music bed under this>>

PARKER: Ashley says sugar planters benefited from a tariff on foreign sugar that helped prevent competition. Today, modern industries get tax breaks. Slaveholders once had the ear of lawmakers, who helped protect their interests. Now, companies have lobbyists.

When the oil and gas industry moved in, it was like the coronation of a new king. The companies got more than just the land – they got the political power of the former slaveholders, too.

For decades, Louisiana has had the most generous industrial tax exemption program in the country in an attempt to incentivize development.

Before 2016, companies that qualified didn’t have to pay any property tax for up to 10 years. And nearly every company that applied got it. That took a tool on local revenue for schools or sheriff’s offices, let alone the risk to the health of its citizens.

And who bears the brunt? As with slavery, the answer, is Black communities.

Black people were forced to work on plantations. And now, they’re forced to live near petrochemical companies. And that’s not a coincidence.

ASHLEY: The fact that there are so many plants next to these descendant communities is really because the descendant communities were either on or right next to the plantation still for decades and still are here.

PARKER: Still here — and still suffering as a result of the same extractive mindset that got us here. The perfect example? Reserve.

<<music shift>>

PARKER: <<bring up car ambi>> Back on my tour with Robert Taylor, he had told me that Reserve was one of the descendant communities of the Bell Pointe Plantation…. He says the free communities sprung up as slavery was outlawed.

TAYLOR: They couldn't go any place, so they were right outside of the plantation. 

PARKER: In the early 1900s, there was even a major sugar refinery here because of that plantation. Robert’s parents worked there.

TAYLOR: That really made Reserve at the center of this whole region, not just the parish.

PARKER: There was no Denka then, no other plants aside from the sugar refinery. The area was still mostly used for farming sugarcane. Those fields were Robert’s backyard.

TAYLOR: I can remember getting up every day whenever I wanted some sweet sugarcane, I could just walk across the fence line and cut it. I grew up in there.

PARKER: Residents built a school in the area, the school that’s now Fifth Ward. More people built houses, families grew, the neighborhood grew, all long before the neoprene plant’s arrival in 1969…all of it right where Bell Point Plantation used to be. 

You might remember that the plant was first built by the chemical company, DuPont. When that happened, residents really had no idea of the hazard the plant posed. They were in the dark for 45 years. And they could have stayed that way… breathing in that air, oblivious to the danger.

But then, something major happened, in 2016. Something that would change what it means to live in Reserve. After years of study, the EPA released its findings into chloroprene. For the first time, the EPA called the chemical a "likely carcinogen.”

The report was a bombshell. Especially for Reserve, home to the only chloroprene-emitting plant in the country. It laid out what can happen over a lifetime of breathing in chloroprene. The chemical can cause issues with your , immune. cardiovascular and nervous systems, and it can damage organs like the liver, kidney and lungs.

That’s already scary, and it gets worse. The most terrifying part to me is that chloroprene is something called a mutagen. Basically, it can damage your DNA and cause mutations that can lead to cancer. And the younger you’re exposed, the more susceptible you are. That means the kids at Fifth Ward Elementary are not only the closest to the plant, but the most at risk as they grow up.

In the EPA’s report, it even set a limit for how much chloroprene you can safely breathe in. It said that over the course of a person’s life, no one should be exposed to a level higher than zero-point-two micrograms per cubic meter. Remember that number: zero point two. when the report came out, people living in Reserve were breathing air with a MUCH higher concentration of chloroprene. Up to 400 times higher.

It was a wake up call for Robert Taylor and his neighbors. And a major flashpoint for the community. And that number, zero-point-two turned into a rallying cry at public meetings, where people like Robert demanded cleaner, safer air.

TAYLOR: We simply reserve the right to know what is happening to us and to our children, to our community. 

PARKER: That’s Robert, speaking at a St. John the Baptist school board meeting in December 2016.

But state officials at the same meeting said the EPA’s number – 0.2, the limit of how much chloroprene was safe to breathe: the EPA never made 0.2 a legal limit. It didn’t make it a regulatory emissions standard.

BROWN1: Regarding the .2 number, if you could all forget that, you’d be better off, because there is no standard. 

PARKER: Chuck Carr Brown is Louisiana’s secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality. Well, he was at the time of this meeting. His department is tasked with regulating industry and protecting public health. He says with no legal limit on chloroprene, there’s nothing for him to enforce.

BROWN2: I asked my EPA counterparts if we were going to stand by this .2 number. I didn’t get a straight answer from them.

PARKER: Over and over, Brown brushed off calls to cut pollution to zero-point-two micrograms

And instead, Brown focused on his plan to cut the Denka plant emissions by 85%. Not long after, at another meeting – this one a parish council meeting – Brown got the same questions about dangers from the Denka plant.

Reporter Julie Dermansky was at that meeting and recorded Brown saying, over and over, Denka’s emissions weren’t a threat to public health.

BROWN: So I say all that to say it's, it's not like there's a smoking gun somewhere in St. John Parish. 

BROWN: And again, there’s no smoking gun. 

BROWN: No smoking gun. Believe me, if we felt that there was an imminent threat we would be taking the appropriate measures to deal with that threat.

PARKER: Brown is adamant: No smoking gun, as in: no clear evidence of a crime. No evidence that Denka’s getting away with something it shouldn’t. Brown said cancer rates weren’t elevated parishwide. That’s not the same as having an elevated cancer risk, by the way. Or a risk for other health problems linked to chloroprene.

Listening back to this meeting, for me, it feels like he’s trying to say our office is on it, nothing to see here.

And after these meetings Denka did cut its emissions. But they’re still too high – over 0.2. And it’s not just Reserve. There's almost nowhere in St. John parish where the levels of chloroprene are safe.

For years, Brown’s department, the Louisiana Department of Health, and Denka say they’ve done what they can to make the community safe. Meanwhile, local officials say they feel paralyzed, unable to take action to protect their residents.

PARKER: Patrick Sanders was one of those officials. He was the school board president when these public meetings happened with the state. From where he sat, there wasn’t much he could do about emission from the Denka plant, BUT he did have control over one thing: Where the kids of Reserve went to school. And so, the school board started to consider whether they should move the students of Fifth Ward Elementary School, to some other school building in the parish. Somewhere that might be safer.

Sanders remembers the school board getting conflicting information from state officials.

SANDERS: Some people from the Department of Health and Human Services say, “Hey, I wouldn't send my kid there. And then you had DEQ and said, “Okay, everything's fine.” 

PARKER: It left him confused. Were kids at Fifth Ward in danger, or not? Sanders is also from Reserve and he went to Fifth Ward, when it had a different name. He says the school board wanted clearer direction from the state. After all, they’re the experts. But years passed. The school board waited to be told what to do. And it never got an answer.

SANDERS: You didn't know what to believe and the board took the position. Well, let them fight it out, figure it out, and get back to us and tell us what's right and what's wrong and um, we kinda let it go.

PARKER: They kinda let it go.. But The school board did start to prepare for a possible move. It studied whether it was even feasible to put Fifth Ward kids in another school. The parish school system is designed for 10,000 kids, and about half the seats are vacant. So, plenty of space. But relocating wouldn’t be as simple as just moving kids around.

SANDERS: We have the numbers. But because we're under consent decree, we would have to go to the Justice Department,  to redistrict lines and say, Hey, we need these kids to be moved here. We need some kids to be moved here. 

PARKER: Because St. John Parish struggled to integrate its schools, it’s been under a consent decree, or a desegregation order, since the 90's. That means it needs federal approval to relocate students.

Which… isn’t easy or fast. But then, there’s a bigger problem. One that goes back to just how overrun with industrial development this part of Louisiana really is. Because while it’s true that there’s less chloroprene the farther you get from the plant… it’s still there…

In fact the chloroprene levels across the entire parish are higher than what the EPA said was safe in that 2016 report. And there’s worrying pollution from other plants on top of that. For the school board, the question of where it was safe to put the kids wasn’t solved just by finding empty seats.

When I learned this, it almost felt like the pattern of historic neglect… has left the people living in Reserve ... forced to do the best they can with what they have — even if it’s harming them.

Fifth Ward is still open, and Sanders is still worried about the kids’ health. But at the end of the day… options are limited as long as the plant is operating.

Another concern: Sanders says Fifth Ward used to be a failing school, but recently it’s started to improve. Under a new principal, the students are getting better test scores, and he worries relocation could disrupt the kids’ progress.

SANDERS: The kids at Fifth Ward are growing at a pace that they have never grown in the 24 years that I've been there. But if we disperse th em into the district, we could possibly lose those kids. The key would be to keep those kids together.

PARKER: And why should school board members… let alone parents and children be forced to choose between the health of kids and their education? After talking to Patrick, I was even more curious about what it’s like to be a parent with kids at Fifth Ward. So, I took to Facebook. And I got a lot of responses. And one mother, DaeSean Crockett, was willing to let me visit.

<<ambi knocking on the door>> 

PARKER: Nice to meet you. I'm Halle. 

CROCKETT: Halle. How you doing? <<duck under>>

DaeSean is a 26-year-old mother of two, and her oldest, Jay, is 6 and he’s gone to Fifth Ward for two years. He’s in first grade now.

PARKER: How does he like it so far?

CROCKETT: He loves school. It's the coming home part, because it's when we need to sit down and do the homework, it's when we have issues.

PARKER: DaeSean also went to school at Fifth Ward. For nine years, from Kindergarten to 8th grade. Like any parent, she’s got a lot on her plate. Her son Jay has ADHD, and he’s also complained of being bullied at school. On top of dealing with that, DaeSean worries about what going to a school next to a chemical plant could do to her child.

CROCKETT: When I was in school, I never really thought about it, I guess. But now that I'm older and you know, a little bit more informed about what's happening, it really makes me sit down and think like, wow, I really was in that. And now my child has to be.

PARKER: It doesn’t help that she says she’s never gotten any information about what’s coming out of the plant… what her child’s breathing in. DaeSean didn’t have a kid at the school in 2016, when concerns were first raised about Denka and Fifth Ward Elementary, when those community meetings were happening. And I’m stunned to learn the school district doesn’t send out pamphlets about the air pollution, nor does the Denka plant. That kind of disclosure is not legally required. Denka is only required to report its emissions to the state.CROCKETT: They don't tell us anything. They don't say anything to us.

PARKER: DaeSean says she only knows bits and pieces. So I try to help fill in some of the gaps. I tell her the Denka plant emits a chemical called chloroprene.

PARKER: Especially at a young age, if you're exposed to a level of this chemical over a certain amount, it can actually affect like your cells and it starts to mutate them. And so that's why it can create more like risks later on in life.

PARKER: People haven't been telling you about the effects of this chemical that's in the air? 

CROCKETT: No. Like this is my first time hearing about it and all this news and radios and everything that's going on, and I've, this is my first time hearing all of that.

PARKER: When I told her, it made her angry. Angry at the hypocrisy of local officials and what feels like a failure to protect her son.

CROCKETT: They preach about children are our the future. and we need to do this, that, and the third. But it's like, look at where you got 'em.

PARKER: And knowing more about the chloroprene got DaeSean thinking. What could breathing that chemical in as a child, along with others emitted from plants across the parish, be doing to her own body as well? Remember, she went to Fifth Ward, too.

CROCKETT: It's really making me sit down and think like, cuz I had two miscarriages before I had DJ. They say that nobody knows why you have a miscarriage.

Which I, which I can get, you know? And maybe it is, you know, just no reason that it happened. But it's like, now that we're talking about it, it just crosses my mind that maybe that might be why I was so sick.

PARKER: It’s hard to hear a mother juggling so many unknowns… about how growing up and raising a family in Reserve could be hurting her health and her kids… I wonder how many other mothers might have those same questions.


It’s extremely hard to point to a single cause of most health issues over a person’s lifetime. That’s why the EPA says chemicals like chloroprene increase your risk of cancer or other health problems. At least one peer-reviewed study on workers exposed to chloroprene - published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 1976 - suggested chloroprene could lead to more miscarriages. But the EPA says that research was limited and more work is needed.

That’s the sort of information DaeSean wants though. In a way that’s easy to understand.

CROCKETT: I really feel like I shouldn't have to go out of my way to know something that's going on in my community that we live in.


PARKER: DaeSean — and all of Reserve — actually have a right to know what’s in their air. Federal law requires state agencies to inform people about the environmental hazards in their communities. And not only that — both the Louisiana Department Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Department of Health have accepted a combined $300,000 from the EPA over the last six years that was meant to help them inform the community and local officials about the health risks of chloroprene and to study cancer cases.

So why didn’t DaeSean know about what she and her son were breathing everyday?

It comes down to the difference between simply having laws on the books to protect people — and actually enforcing those laws.

In the case of Reserve, that difference came down to who was in the White House.

Remember at the beginning of this episode, I told you about how the election of President Joe Biden put a huge spotlight on communities like Reserve. He promised to make environmental justice central to his presidency.

And the man charged with making that happen at the EPA is Michael Regan. He’s the first Black man to lead the agency — and right away, he called out the inherent racism at the heart of who ends up being hurt the most by industrial development. And he said it was his job to fix it.

REGAN: This administration and this EPA will operate differently than we ever have. You know, systemic racism is an issue that this country is dealing with. This administration is facing it head on.

PARKER: In 2021, within months of his appointment Regan traveled here — to Reserve, in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. He met with Robert Taylor and other local activists. And then, less than a year later, Robert’s group, the Concerned Citizens of St. John, challenged this new EPA to turn its promises into action.

Along with the Sierra Club, they filed a civil rights complaint with the EPA. It was one of the first times anyone in Louisiana had filed a complaint like this. The Reserve activists claimed that the Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health discriminated against the Black residents of Reserve in their handling of Denka.

Robert’s group argued that the agencies had failed to protect them in the face of “a health emergency.” And that they’d dismissed legitimate concerns from the community.

Then, just four months later, something TRULY groundbreaking happened – something activists had long hoped for since the 80’s, but had never seen happen in the petrochemical state of Louisiana. Last April, the EPA agreed to finally investigate the civil rights complaint.


For a long time, the EPA’s civil rights office was where complaints went to die. An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity in 2015 found that of the hundreds of complaints made over nearly 20 years, the EPA never made a formal finding of discrimination. Not one. In fact, the vast majority were straight up rejected.

But things have changed in a big way in the last three years, since Biden got to office. Since 2020 alone, the EPA’s civil rights office has received 85 new complaints. More than half of those have resulted in an investigation.

By October, Robert and the people in Reserve got a sense that the investigation was going their way. The EPA’s civil rights office dropped a 56-page letter of concern, as its called.

In the letter, the EPA didn’t mince words. It said the investigation found “evidence of discrimination” by Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality and health department against Reserve’s Black community. The EPA said those agencies — both in what they did and did not do — unfairly endangered students at Fifth Ward Elementary school.

It also clearly lays out that the current level of chloroprene emissions in Reserve increases the risk of cancer. And it said the health department in particular didn’t do enough to warn people like DeaSean about the severity of the risks. Since then, the EPA, the state of Louisiana, and Reserve activists have been in talks to agree to a settlement to decide how to remedy the situation. A decision is expected by mid-July.

Neither the Department of Environmental Quality nor the Department of Health provided comment for the story, citing the ongoing investigation. Though, they noted that they are cooperating.


The EPA’s investigation isn’t just evidence of a new administration in the White House, it’s also about looking at the law in a more expansive way. Officials within the Office of Civil Rights say the agency is finally using the full scope of its enforcement power under Title VI. Before Regan took the helm, the EPA only resolved cases where there was intentional discrimination. Evidence that one group was blatantly being targeted differently from another. Think separate water fountains during Jim Crow.

More often, intent isn’t that cut and dry. And now, EPA is also looking beyond intent, to impact. If an agency takes federal money and then does something that has the effect of hurting one group more than another, well, that’s not legal either. It’s something called disparate impact, and other federal agencies have long incorporated it in their civil rights investigations. The EPA, officials say, is just catching up.

And it’s all happening as Biden directs historic levels of funding toward environmental justice communities, with some of it funneling through the EPA.

Robert Taylor says this new EPA, under Regan is what Reserve has been waiting for.

TAYLOR: There's definitely been a change that came with the new administration, and especially the new EPA administrator. It’s been more than I hoped for cuz he's actually a hands on guy. 

PARKER: Right now, it feels like change is coming to Reserve. But what about the kids still taking the bus everyday to Fifth Ward Elementary. I tried to get more information from St. John’s school district. What are they going to do about the health risks laid out by the EPA’s investigation? But I didn’t get far. Superintendent Rebecca Johnson declined to comment on behalf of both the district and the school board, stating they aren’t a party to the federal investigation.

In October, just after the EPA released that damning letter of concern over the Denka plant and state agencies, the school board held a meeting. Patrick Sanders — the school board member we spoke to earlier — showed up ready to talk about the report. But all Johnson, the superintendent, would say is that she and her office were aware of it.

Since then, the board has been silent on Denka, on chloroprene, on the EPA, and on what happens next for the school.

For Patrick, it’s just more of the same inaction. The same “wait and see” approach they’ve had for years. He says that’s why it’s so critical that the federal government is stepping in. Here’s Patrick again.

SANDERS: Now, it's becoming more and more clear that the federal government's involved on the level it should be. State government has been involved but not at the level it should’ve been… for whatever the reason is there.


<<car driving>>

PARKER: I’m back in the car with Robert, driving around Reserve. We’ve left Fifth Ward Elementary and the Denka plant. And now, he takes me to the other end of town, where his mom used to live. We pass two grain elevators and come across a narrow strip of land, bound by storage tanks on either side. He says there used to be more than a dozen houses here. But now, there’s only one.

Robert watched everyone leave – like his mom – or get bought out for a different development: the Marathon Petroleum plant.

TAYLOR: They bought all of this and they moved all the houses up of the people who decided to sell and were forced to sell. Cause the black people did not want to sell.

PARKER: The industrial complex kept expanding until it swallowed not only the neighborhood, but the Black cemetery where his mother and family members are buried. We sit in the car just outside the cemetery. A tangled mass of pipelines surround the rows and stacks of tombs. I’m shocked.

PARKER: Steel structures just going up and down. and people still must visit this place regularly. There's fresh flowers on top of the…

TAYLOR: They still use this, they don’t have anything else. 

PARKER: We get out and walk around. I can’t stop thinking about how every time Robert comes here, he has to relive this history. How his mom is buried next to the plant that took over her home.

I get back in the car, and look out the window, at the pipes, the buildings, the smokes stacks, and rows of tombs. My eyes well up. How can the dead can rest in this space that is anything but peaceful.

This is Reserve's legacy: communities literally overrun by industry. But the town is at a turning point. There’s a chance to break this cycle of exploitation.

And it’s this history that Robert is determined to prevent from repeating. I mean: even if buyouts were offered in Reserve, Rober says he wouldn’t sell.

TAYLOR: I've been asked, not just individually, why don't you just sell and move someplace else? And that to me, why should I move? You know, why should I have to, uh, uproot myself and my family for the benefit of these strangers who come in here? 

PARKER: The civil rights complaint has already given Robert and his community a powerful ally in the EPA. And then, this spring, the agency went further: in March, along with the Department of Justice it sued Denka in federal court to force it to cut emissions – quickly.

The suit makes similar claims as the civil rights investigation — drawing connections between a high level of chloroprene and cancer, and saying the company has violated the Clean Air Act.

<<Regan presser applause til “I have to say” duck under once regan starts talking>> 

And then in April, Michael Regan came back to Reserve himself to announce a new proposal that will require chemical plants like Denka to update their operation to stop polluting.

REGAN: From day one, president Biden and this administration have committed to fighting for communities just like this one. And today's action only solidifies that commitment. 

PARKER: And if Denka did dramatically reduce its emissions, that could make life in Reserve a lot simpler.

The elementary school kids at Fifth Ward wouldn’t need to move, and it would help the thousands of residents living near the plant breathe easier. But neither of these are a done deal.

The proposed rule that Regan just announced won’t be finalized for at least another year. And a federal judge could compel the company to act sooner, but the case still has to play out in the courts and Denka’s not backing down. It’s spent years arguing chloroprene isn’t as dangerous as the EPA claims, and its multimillion dollar business is on the line.

All this to say, Robert’s fight isn’t over but now, at least he has hope — and an EPA head willing to stick his neck out.

TAYLOR: It means so much to me that we now have someone and some agencies and parts of the government that not only heard our cry, they came to our defense.

PARKER: For a long time, the fight in environmental justice communities like Reserve have been a classic case of David vs Goliath. Now, we’re seeing two Goliaths go head to head, industry and the federal government — the way it arguably should’ve been all along. After all, this is what the EPA is here for.

Back in the 1800s, slaveholders held all the power in Reserve. Then, that power transferred to what has grown into today’s petrochemical industry. The battles happening now could set up who that power shifts to next… will it be the plants or the people?

<<theme music>>

SETYAWAN: Thanks for listening to Sea Change. This episode was reported and fact checked by Halle Parker and me, Kezia Setyawan, co-hosted and handled promotion.

Editing help was provided by Carlyle Calhoun, Patrick Madden, Rosemary Westwood and Eve Abrams. Our sound designer is Maddie Zampanti. Sea Change is a WWNO and WRKF production. We are part of the NPR Podcast Network and distributed by PRX.

To learn more about Fortify Alabama and efforts to build community resilience, check out our website: WWNO.org/podcast/sea-change

Sea Change is made possible with major support from the Gulf Research Program of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. WWNO’s Coastal Desk is supported by the Walton Family Foundation, the Meraux (Mur-o) Foundation, and the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

See you all in two weeks.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.