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Louisiana needs a new spirit in the chemical industry

15 June 2020
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According to the Loyola Center for Environmental Communication, Louisiana hosts “nationally important natural resource related activities that may, if improperly managed, be very environmentally damaging. If managed well, they will fulfill their vital roles, thus supporting a strong economy while minimizing harm to the environment. Two of the primary areas of concern are the impact of coastal and offshore oil and gas production and the presence of the nation’s largest petrochemical corridor. Entities outside Louisiana’s borders own and govern more than 80% of Louisiana’s coastal zone and nearly 100% of Louisiana’s petrochemical businesses.”

Robert A Thomas

The petrochemical industry, ranging from oil and its extraction, to its refining, and then its application as the building blocks of all things chemical that enhance the lifestyles of humans everywhere, is an integral foundation for the economy of Louisiana and a few other states.

Petrochemicals have been necessary components of the modern way of life, but they pose challenges in terms of exposure to their products and the ever-present potential for disaster.

The money is so huge that the culture of our state has been shaped over the past 100 years, and that culture is to ignore threats in favor of “jobs” and taxes, regardless of who has the jobs and how long the companies are given tax breaks to entice them to our state.

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Louisiana has 40% of the nation’s coastal wetlands and is experiencing 80% of the loss. (photo: Loyola Center for Environmental Communication)


Explosions and releases are/can be acute, and that is what we seem to worry about the most. Arguably the most dangerous byproducts are what they release into the air, water and inject into our ground. These threaten everyone who lives in the state, but they are the most dangerous to those who live near the plants.

Even these comments need qualification. Those who live near the plants and receive salaries by working there have advantages: they make a good living, they know everything about the plants, and they have access to constant medical care by the plant medical clinic. Those who live on the fenceline and do not work in the plant, get no benefit from the plant. They generally know nothing about plant operations, and they have little to no access to medical care. This is exacerbated when the fenceline community is black.

The chemical industry is in Louisiana for a variety of reasons:

  • Natural resources are here (oil and gas, salt)
  • Energy is inexpensive
  • There is plenty of open land for plant siting
  • Transportation is good (interstate highways, the river and shipping, airports)
  • A large chemical industry community is present that shares products and byproducts
  • A welcoming and tolerant political climate
  • The solution to this dilemma in Louisiana will come when all the stakeholders can come to the table and realize that everyone will benefit if each interacts with the others in a socially just manner.

    My contention is that it will begin when the chemical industry understands that treating communities, fenceline people, and minorities with respect and dignity and honoring their concerns, and addressing their long-standing inequities (education, medical attention, jobs training), will allow the companies to operate more efficiently and be more effective in what they do. This paradigm change will result in all related stakeholders (government, politicians, suppliers, and more) following the same path forward.

    2020_06_15_N&E_Photo3The mechanics of orchestrating this process are critical, and the application of Jesuit values can play a focal role. It is a worthy challenge!

    Robert “Bob” A Thomas is professor at Loyola University New Orleans since 1996 and Director of the university’s Center for Environmental Communication. He is also the founding Director of the Louisiana Nature Center and describes himself as a life-long herpetologist, tropical biologist, wetland ecologist, and an avid naturalist.

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