back to blog
conversations

Richard Misrach and Kate Orff Discuss Petrochemical America

 

MH: What does that mean, Kate?

 

Kate Orff: The idea of unpacking really came from Richard’s narrative-rich photographs, where I could see phantom stories within every image, which is sort of an aesthetic reading, but I wanted to know more in terms of understanding the complex web of industrial and ecological and human stories that may have given shape to that image. That’s something that I had been independently exploring on several levels in the office—how to reveal complexity of environmental systems and stories embedded in the landscape.

The Transformation of Taft
This photo is of the former site of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church. The church was built just after the Civil War in 1877, and in 1963, it moved to Hahnville. The town fabric was replaced with the industrial footprint of Union-Carbide (later bought by Dow Chemical). While everyday neighborhoods like Taft have been largely obliterated, corporations often donate funds to preserve stately plantation homes. Literally and figuratively, they elevate one history and sublimate another.

Richard’s photographs capture a specific moment in time and space, but if you think about time as a continuum—of past-present-future relative to the photographs, and the kind of depth that you can go into relative to the past formation and future of that place—one photograph can touch so many different issues and situations.

 

RM: That to me was the moment when I went, “This may be the approach to this whole project that’s really needed.” I also got the feeling that the pie-in-the-sky fantasies of my drawings were not very realistic, and that she would bring something very sobering but real to the task of learning about this place. Basically, with less than a handshake, we started this project. Kate sent me a letter after that first meeting, explaining what she thought about it. That began the back-and-forth.

 

KO: I remember my first correspondence with Richard was pretty abstract, trying to explain this idea. I referenced a book of poetry by N. Scott Momaday called The Way to Rainy Mountain, where the poet on one page had three different tones of writing—myth, history, and reflection—and different perspectives that built over time, and these voices began to merge and inform one another over the course of the book, mirroring the process of discovery of his ancestry as a Kiowa Indian. I wanted to think about the photos relative to these layers. Richard seemed to be game for the discovery process, to his credit. What I then started to do was to take the photographs and understand them in this time-scape way, and begin to organize them relative to larger sets of issues. So take for example his photograph of an empty sugarcane field.

We started to think about this very simple photograph in many different dimensions—going back in time and understanding that this was a former indigo plantation that then became sugarcane, and although it was empty today was once teeming with slave labor and then with plantation workers.

Sugar Cane and Refinery, Mississippi River Corridor, Louisiana, 1998

Then, after agriculture became largely industrialized and mechanized and driven by fossil fuels, you discover that there’s nitrogen fertilizer being poured on this sugarcane that is manufactured from natural gas, alongside pesticides and herbicides, in local facilities, and you see the empty fields in a different context and start to understand better the complex cycles that are latent in each photo. This spiraled out into a larger discussion, in the Food chapter, about Cancer Alley’s role in defining the kinds of food additives and preservatives that have largely defined what America puts on its dinner table.

The Industrial Food Chain
Just as synthetic nitrogen replaced the organic nitrogen process, mechanized farming techniques replaced farm workers, and eating corn chips replaced eating corn. Petrochemicals are entrenched within each step of modern agricultural production. Synthetic nitrogen, atrazine, glyphosate, and other fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are the basis of maintaining high yields of susceptible monoculture crops. Just two crops—corn and soybeans—cover more than forty percent of our homogenized cropland, while all vegetable land and orchards constitute fewer than three percent of all acres under production. Monocultures are more susceptible to disease, whereas the diversity inherent in mixed and varied croplands equals resiliency. The negative cycle of resource extraction, soil pollution, and water degradation means that farms require ever more chemicals to remain productive. For the past half-century, farming has meant driving enclosed, air-conditioned “agricultural automobiles,” and spraying chemicals from small planes. Pesticides and fertilizers derived from fossil fuels have made rural America uninhabited and uniform.

 

MH: Kate, do you think that part of the reason you could do this is because Richard’s photographs are not literal? They are not documents but rather operate on a metaphorical level, too, so they became an open-sesame to your exploration?

 

KO: Yes, absolutely. Embedded in each of the photographs is this entire poem that is not direct. It allows a sort of breathing room in a way, opening it up to interpretation.

 

RM: And then you created this whole visual system to do that.

Requiem for a Bayou
Human mismanagement is turning lush cypress trees into ghostly poles, jeopardizing Louisiana’s bayou ecologies, local economies, and cultures. The Delta ecosystem once captured and cleaned the floodwaters of the entire Mississippi basin, dispersing nutrient-rich sediments slowly into an intricate network of backswamps and bayous. A diverse array of species, including that much-loved Louisiana invertebrate, the crawfish, coevolved over millions of years to the low oxygen and nutrient saturation cycles of the lowlands. Crawfish, catfish, alligator, and snapping turtles are key species that thrive in freshwater ecosystems and are central to the region’s seafood economy and identity. Microorganisms, animals, and recently people participated in an interdependent aquatic system of energy exchange, the food web. But the physical and chemical modifications made to the Delta are breaking the cycles of that web. The disappearance of old-growth cypress trees and the linear scars of pipes and canals are only the most visible signs of distress. Local and species-level problems reverberate regionally and across the food web. Aggressive nonnative species like water hyacinth and nutria exacerbate issues of erosion and further weaken resilience. Regional aquatic systems and human livelihoods are under threat.

