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Richard Misrach and Kate Orff Discuss Petrochemical America

Swamp and Pipeline, Geismar, Louisiana, 1998
The industrial pipeline’s backdrop of swampland and twisted trees is a cameo of the subtropical ecology that functions like a sponge for effluents from petrochemical waste. Since the 1930s, oil companies have routed an estimated twenty-six-thousand miles of pipeline throughout the oil-laden Southern parishes and across the Southern coastal wetlands. A web of canals has been cut through pastures and marshlands. The resulting erosion has been striking, with an area of wetlands the size of Delaware swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf’s salty tides have swept into the submerged pipeline arteries, killing marshland grasses by seeping into roots of the flora on the soft canal bottoms. Some scientists are convinced that if the erosion is not halted, advancing waters will eventually engulf New Orleans.

Petrochemical Landscape
America’s consumption patterns can be traced to the landscape of Cancer Alley. Over one hundred oil refineries and chemical manufacturing facilities are intermixed with sugar refineries, metal processors, and coffee production facilities, revealing the demands of the nation’s past and present. Pure engineering alchemy is on display. The building blocks derived from oil, coal, and natural gas shown in the diagram above become an array of chemicals and end-products like medical equipment, cars, computers, bombs, cosmetics, building materials, inks, and cleaning agents. For instance, propylene is used to make acetone, which is transformed through several steps into polymethylmethacrylate, known by the brand name Plexiglas. It is also turned into isopropyl alcohol, used in antifreeze and as a home remedy for swimmer’s ear. Meanwhile polypropylene is common as stackable furniture and long underwear. While America’s addiction to oil has been widely recognized, the effects of fossil fuel extraction and processing on our homeland, and on public health, are often hidden and localized. American consumers benefit from the myriad of products made possible by petrochemistry, while pollution and waste often affect only the poorest communities.

Melissa Harris: What is the genesis of Petrochemical America? Why did you decide to return to Cancer Alley, Richard?

 

Richard Misrach: I made the original trip in 1998 on a commission from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It was a series called Picturing the South. I set out with no expectation of what I was going to do, no restrictions from the museum. I had some ideas about photographing Ku Klux Klan sites, or doing Civil War battlegrounds. I decided to fly to New York, rent a car, and then drive south, just wander around. I explored and took all kinds of reconnaissance pictures of potential ideas. At some point, somebody turned me on to the River Road in Louisiana, and the industrial corridor that was then called “Cancer Alley.” When I got there, I was just floored by what I saw. I had never come across an American landscape like that.

Home and Grain Elevator, Destrehan, Louisiana, 1998
Throughout Cancer Alley, homes, schools, and playgrounds are situated yards from behemoth industrial complexes. Residents within a one-mile radius of factories are subjected to significant air and water pollution as well as noxious odors and industrial noise. Many communities along the River Road live in abject poverty. Roads are substandard, narrow, and poorly maintained. Homes have little resale value. The quality of life in Louisiana has been rated one of the lowest in the nation. In contrast, extremely favorable taxation policies have helped draw industry to the region.

People were living side by side with these great industrial behemoths. I’d always thought of industrial sites as sacrifice zones, in that they would be off in an isolated area, like in Nevada with the nuclear test site in the middle of nowhere. It never occurred to me that people would live within feet of these toxic environments. I was really shocked to see that in the United States. And so in 1998 I photographed up and down both sides of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, making several trips.

 

MH: But then, Richard, you got sick, didn’t you? Unless I’m misremembering, we put the work in the magazine, and I was really interested in a book, and you went back, but then started feeling sick…

 

RM: That’s true. In fact, in my journal, I recently found an account of an argument I had with someone on the River Road Governors’ Commission Board from Louisiana. I was asking her, “Why am I feeling this terrible burning in my lungs, and constant nausea?” Some people who worked in the plants told me this could be caused by certain chemical emissions. She got really upset and said that wasn’t true, that she has two kids, and that in effect activists and journalists were spreading those myths…

 

But I did get sick working there. My eyes were burning a lot, and I was having a hard time breathing, and I thought, “It’s just too toxic; I’m out of here.” That was after I finished the first leg of the work. I didn’t have any desire to go back at that point.

 

Jogger, Mississippi River Levee, Destrehan, Louisiana, 2010

Fast-forward to 2009: the High Museum had continued on its Picturing the South series, and Julian Cox, who was the photography curator at the High at the time, contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in revisiting the work. In the museum’s collection, there were the original ten large photographs that I did for the commission, but also forty-five contact prints of other images that I had made, which I had given to the Museum as part of the original commission. He asked me how I’d feel about making a new edit, including many of the smaller images, which he felt were strong. I said I’d be interested, but I’d be more interested to do that plus go back and see the state of the place. Had it gotten better or worse? What was the condition ten years later?

 

We agreed that it would be really interesting for me to revisit and photograph, but also, if I was going to do this, I didn’t want to just show the pictures; I wanted to do some sort of intervention that reached out and maybe had some constructive results (like what I attempted in my book Bravo 20, which proposes the conversion of a bombing range into a national environmental park). I started off with some pretty idealistic fantasies and drawings about how the area could be reclaimed.

 

MH: And Richard, very early on, we had discussed a visual way of manifesting the larger context of the images—rather than a long text.

Depths of Addiction
Since Spindletop, extraction technology has advanced at pace with demand. Today, we are drilling farther from shore in the deepest, coldest water, “fracking” for natural gas in vital watersheds and parklands, strip-mining for oil in tar sands, and exploding mountaintops for coal. Oil production on Louisiana lands peaked in the 1970s. America’s forty-year decline in oil production, coupled with climbing demand, creates a technological and political paradox. The increasing vertical and horizontal distances from far-off oil fields to American gas tanks means that we are expending more energy to make energy. For example, the Perdido Oil platform, located nearly two hundred miles from the Gulf of Mexico’s shore, drills at a depth of nearly ten thousand feet, costing $3 billion to build. The projected decline of global oil production forces a reexamination of returns on investment and the viability of current economic, political, and environmental paradigms.

 

RM: Exactly. And so I spoke to my friend, architectural writer Cathy Ho, who had written about the work early on, and when I described my ideas to her, she introduced me to Kate. It was interesting, because I talked to different people, but I thought Kate immediately got it. She zeroed in very quickly on a simple but exciting concept. She talked about “unpacking” the photographs in ways that I hadn’t imagined possible before.