Heavy industry, environmental hazards and vulnerable communities lie in the storm’s path.
Hurricane Laura’s punishing storm surge and winds swept through some of the most industrialized parts of the southern United States: a broad stretch of coast studded with plants that produce fuels, petrochemicals and other products, and that can release toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil when damaged by storms.
The people living closest to these concentrations of industries are typically the poorest, and tend to be communities of color: places like the Westside neighborhood of Port Arthur, Texas, and Mossville, La., near Lake Charles.
“The fence-line community is the one that’s bearing the burden of pollution and industrial encroachment,” said Robert D. Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and co-chair of the Black Environmental Justice Network, an advocacy group devoted to addressing harm caused by systemic racism.
Hurricane Laura’s path bisected a region packed with large refineries and chemical plants. Port Arthur has the Motiva oil refinery, North America’s largest. Beaumont has a major Exxon Mobil refinery, and refineries along its ship channel manufacture a majority of the nation’s military jet fuel. Farther east, the city of Orange has dozens of chemical plants. The Lake Charles area is home to a number of major chemical plants, including the Sasol Chemicals complex, owned by a South African company, and the BioLab plant that caught fire Thursday.
While some of the facilities were designed to withstand storms, the amplification that climate change appears to be giving to many of today’s storms could render the old defenses inadequate. The Port Arthur refinery has a 14-foot levee, but the storm surge forecast for Laura ranged as high as 20 feet for parts of the nearby Louisiana coast.
Many of those plants sit right next to vulnerable communities, like Mossville, a historic Black community founded by an ex-slave.
“Hurricane Laura’s path is through environmental justice communities,” said Monique Harden, assistant director of law and policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans.