September 17th, 2012
Richard Misrach and Kate Orff Discuss Petrochemical America
MH: Kate, do you want to add to that at all?
KO: Well, it does seem like many improvements have been made in the area in terms of plant operations and worker safety, and hopefully there is less unregulated dumping of harmful waste. Unfortunately I think the reality is that many of the heaviest-polluting industries have just moved overseas to areas around the globe that are poorer and disenfranchised. We made a map describing this called “Cancer Alleys Around the World.” In a way, you could think about this region as a success story relative to the environmental justice movement. I mean, it helped to spur President Clinton’s environmental justice [executive order] of 1994, and a lot of these plants had to clean up their act, and now there is a much more robust process, thanks to Willie Fontenot and all the amazing volunteers and folks who live down there and became involved. So in some ways it’s less explicitly polluted, in the sense of big open ditch full of chemicals that a child falls into and is severely harmed, which literally was happening in the 1960s and ’70s. A lot of that toxic stuff is getting pumped three thousand feet underground, or it’s being disposed of in ways that become just more and more difficult to see.
There’s an open question as to how “Petrochemical America” is going to be maintained, how we’re going to continue to feed the desire for oil, gas, and plastics, which shifts the focus away from the Gulf as a centerpiece of extraction, to the Canada tar sands, and to refineries Saudi Arabia, India, and China as the new frontier. Also, there’s been a major shift now towards natural-gas production and fracking. . . that’s the next phase of the discussion.
MH: So how can you discuss fracking in terms of this project?
KO: Fracking is often touted as the low-carbon “bridge” to a cleaner energy future. I think many of us would be more convinced if there was a robust national conversation about what that energy future is. This book aims to help people take into account the sort of full scope and cost of what the present energy paradigm has wrought on the American landscape. Just as with oil production, fracking has a range of environmental costs. We need to learn from the past, from this region, and have a concomitant effort to shift to renewable sources.
MH: Richard, do you find that your original utopian ideas have changed? I’m not talking specifically about the jazz barge or the monorail you envisioned early on but in terms of how this area can be saved or reclaimed or repurposed, has that changed during the evolution of this project, or do you still have these larger ideals or hopes for this area, even if it’s in twenty years when you have this mega-structure that no longer has a use?
RM: Well, the problem is, I think, that my fantasy is just not something that’s likely to happen. The Mississippi River is one of our nation’s great natural treasures, like Yosemite, and yet it’s being treated like a trash dump. The historical and cultural history of New Orleans and the region is unique—think of the cuisine, the jazz, the antebellum plantations. My original notion was to imagine a way to repurpose all the industrial buildings into museums. I pictured museums of African-American history; jazz; alternative energy, like the Exploratorium in San Francisco but devoted to developments in wind, solar, river power, bio-fuel; a Mississippi River Museum of Modern Art (MRMoMA); a voodoo museum; even a museum devoted to industrial architecture, and a history-of-oil museum. Up and down the river would be a cultural corridor with a vast array of regional museums linked by solar-powered monorails and repurposed river barges. The river could be used for recreation, fishing, and light industry; there would be jazz- and motel- and outdoor-theatre barges, for example. The levees would be widened into biking and jogging paths, parks, cafes, and access to the river. New Orleans is already a tourist-destination site—The Mississippi River National Cultural Corridor (MRNCC) would be an eco-destination of unprecedented scale. But the reality on the ground is, oil is just too big. It is a huge economic driver; this nation is dependent on it in every way—for goods and jobs. The people and communities along the river will remain the sacrifice zone for the rest of us, until oil and other industries dependent on the river walk away. In the end, we needed to create a deep but more sober study of the issues, with the hopes that real, albeit less utopian, solutions can be found.
MH: I guess my question to Kate is, with fracking, with natural gas, once natural gas takes over, once oil is not being refined and the plants move out, what can take its place? Are any of these algae-fuel things possibilities, biofuels that can re-use the existing infrastructure? Is there an alternative energy source that could become an economic driver for this corridor? Or is everything just going to move to China and be forgotten?
KO: This brings up a key part of the book effort, the Glossary, which is really a work in progress. The thought here was to shine a spotlight on people and organizations that are making change and moving towards a post-petrochemical way of life. In terms of energy, for example, we drew up one scenario about river power. The Mississippi River is also an amazing potential source of hydropower in and of itself. There are also people at local universities studying algae as a potential fuel source. The point is not to eliminate industry, but to think about new scenarios of cleaner industry co-existing with a revitalized, working, and dynamic river system.
In terms of the “utopian” solutions, there are regeneration and phytoremediation strategies outlined in the glossary that can bring the less contaminated zones back “online.” But the legacy of the era of oil is that this place has been a storage ground for hydrocarbon waste products for fifty years now. There are a number of Superfund sites, but even at the Superfund sites, which are the successfully cleaned-up sites, it just means that there are large tracts of land that sit inert, doing no harm, but that are unproductive for the next generation. So this extraction-based economy leaves a legacy of unproductive land . . .
RM: But I guess Melissa’s asking, is it just hopeless? Is there any hope in any of this?
MH: I’m not trying to find the happy ending. I guess I’m trying to figure out . . . You guys have spent a lot of years of your life now on this; what can happen to improve the situation, if anything?
KO: My response to that is, just as there is no one magic bullet that got us into this mess, there’s not necessarily a magic bullet that’s going to get us out of it and change everything overnight. There’s a range of ways to think about it. Thomas Friedman recently wrote this op-ed piece about “Why isn’t the GOP all over this renewable energy stuff?” It’s about creating jobs in the future, and it’s about making money in the future with different means of generating energy. It’s about groups of people working at very different levels, whether it’s through the level of the community, or a governmental organization, or an individual, or a non-profit—that these different groups are pointing the way towards change, and we profile a lot of different ideas and case studies that show how people have started to break the cycles.
