Is America a Sacrifice Zone?

German pellet fire of Easter 2017. Photo: Annette Mitchel and John Beard.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I taught at Humboldt State University in northern California, the American University in Washington, DC, and the University of New Orleans in Louisiana.

Learning out in the open

My teaching was about our environmental tragedy: how corporate business money captured the government, academia, journalism, and the medical establishment, with the result of giving polluters a free hand. The consequences of this massive corruption, I told my students, was cancer and debilitating neurological diseases and ecocide pushing wildlife towards extinction — and the rising climate chaos.

I tried to mingle theory with observation. In each of the universities I taught, I invited speakers and took the students to a field trip.

In northern California, we spent a couple days with the Hoopa Native Americans, learning their painful history and seeing them dancing their traditions, and eating salmon they had caught and cooked.

In southern Virginia, we observed the lives of impoverished white Appalachians, parading with large puppets mocking powerful coal companies and petroleum politicians.

And in New Orleans, the story exploded into the cancer alley of Louisiana. This is a 100-mile or so cancer corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Factories of all kinds of toxic production made this sacrifice zone so deleterious right next to the mighty Mississippi River.

Administrators at the University of New Orleans were unhappy with my decision to take the students to see the industry at work: dumping hazardous substances in the air, poisoning the Mississippi River, and making life unbearable.

The cancer alley has been surrounding poor people, especially blacks, for decades. The air around petroleum refineries and incinerators, I remember, smelled danger.

Cancer alleys, sacrifice zones

Port Arthur, Texas. Photo: John Beard.

More than 40 years later, the cancer alleys, sacrifice zones, and hot spots continue to proliferate. A nonprofit newsroom, ProPublica, investigated these hazardous places and counted about 1,000 of them all over the country. The air in most of them is laced with plumes of poisons, certainly unhealthy to breathe.

Many of these fence-line communities are sacrifice spots. They are in the South, and, like animal farms, they are primarily in the midst of black neighborhoods. Black people live with filthy air, leaks, explosions, and fires.

“These fence line communities are sacrifice zones,” said Jane Williams to ProPublica. She is the executive director of California Communities Against Toxics. “Before there was climate denial, there was cancer denial. We release millions of pounds of carcinogens into our air, water, and food and act mystified when people start getting sick,” she said.

True, we should know better. But, in general, sacrifice zones are far away from wealthy white communities. Those Americans getting sick are poor white and black, particularly black who face more than toxic air. They are living with the racism of zoning, renting, buying houses, and banking.

“Industries rely on having these sinks — these sacrifice zones — for polluting,” said to ProPublica Ana Baptista, an environmental policy professor at The New School. “That political calculus has kept in place a regulatory system that allows for the continued concentration of industry. We sacrifice these low-income, African American, Indigenous communities for the economic benefit of the region or state or country.”

Yes, someone benefits from giving disease and death to the black communities and other vulnerable people trapped in sacrifice zones. But it’s not the region, state, or the country. The benefit goes directly to the owners of refineries, landfills, incinerators, chemical companies, and other manufacturers.

The warning of a sacrifice zone survivor: John Beard

Retired teacher Annette Mitchell, whose COPD was so aggravated that she couldn’t tend her flowers and plants in her yard. Photo: John Beard.

John Beard is not mystified by this ugly reality that shaped his life. He is one of those black residents of America’s hot spots. He worked for more than 38 years in the petroleum refineries of Port Arthur, Texas. He survived that extraordinary hazardous ordeal and decided to become the singing canary of the mine.

He founded the Port Arthur Community Action Network in order to reveal the secrets of the poisoners of the air he breathed and to mock politicians in the pockets of the industry.

ProPublica interviewed him, April 13, 2022. He denounced the petrochemical companies in Port Arthur for their racism, inhumanity, and deadly effects on the lives of countless people and the natural world.

“I invite you to visit Port Arthur and breathe the air I breathe,” he said. “You won’t like it. The air tastes like the stuff the petrochemical companies make.”

In an email to me, dated April 15, 2022, John Beard said corporate and government “inaction” is responsible for “existential threats to life and health in the city [of Port Arthur].”

In another email to me, April 16, 2022, he added:

“While the Biden administration taunts the interest of national security in increasing its exports of natural gas to Europe, it raises serious questions with regard to the domestic interest of those along the Gulf coast.

“We, not Europe, elected Joe Biden; and we want to be heard and considered also! It’s been said that all politics are local. National interest and local interest are equally important, especially when it comes to the impact of decades of pollution on the lives of people in various communities along the Gulf.

“We are tired of being sacrificed for the interest of the industry. We are tired of the harm done to our own interests, our health, our lives, and our futures.

“We’re all tired of the lies and deceptions of the industry and the government. They have made many good promises but never delivered. I say no more; we will not be sacrificed.”

I agree with John Beard. No Americans should be sacrificed. Sacrifice is death.

Time for Biden to return home

Certainly, John Beard is a courageous man speaking out from the belly of the beast. He reminds me of so many good people I have met defending their communities.

His message to President Biden is enough of the war games in Europe. We elected you and expected you will stop the pollution in the Gulf Coast, which has been giving us disease and death.

ProPublica did well in broadcasting the grievances of John Beard and shedding light on the crimes the petrochemical industry has been inflicting on their captive fence-line Americans. State and federal governments make that possible.

Deception at EPA

ProPublica zeroed in on the deficiencies of the US Environmental Protection Agency, its manipulation of science, its dirty games of pretending to regulate who is going to live and who is going to die. Will a chemical carcinogen leaking from a refinery in a hot spot kill one person in a million or one in ten thousand?

Of course, no one has the answer, which is precisely why pro-industry regulators love those abstractions. Instead of enforcing the law, or strengthening the law, the decades-old, politicized EPA pretends it cares for the lives of black people in the sacrifice zones. Its experts have meetings with the industry and affected community in which the EPA and industry experts bamboozle the non-experts and promise vacuous improvements they never intend to keep.

I studied the EPA from within for 25 years. I asked ProPublica if its reporters had read my book, Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA. ProPublica remained silent. Instead, they interviewed plenty of former EPA staff. They did not enlighten the situation of corruption that ties the hands of the agency to the industry, including the EPA of the Biden administration.

Why would Biden be promoting war in Europe and, at the same time, exporting natural gas, which contributes to global warming and climate chaos? What happened to his election promises about climate change?

We have a long way to go. Sacrifice zones should be prohibited by federal law. If the industry cannot produce its chemicals safely, it should not produce them at all. It goes without saying that carcinogens and neurotoxins should be outlawed… and climate chaos be taken seriously. Which is to say, we have to phase out all fossil fuels before 2030. Meanwhile, embrace the Sun and wind for energy.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.