Ryan Ealy and Yolanda Freeman can't forget the night of February 11, 2020. The Exxon refinery a few blocks from their homes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the largest petrochemical plant in their region and the fifth-largest oil refinery in the U.S., caught fire.
"My wife comes running in, telling me, 'Baby get up, get up, we might have to evacuate.'" Ealy recalls.
His neighbor, Yolanda Freeman, thought it was an explosion.
"I have little whatnots on my shelf in my room," she said. "We heard something explode and some stuff fell. Actually, we thought something had hit the house, like a vehicle."
Yolanda and her husband got up from their bed and went outside to investigate. Like Ealy and his wife, they stood transfixed on their lawn, watching the fire rage.
"You can just see the brightness in the sky at Exxon. It burned a couple of days."
What they were witnessing neither surprised nor shocked them. For the neighborhoods surrounding the refinery, fires, leaks, and chemical spills are an all too common occurrence. The newspapers referred to it as another release or an accident. The couples knew people from environmental groups and law firms would soon be canvassing their streets, asking questions, filling out surveys, and taking contact information.
But there were no evacuations, special precautions, or even warnings. In the end, they all went back into their homes to get more sleep before work the next morning.
"They fire off a horn and do an emergency test every Wednesday at 12 o'clock," Ryan said. "Why didn't they fire off their horn?"
The Exxon refinery is just one of over 140 petrochemical plants in the 85-mile corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans called Cancer Alley. An iconic and grim moniker, Cancer Alley stretches along the Mississippi River and includes the parishes of St. Charles, St. James, and St. John the Baptist, known locally as the River Parishes. Residents there are at a higher risk of cancer from air pollution than 95 percent of other Americans. But the Mardi Gras celebrations two weeks after February's Exxon fire marked the beginning of a new disaster for Cancer Alley: The COVID-19 pandemic.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the Carnival season, with its parades and revelry, directly contributed to the spread of COVID-19. Louisiana quickly became one of the pandemic's hot spots.
In Jefferson Parish, which borders New Orleans, in the weeks following the first positive COVID-19 test on March 9, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Louisiana grew at a rate of 67.8 percent—faster than anywhere else in the world. Mardi Gras is celebrated everywhere in Louisiana, including Baton Rouge. Almost 265,000 Louisianans have contracted the virus, with nearly 7,000 deaths.
For people like Ryan Ealy, whose entire family lives in Cancer Alley, these statistics are personal tragedies.
"My sister got corona and passed," he said. "I know several people that passed away. My in-laws had the [virus]—momma, the daddy, three of the sisters, and two of the brothers. All of them died from the corona."
In the neighborhoods surrounding the refinery, the true numbers of residents who contracted and spread COVID-19 will likely never be known, in part because of difficulties accessing testing sites. Yolanda Freeman had to get a doctor's order to get tested so she could return to work.
"In our neighborhood, I don't think the people have the ability to be tested," she said. "So many sites you have to have a doctor's orders. In this area, a lot of people probably don't even go to doctors."
There were physical and economic barriers to accessing testing sites, too. "Most of them are drive-thru," Yolanda said. "If you don't have a car you can't get tested."
The U.S. COVID-19 experience, like nearly everything else in this country, is shaped by race. The pandemic disproportionately affects and kills Black Americans at more than twice the rate of white and Asian Americans.
An indiscriminate, but opportunistic killer, COVID-19 seized on inequities in the health of our nation. Underlying medical conditions like high blood pressure, heart and lung disease, and diabetes—all of which plague Black Americans disproportionately—weaponized and served the virus as comorbid mercenaries.
The air isn't equal either. In Cancer Alley, the pollution from plants and refineries has been shown to disproportionately affect the predominantly Black residents like Freeman and Ealy, causing greater rates of cancer and respiratory issues related to exposure to toxic chemicals.
In the midst of the pandemic, a Harvard study linked long-term exposure to air pollution with higher COVID-19 death rates across the country. The Tulane Environmental Law Clinic used data from the Harvard study, long-term pollution data from atmospheric scientists at Dalhousie University, COVID-19 data from the Louisiana Department of Health, and local health data from the CDC that included comorbidities such as obesity and diabetes to extrapolate the effects of air pollution on COVID-19 rates in Louisiana.
The results are as unsurprising as they are intuitive. The parishes with the highest per capita COVID-19 death rates are all contained within Cancer Alley. It makes sense—air pollution damages the lungs and lung damage causes a greater risk of death from the virus.
According to EPA models, the people who live in the heart of Louisiana's petrochemical corridor breathe some of the most dangerous air in America.
From Baton Rouge down to Plaquemines Parish that extends into the Gulf of Mexico, there are over 200 plants emitting toxic and hazardous pollutants at levels that require state reporting to the EPA. Among these air pollutants are particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, which are especially harmful to the respiratory system.
Fine particulate matter is an especially deadly pollutant that lodges itself deep in the lungs, even infiltrating the bloodstream. It triggers asthma and heart problems and causes about 100,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. But 2020 is no ordinary year. With the coronavirus still running essentially unchecked, particulate matter is playing a much more sinister role in the pandemic.
Cancer Alley doesn't neatly begin and end in one area or another. Rather, its industries create a vast swath of toxic air that can affect people differently based on a variety of conditions, including their levels of exposure. Exposure rates are directly related to how close someone lives to a petrochemical plant.
Both Ealy and Freeman live in the mostly Black and low-income neighborhood of Standard Heights, nestled against the fence of the Exxon refinery. It satisfies every exposure criteria, and then some. The area was originally developed to house workers for the Standard Oil refinery in 1909. The name it bears to this day is a testament to how deeply ingrained the industry is in the daily lives of the people who live there.
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Faced with such a staggering and immediate loss of life, many residents in the area choose the simplest solution: isolating themselves in their homes. With businesses reopened and few restrictions in Baton Rouge outside of the statewide mandates imposed by Governor Edwards, there isn't much more they can do to protect themselves and their families.
"I couldn't tell you [that] I'm quarantining," Ealy said. He goes to work and goes home. He doesn't hang out with friends or go to bars like he used to. For families like his, who have lost so many people, he doesn't have a choice.
But while social distancing measures, self-quarantining, and #SaferAtHome may be effective strategies for avoiding exposure to the virus, they don't offer any relief for people breathing in the air around the Exxon refinery. Sitting in her own home, Freeman still suffers from some of the classic symptoms of chemical exposure such as lung and sinus irritation and a persistent sore throat that she treats with over-the-counter medication. Still, she doesn't feel like it's safe enough to leave her home.
"I don't have anywhere else to go," Freeman said. "It's not safe with the coronavirus still going around. This is my home and I'll just have to deal with it."