RM: If Obama came to us and said, “OK, Kate, you point out all these things, it’s great historical research and you’ve shown these different models. If there were three things that we can have done to this region starting tomorrow…” Obviously there’s no one simple thing. But what would be the three most important, top-priority things that would actually start to put a corrective on this landscape? I don’t know what to call it. Do you know what I’m saying?
KO: A major thing, I think, as part of the post-oil era, would be to redesign the landscape and settlement pattern to accommodate the Mississippi River and communities, in a way that’s not behind a levee, and in a way that reconnects people to the river, and the river sediment to the Gulf. There will be BP penalty money coming to the State, and this could jumpstart the process.
MH: So to accommodate the natural flow of the river, do you mean?
KO: Yes. In Holland there is an initiative called “Room for the River,” where settlement patterns are being readjusted so that the wetlands can be replenished and low-lying areas can temporarily accommodate inundation. Louisiana is experiencing extreme land loss, nearly the size of Manhattan every year—they’re losing land. If the U.S. was losing huge pieces of territory in any other context, there would be an all-out war. But instead we’re just accepting this, as just a byproduct of the process and as sacrificial landscape. So I think this notion of redesigning the whole fabric of that area to understand and accept floods, and the replenishing and nourishing qualities of water, would be a priority. It would also bring back the formerly robust shrimping, fishing, oystering, and logging culture that once drove the economy but has been on the decline.
RM: Actually, I talked to somebody who worked in the Sierra Club there, and he had this radical idea of just breaking down the levees and letting it go, but then, of course, it would destroy all of these businesses and homes and everything. Right? Or is there a way to do that?
KO: Well, we have in the book a reference to the Louisiana “Coast 2050” plan. There are actually a lot of very thought-through programs and ideas coming out of places like the Coastal Sustainability Studio at LSU that locate strategic breaks in the levees, and how sediment could be redirected to replenish wetlands in specific areas. Right now, the oil industry is operating at the expense of crabbing and shrimping and oystering and tourism, all of these other industries that used to be the lifeblood of this place. I feel like that’s what needs to happen at a regional scale, this almost-acupunctural approach that brings back these cycles and these kinds of environmental qualities and economies that have been annihilated. Right now, industry and ecology are seemingly in a zero-sum game.
Then on a national scale, we could think about consumption patterns.
In the book, we trace a line from the invention of the Model-T to the Chevy Suburban, XXL homes, constant air-conditioning, and energy-rich lifestyles. At some point, there was a shift from being called “American citizens” to being called “American consumers” and somehow this kind of consumerist, fossil-fuel-driven lifestyle has been interpreted as being patriotic and, at least by our former V.P. Dick Cheney, as a lifestyle that is “non-negotiable.” Consumerist lifestyles and waste-generation patterns of the affluent parts of the U.S. have brought luxury products to many, but have wreaked havoc on neighborhoods along this particular stretch of the Mississippi. So Cancer Alley is not just a result of a couple of bad plant-owners who dumped their waste into the river, but it’s a result of the huge American postwar boom and an explosion of specialty consumer products driving these processes. So another way to change this region is to change the American pattern of consumption, to try to close the loops: less plastic junk, less waste, less chemicals; less can be more. We have all of these plastic products circulating in the world that are so-called disposable, but of course never biodegrade. Clearly, we need plastics in our lives, for certain kinds of medicines, containers, etc. But many kinds of disposable plastic uses should just be banned. Things like plastic bags, or fast food containers, and all of these items that exacerbate this one-way system of extraction and waste are creating landfill mountains, clogging our waterways, and floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which we have mapped in the book. So I think somehow we as Americans have got to come to grips with our mentality of consumerism, understanding [that we are] consuming the earth’s resources way beyond our needs, and that ultimately this could change Cancer Alley and many other waste zones around the earth.
RM: For me, one of the things I keep thinking about, is that the oil companies are making historic profits even in this recession. They are just doing incredibly well. Why don’t they give back more to the communities there? Louisiana, given the amount of money that the oil companies make there, should be one of the wealthiest regions in the country. When I say “wealthy,” I mean the roads should be perfect, the homes and schools should be great, and everyone employable should be employed. If they were putting back just a small percentage, they could completely fix that area. All the people who are living in “fenceline” communities by these plants, within 100 feet or 300 feet, or 1000 feet even, they should be bought out and moved to nicer places. People should not be living in proximity to those industries, and the oil companies should take responsibility for their actions. It seems to me that it wouldn’t even cost that much for them to do it. I don’t understand why that has not happened. It seems like it would be good PR for them even, to be better neighbors. And they would be setting a model of enlightened practices for other corporations and businesses.
KO: I think that’s a great point, which also ties in to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Oil companies are clearly successful at enriching distant shareholders, but could invest more in the “99%” and in the local places where the effects of resource extraction and refining are felt. We start Part 2 of the book with a diagram of the corporation as it has evolved in modern times. Exxon-Mobil and Chevron Global are two examples of the largest and most profitable corporations on the planet. But the fact is, they’ve gotten a really easy pass in this region. Even the State of Texas taxes oil revenue; my understanding is that all oil that’s extracted on public lands is taxed, and that goes directly into the public school system, which is why University of Texas and many secondary schools are so stellar, and why UT is such a powerhouse. That’s oil money channeled into a positive local benefit. Rather than just enriching shareholders, there could be much more thinking relative to the locality of these things, people who are living next door to the facilities.