In Ascension parish at a jambalaya cookout, bathed in the afternoon sun, a politician made promises rarely heard in this heavily polluted region of south Louisiana, known colloquially as Cancer Alley.
Karen Carter Peterson, a state senator and one of three frontrunners to become the next congressional representative for Louisiana’s second district, told the assembled crowd that she would fight the proliferation of polluting oil, gas and petrochemical plants.
“We can’t afford to have plants continue to come in this community and you not have leadership when people are dying of asthma and cancer and all these other health implications from these industries that are just ignoring … Black communities,” she said.
On Saturday the residents of Ascension, along with citizens in nine other parishes including the city of New Orleans and parts of the state capital, Baton Rouge, will vote in a special election to send a new representative to Congress.
It marks the first time in over a decade that Cedric Richmond, who held this majority-Black, solidly Democratic seat for over a decade will not appear on the ballot. He had long been Louisiana’s sole Democrat in Congress. Richmond, who moved into the Biden administration as a senior adviser to the president, had faced criticism throughout his tenure for paying little attention to the chronic air pollution issues in his district, which includes the heavily industrialized parishes that line the lower Mississippi river, and taking $400,000 in campaign donations from oil, gas and chemical companies.
But now the issue has become unavoidable for Democrats seeking to replace him. Joe Biden specifically name-checked Cancer Alley as he signed new environmental justice orders in January. This month a UN human rights expert panel raised serious concerns about environmental racism in the region and urged federal agencies to strengthen clean air and water enforcement in the region.
All three Democratic frontrunners, including Troy Carter, another state senator who was publicly endorsed by Richmond, and Gary Chambers Jr, a charismatic young organizer with a large social media following, have publicly pledged to receive no fossil fuel donations. All three, in a field of 15 candidates, described pollution issues as one of their top three district priorities during local TV interviews. Both Chambers and Carter Peterson have endorsed the Green New Deal, the environmental reform platform endorsed by progressive members of the Democratic caucus.
“The candidates are responding to a tidal wave of bad news about oil and gas expansion here,” said Dr Pearson Cross, head of political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “Right now I would say the message of climate change and pollution is outweighing the message of oil and gas, jobs and the economy.”
Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a grassroots organization working with communities in polluted areas of the state, argued the newfound political attention to the issue was a result of “the power of the movement and the fact there have been really strong community leaders in Cancer Alley for decades”.
“This district always could and should have had a climate and environmental justice champion,” she said, adding that the organization had deliberately not endorsed during the race. “So of course it’s really welcome that people are finally being listened to, at least in election season.”
Despite the outward rhetoric, however, there remain significant differences in the environmental platforms of the candidates, and evidence to suggest some of the pledges made in public are not being upheld in private.
Chambers, 35, an activist from Baton Rouge has built a strong grassroots campaign holding in-person events in all 10 parishes as well as broadcasting to hundreds of thousands of followers online. He claims to have led the way in forcing the issue of environmental justice into the race.
“I understand what it’s like to be from a forgotten community,” he said in an interview with the Guardian, pointing out he lives less than five miles away from a gargantuan ExxonMobil oil refinery in Baton Rouge and has family in many of the parishes along the Mississippi.
He added: “I think the insult is you have these plants that pretend to be such good community partners, and then when I walk in and see the people who work there, they don’t look like me. They don’t look like the people who live in the zip codes they’re in.”
Chambers’s platform contains the most detail of any of the three main candidates and argues for the need to increase financial penalties for emissions violations, engage affected communities in regulation, and calls for more federal funding to assist the state environment department.
He said of the Green New Deal’s relevance to the region: “We need to transition to create the jobs of the future because this [continued oil and gas investment] is going to bottom out our economy and it is already killing our people.”
Chambers also told the Guardian he supports community efforts to revoke a federal permit for a proposed new plastics factory in St James parish by the Taiwanese firm Formosa. If constructed, the plant could emit up to 13m tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, the equivalent of three coal-fired power plants, and would emit thousands of tonnes of other dangerous pollutants, including up to 15,400lb of the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide. A federal permit was suspended at the end of last year after the army corps of engineers said it warranted “additional evaluation” but a final decision on the plant’s future has yet to be made.
Carter Peterson, who is vying to become Louisiana’s first Black female congressional representative, also believes the Formosa plant should be stopped. It was a position she came to only a few weeks ago, she said in an interview with the Guardian, after visiting the proposed site and meeting with local activists there.
“I was there for about four hours,” she said. “And listen, it was not even a question about where I would stand after I heard about the implications for people there. It was a pretty easy decision to make.”
Carter Peterson, a former corporate lawyer who has represented state senate district 5, which covers most of New Orleans, has been endorsed by Stacey Abrams and the progressive organization Our Revolution. She claimed the campaign had been a learning curve for her to understand the pollution issues communities outside New Orleans have faced for years.
She said: “The word that resonates with me right now, just in the last few months in this campaign has been disrespect. I feel like not only Black women, but the Black community has been disrespected.”
Both Chambers and Carter Peterson also backed calls for enforcement of the EPA’s recommended exposure limit to the likely cancer-causing pollutant chloroprene at a petrochemical plant in St John the Baptist parish run by the Japanese firm Denka. Census tracts next to the plant, in a majority-Black neighbourhood, have the highest risk of cancer due to airborne pollution anywhere in America, according to EPA data. But neither backed calls from environmental groups in the state for a blanket moratorium on new petrochemical plants.
Troy Carter did not grant the Guardian an interview and did not answer questions on the Formosa or Denka plants via email.
He has publicly backed independent third-party monitoring of petrochemical plants in the region, but has argued for the continuance of oil and gas exploration in the state. He also declined to commit to the Green New Deal during a public appearance this month, describing it instead as a “great framework”.
Despite committing to receiving no fossil fuel money, campaign contributions listed on the FEC website indicate that Carter has taken a small number of donations from the industry, including $500 from the CEO of Entergy, Phillip May, and $2,800 from Infinity Fuels LLC. Carter did not respond to a request for comment on the donations.
With turnout on Saturday expected to be low, Dr Cross argued that the race remained open for any of the leading candidates, adding there was significant likelihood of a runoff being triggered if no candidate takes a majority.
“This race will be decided by the people who can turn out their voters,” he said.