Eve Miller has lived in the historic rural settlement of Freetown in St. James Parish, Louisiana, for most of her life, and her family has been there for more than 100 years. “My grandparents had fruit trees all over the place. We had like eight or 10 different types of pecan trees,” she said at an event last week at Tulane Law School about the impacts of industrial emissions in Louisiana. “This time of year, the levee would be black with birds passing through for migration. You don’t see any of that now.”
Miller believes that these environmental changes are the result of industrial emissions from the chemical plants and oil storage tanks that have been built in the area. Even worse, she says, are the effects on her community’s health. “In my community, I run across people all the time who have cancer,” said Miller, a community activist and a breast cancer survivor herself. “My neighbor up the street has woken up in the morning at 2 o’clock and coughed not knowing what caused it, but she left her windows open. I know ladies in my community who are having miscarriages when they are diagnosed with breast cancer. You have children that are getting sick. So we have a very serious problem in my neighborhood.”
Miller joined a panel with environmental scientist Wilma Subra; Kimberly Terrell, Tulane Environmental Law Clinic’s director of community outreach; Christoper Oliver, Tulane University professor of sociology and environmental studies; and Mark Schleifstein, environment reporter for The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. The event, “Fighting the Polluter’s Paradise: Taking Back Louisiana’s Air,” was based on a recent series from ProPublica and The Times-Picayune and The Advocate showing that, at a time when already-high toxic emissions in Louisiana are rising, the petrochemical industry continues to grow in the state’s most burdened communities.
Terrell said that early participation in environmental decision-making, in addition to residents documenting every time they contact the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, is the best bet for people looking to curb industrial growth in their neighborhoods. “It’s not just focusing on one level of approvals, but looking at: ‘What does this plant need from the parish in order to get built? What do they need from the state? What do they need from the federal government?’” she said.
Highlighting a recent example in which community advocacy garnered attention from state government, Subra noted that, in St. John the Baptist Parish, state health officials plan to knock on every door within 2.5 kilometers of a controversial chemical plant in hopes of determining how many people in the neighborhood have developed cancer. Subra sits on the advisory committee of the study, which is scheduled to be conducted in 2020.
Representatives from the Louisiana DEQ and the Louisiana Chemical Association were invited to participate on the panel, but both organizations declined.
Meanwhile, Miller’s community in St. James Parish continues to struggle with health problems. She continues to challenge pollution, regularly voicing her grievances to the state and federal government. “I can buy water on the way home, and I can buy some soil and grow food, provided I use a greenhouse,” she said. “But where the hell am I gonna buy air?”