 

MH: Yes—Kate, you and your team provided this innovative, visual counterpoint to what Richard is doing, which stands on its own, while also engaging in this compelling dialogue with his photographs. You are a landscape architect, right? What does it mean to be a landscape architect in 2012, and what is the specific mandate of your studio, SCAPE?

 

KO: SCAPE was founded with the idea of integrating ecological and community-based thinking, with the idea that design isn’t a commodity but a sort of public service. I’ve long been focused on the environment as a whole—brownfield remediation, habitat regeneration, reclaiming water systems—so when I saw these photographs they struck a deep nerve. So, rather than just gardens or playgrounds (we also construct those) the idea is to generate dialogue and exchange. Change can happen at many scales—but often the global scale of impact (sea-level rise, climate change, mass extinction of species) seems too vast and incomprehensible, and individual-scale actions like “turning off the lights” seem inconsequential. I like to think that the scale of landscape, which is a cultural and community-based shared idea of the local environment, is one that can have a significant impact. So conceptualizing the local environment is key. SCAPE’s mission is ultimately one of human ecology—understanding the mutual and systemic connections between people and the earth, between landscapes and communities.

 

Being a landscape-architecture professional means that you have a license to practice and have expertise in many things—like civil engineering, hydrology, horticultural and forest ecology, architecture and space-making, graphic design—but in the end you are charged with synthesizing these disparate factors into a cohesive set of systems, and into a place. In terms of Cancer Alley, what was clear is that a site-based strategy like one that focuses on repurposing one abandoned aluminum plant, for example, while potentially catalytic, would not really have an impact on the larger interrelationships in play between energy, culture, waste, ecology, and food. So rather than focus on design concepts for individual places, we set our sights on analyzing the networks and systems of culture and production that have formed the landscape of the lower Mississippi corridor over the last fifty to sixty years.

From Pipe to Plastic Bag
Once natural gas reaches a chemical plant, its true value is derived via steam cracking and fractional distillation. This intense heating process separates oil into the physical and chemical properties of its onstituents, or fractions of hydrocarbons, which become feedstock for further refinement into an array of specialty chemical products. In this factory, ethylene, one of the world’s most widely used petrochemicals, undergoes a series of chemical reactions to create polyethylene, styrene, and a range of other high-value specialty chemicals. Polyethylene is then exported and eventually molded into the ubiquitous plastic grocery bag.

This contributed to the idea of pairing an Atlas mapping the networks of stories and processes with the glossary, a toolbox of concepts for making change as a way to engage the scale of the questions we posed.

 

MH: Richard, when you went back in 2010, what had changed? Were things better? Were they worse? Were they different? Aside from the fact that people didn’t want the area to be called “Cancer Alley” any more . . .

 

RM: Yes. That is a tricky component. Basically, there have definitely been changes, for various reasons. For instance, after Katrina, a lot of people lost their homes, moved out of New Orleans, and, with insurance money, migrated up the river towards Baton Rouge. So you’ll see a lot of new housing developments. There was actually a bit of a housing boom because of that.

 

MH: What about the toxicity and the environment itself?

 

RM: It is evident just from driving around . . . the smells, sights, and noise still remain huge issues. As I cite in the book, for example, in 2009, Dow Chemical leaked more than 26,000 pounds of vaporized ethyl acrylate (EA) into the atmosphere at their site.

Even in 2010, when I revisited that same site (which is shown in the 1998 photograph of Holy Rosary Cemetery, in front of the petrochemical plant), the flares at the tops of the stacks were burning intensely, non-stop, day and night. They are used—in theory as a remedy—to burn off excessive gases before releasing [them] into the environment. They are intended for occasional use when there is a problem. But these were constant, monster flares. Heavy brown emissions were rising above the flames.

Holy Rosary Cemetery and Dow Chemical Corporation (Union Carbide Complex), Taft, Louisiana, 1998
The Union Carbide Corporation purchased the property of the Holy Rosary Church, built circa 1866. A replacement church was constructed in the 1960s in nearby Hahnville, but the cemetery was left behind. In 2009, Dow (which now owns the complex) leaked 26,720 pounds of vaporized ethyl acrylate (EA), a Class II toxic air pollutant, into the atmosphere. No fine was levied, but Dow has pledged a $100,000 contribution to the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana’s Children, which is led by the wife of the current governor of Louisiana.

 

As recently as June-July 2012, significant quantities of known carcinogens like benzene, and even substances used for chemical warfare like hydrogen cyanide, which is used to make plastics and pesticides, were released into the environment in Baton Rouge in two separate events. Two units at Dow Chemical in Plaquemine were hit by lightning that then required massive flaring to contain. These serious incidents still plague the area.

 

The most serious event coincided with one of my trips there in 2010, which was the BP explosion and oil spill, which resulted in deaths and devastating impacts to the environment and economy. That remains symbolic of the enormous threat to local people, whether it’s to the seafood industry or just the fact that these things are dangerous environments to be in, whether it’s explosions, accidents, or pollution.

 

So things have not improved much. It does seem that some of the levees have been upgraded, some of the infrastructure. There’s been a little bit of improvement. I don’t know if that’s been coming back from the oil companies, or where that’s coming from. It seemed that the area was poorer back then.