Waste and Marginalization in Southeastern Louisiana

Friday, January 4, 2019: 3:50 PM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Jennifer Klein, Yale University
The 90-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is a well-known petrochemical corridor. Plentiful, cheap natural gas and the Mississippi River attracted chemical industry development, starting in the 1940s. Chemical production burgeoned between the 1960s and 1980s, benefiting from very little regulation or state oversight and generous tax exemptions. Over 130 chemical plants and oil refineries came to occupy both sides of the Mississippi River, producing one-fifth of U.S. petrochemicals.

Race shaped the social and economic landscape of petrochemicals. Management consultants scoping site locations for chemical and oil firms, geologically and culturally mapping, rendered historic African American towns invisible; after chemical companies moved onto former plantations, they conveniently ignored African Americans living near and around them, allowing leakages, toxic emissions, and explosions to infiltrate their communities.

This concentrated business cluster then spawned a new phase of capital accumulation: waste removal. Southeastern Louisiana had become a toxic mess by the 1970s. This paper follows the emergence of companies that specialized in hazardous waste removal, in particular, Rollins-Purle (later Rollins Environmental Services), CECOS, and Chemical Services Inc. The waste removal problems engendered by Rollins-Purle and CECOS and careless disposal activities caused a new phase of toxic damage to surrounding communities, water, and lands in the 1980s. Following EPA investigations and a major court ruling against it, Rollins aggressively sought out reliable political allies in the state government to fend off further regulation and oversight. By the end of the 1980s, Louisiana produced a quarter of the nation’s toxic waste and had a larger share of hazardous waste incinerators, landfills, and injection wells. Waste disposal involved not only locally produced industrial waste, as this paper demonstrates, but these companies also sought to position Louisiana as a national receptacle of waste.