But to Mossville, the storm was merely another assault from the oil and gas refineries, chemical manufacturers and other industries that have enveloped the town. While other communities hit by the storm were cleaning up, the threat to Mossville’s residents will not pass quickly — a reminder that many of the nation’s most challenging environmental problems disproportionately menace low-income minority neighborhoods.
Mossville, a community founded by formerly enslaved people at the end of the Civil War, is a speck of a town on a low-lying swath of southwest Louisiana off Interstate 10. Trailers and modest wooden homes sit on streets with grand names such as King, Queen, Dutchess and Evergreen.
Some homes are occupied, but many look as if they had been abandoned long before the storm, with the swamp already swallowing them up in water and mud. That’s because many of Mossville’s residents have fled the expanding oil, gas and chemical industry. Scores of multibillion-dollar plants snake along “cancer alley,” which follows the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, or dot the flat land and ship channel leading down to Galveston, Texas, or crowd the ports where export terminals for natural gas are multiplying.
The people of Mossville have also been fleeing water they fear is contaminated, foul-smelling air, and fear of sickness from the factories that dominate the town’s outer edge. Increasingly devastating storms, starting with Katrina in 2005, have also prodded some to pull up stakes.
And others left for the money. Sasol, which operates the Lake Charles Chemical Complex that looms over the town, has been buying out residents to make way for an $11 billion plant expansion.
David Braxton, a 56-year-old meat smoker at the Heaven on Earth BBQ and Seafood restaurant in a small brick building, one of the last small businesses in town, said few residents remain. He rode his bicycle to the tiny barbecue joint to check on it on Friday.
“Ain’t too many left,” he said, ticking off the reasons: “Storm. Sold out (to companies). I’m guessing most of them saw money and they wanted to go away.”
His family had considered selling after Hurricane Rita in 2005: “We was planning on leaving and getting a new start.” But one relative refused to sign over the family property, he said. So they all stayed, worried about the impact of all the chemicals from their industrial neighbors.
Now, he said, he’d rather stay. “This is my home,” he said. “I was born and raised right here.” But he said he does not drink the tap water. “It’s not clean,” he said. “Nobody drinks the water.”
Not everyone mourns the shrinking community there. Eric Walker, a 50-year-old manager at a construction equipment dealership in the nearby town of Sulphur, said Mossville, with few residents, barely registers as a town. Walker, who is White and does not have historical ties to Mossville, said he sees the plants as a boon, offering steady jobs and good pay, more than $60,000 or higher with overtime.
He has heard about concerns about contamination, but said “I haven’t seen any evidence of that.” He said he had worked in Sulphur for 25 years and was fine.
“It’s just the way you make a living,” he said, standing in a warehouse filled with towering excavators and tractors. “When the economy is bad, in this area it stays pretty stable. We need everything that they produce. They employ thousands and thousands and thousands of people, and pay well.”
But complaints by members of the Mossville community were loud enough to bring a team from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 to determine whether the area should be declared a Superfund site. An EPA report said that dioxin levels in the ponds and lakes were elevated but did not find disposal of hazardous materials. And it said that the dioxin levels in the soil were similar to the surrounding area.
Michele Roberts, national co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, said the residents of Mossville and others nearby have endured decades of environmental hazards. “They are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Roberts said Friday.
While Thursday’s fire at BioLab garnered national headlines because it happened during Hurricane Laura, Roberts said many other incidents go unnoticed except to those who live nearby.
In 2018, BioLab was one of the top 20 sources of chlorine air releases in the country. The next year, it released 21,900 pounds of chlorine, according to the EPA. In addition, on 185 occasions over the past year the company has dumped chemicals into the Bayou Verdine in violation of the Clean Water Act, according to the EPA’s compliance website. The general counsel for Kik Corp, the owner of BioLab, did not respond to a request for comment.
“This is these people’s everyday life. They live every day with the possible threat of sheltering in place. Every day,” Roberts said. “And here you have a pandemic — and a failed response to a pandemic — on top of it.”
“I pray that someone hears what these community members are asking for — to be lifted up out of harm’s way and to be made whole,” she added.
Some residents complain that the growth of industry has changed the fabric of life .
Candace Gordwin-Braxton, 55, a retired psychologist, said she has watched Mossville’s population dwindle from several thousand people to a few dozen families. When she was a girl, she said, there were swimming lessons at the recreation center and baseball in the park. She would play tag with cousins on the playground, take trips to the country store for bottles of cold Dr Pepper and stroll up East Burton Street to visit family and friends. At that time, it was a quiet road, and people felt safe and left doors and windows unlocked.
Now East Burton Street roars with 18 wheelers, pickup trucks and tankers from all the plants nearby and several times a year whistles and sirens warn them to stay inside because of an industrial incident. She and her husband, Gerald, live on Evergreen Road. On one side, it resembles the way things used to be: a long stretch of grassland that runs to the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. On the other, a towering gas plant with its tall gates and security cameras.
“It’s close to home,” she said of the gas plant. “We’re looking to try to afford to be able to relocate.”
Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University and longtime environmental justice activist, said Black and Brown populations along the Gulf in Texas face similar dual threats — extreme weather and pollution from the petrochemical industries.
If you look at post-Harvey Houston on a map, said Bullard, “communities with large percentages of African Americans were most likely to be flooded. That’s not rocket science. Any major disaster will hit those same communities . . . created out of Jim Crow segregation and racial redlining stamped into those communities in the 1930s all the way up to the ’60s.”
Bullard named the neighborhoods of Sunnyside, Kashmere Gardens, 5th Wards, Trinity Gardens, Navigation, Greenspoint and Eastside — areas that hug the shipping channel and petrochemical infrastructure — as areas that experience more than their fair share of flooding.
“The state of Texas isn’t going to come up with a plan to redress any kind of systemic racism,” he said.
In Louisiana, the expectations of government action are similarly low.
“It’s just something we’ve got to deal with,” said Wilfred Clophus, 64, who was raised in Mossville and now lives within miles of more than a dozen chemical and gas plants.
Clophus recalled that growing up, there were always accidents at nearby plants, including the occasional explosion that would shake the house and rattle his bed. For years, he’s bought water rather than drink from the tap. And he always keeps an eye on windsocks near his home, just in case.
“You’ve got to know which way to go if there’s a problem. Always,” he said. “You always hope the wind is blowing in the right direction.”
Clophus said he and his two grown children who live nearby, as well as his grandchildren, had evacuated ahead of the storm and the BioLab fire. By Friday, he was back home and said the skies had mostly cleared.
But after a lifetime in this industrialized corner of Louisiana, he knows this much: “There’s going to be a next time,” he said. “It’s just about when.”