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Gulf South activists say Ohio train derailment reflects their fight against petrochemicals

An aerial image of an oil refinery situated along the Mississippi River.
Kezia Setyawan
/
WWNO
An aerial image of an oil refinery situated along the Mississippi River.

A train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3 showed how poor management of toxic materials affects human health and the environment. Residents are still dealing with contaminated soil and having to monitor their air a month after Norfolk Southern’s train spilled hazardous chemicals in the village.

But for activists in the Gulf South, the issue is a stark reminder of their own fight against the petrochemical industry across the region. Many petrochemical facilities are located or planned near Black, Brown, and poor communities in Texas and Louisiana.

Shamyra Lavigne, an environmental activist with RISE St. James in Louisiana, said residents in her community are dealing with many of the same pollutants impacting Ohio now.

“Other communities have those same chemicals being polluted in their environment, at their home, in their backyards, seven days a week, 24 hours a day as we speak,” Lavigne said during an event Tuesday hosted by the Hip Hop Caucus.

The caucus is a national nonprofit that uses music and culture to engage young voters with their communities. President and CEO Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr. also chairs Michael Bloomberg’s Beyond Petrochemicals campaign.

Other speakers from the Gulf South region at the event included Jennifer Hadayia, the executive director of Air Alliance Houston. Air Alliance Houston is part of a collaboration that will take residents from the Greater Houston Area to the Texas State Capitol on March 6 to demand stronger regulatory oversight of petrochemical facilities.

“Here in Houston, in Harris County, we know what it means to live in the shadow of the same petrochemical industry that is at the heart of the East Palestine disaster,” Hadayia said.

Hadayia, Lavigne and other activists said they want to see communities across the country band together to get the resources they need and teach each other how to have a say in protecting their homes. But, Lavigne said that community-level cooperation can only go so far.

“The solution is transparency from the government, exposing their toxic patterns and reducing our dependency on the petrochemical industry,” she said.

Activists from the Ohio River Valley were also at the event and called for stronger federal rules to prevent future disasters. They also said it's important not to reduce the disaster to just East Palestine. While there’s a lot of national attention on this now, it's an ongoing problem that impacts communities beyond the village.

One of the things that we continue to do is to create the education and awareness around petrochemicals and the fact of how it's traipsing through from East Palestine to northeast Ohio to central Ohio,” said Archbishop Marcia Dinkins, the founder of the Black Appalachian Coalition.

The event also focused on some of the ways that activists are fighting back, like RISE St. James successfully stopping the construction of a billion-dollar plastics manufacturing plant in St. James Parish in Sept. 2022.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

Danny McArthur is the environmental justice reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom.