Plastic industry backers and environmental justice (EJ) advocates exchanged sometimes fiery comments at a recent hearing over plastics production and its impact on poor communities of color.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

June 27, 2023

6 Min Read
Bill Emrich / Alamy Stock Photo

Plastic industry backers and environmental justice (EJ) advocates exchanged sometimes fiery comments at a recent hearing over plastics production and its impact on poor communities of color.

While a Republican senator charged that Democrats have “taken over” [a social movement] to push progressive policies under the guise of social and racial equality” a Louisiana resident and doctoral student in cardiovascular physiology called out the plastics industry for “carelessly raising our health care costs and poisoning our people.”

They and others gave their testimony before the Subcommittee on Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice, and Regulatory Oversight; they did share some common ground: the topic and perceived issues warrant an ongoing conversation.

“Everyone deserves clean air and water and access to reliable energy sources to help create a healthier and safer future. What is missing from the discussion is the role the U.S. plays in manufacturing essential plastics,” testified Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK).

He does not believe the U.S. has a plastic problem; rather it has a recycling problem. “We have to learn to make recycling valuable ... Instead of halting infrastructure projects or manufacturing projects that result in job loss and reliance on countries like China. Why would we not refocus on improving recycling?”

But some plastics are inherently not easily recyclable. Further, the industry adds chemicals for color, rigidity, and other features, increasing its toxicity and making it “impossible” to recycle, said Chris Tandazo, director of Government Affairs, New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance (NJEJA).

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the panel’s chair, pointed to Louisiana as an example of plastic’s impact on poor African American communities.

He told some of the story of an 85-mile section along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge with disproportionately high levels of toxic pollution. It’s known as “Cancer Alley.”

About 150 petrochemical companies operate in this region where Black Americans, newly released from slavery, once raised sugar cane. These facilities account for about 25% of the nation’s petrochemical production.

“The state is not only not protecting Black people that have plants near their homes, but it may also in fact be discriminating,” said Merkley.

He quoted from an EPA letter to Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ): “EPA has significant concerns that Black residents and school children living in or attending school near the Denka facility have been subjected to discrimination through LDEQ’s action and inactions in implementation of its air pollution control permit program.”

Merkley looked beyond Louisiana, pointing out that 79 percent of U.S. incinerators operate in low-income communities or communities of color and the plastics burned there are shown to release toxic emissions associated with sickness, from cancer to lung maladies.

Plastic production operations have not triggered an environmental justice analysis in Pennsylvania, one of the top producers of natural gas, noted Kevin Sunday, director of Government Affairs, Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

He contends that the state prioritizes environmental protection, referencing unnamed plastic and emission reduction initiatives as well as a “zero landfill” plastic recycling facility in Erie.

Sunday called for clear, objective regulatory standards, established through a formal rule-making process, and for the standards to be “applied fairly and allow communities to thrive.”

He admitted disadvantaged communities need investments and said the Chamber supports developing legislation to enact “meaningful permit reform to drive more investment forward.”

These communities want jobs, and economic development requires tax and regulatory policy that does not drive investment away, he said, adding that Pennsylvania’s chemical industry supports more than $24B in annual economic output and 55,000 jobs, and these operations rely heavily on natural gas and petroleum feedstocks to make plastic and other products.

Conversations swung back and forth on whether the industry truly provides jobs and benefits to the poorest communities.

“The jobs provided are often the best available for people without college degrees. And if you look at the creation of the Black middle class it is these gateway jobs that lifted millions of families and broke the cycle of poverty,” says Donna Jackson, director of Membership Development for Project 21, National Center for Public Policy and Research.

Large manufacturers, including of plastics, do not just generate direct jobs but support small business communities, and many of these vendors are minority owned, Jackson argued.

Building petrochemical companies does not typically lead to job benefits or economic prosperity for the surrounding communities, contested Merkley. He cited what’s happening in Port Arthur, Texas, home to what’s said to be the largest oil refinery in the country. Unemployment rates there are reportedly double the state average, and the poverty rate is 27.2 perecent, nearly double the state average.

A study in one Louisiana community found local citizens held 9 percent of full-time industry jobs, and the town had an annual per capita income of $15,000, which is a third below the state’s.

Further, local communities sometimes receive no benefits of tax revenue due to tax exemptions afforded to industrial facilities, he said, commenting, “This is an issue of justice.”

More contradictions surfaced over health impacts.

Jackson broached that there have been conversations about the environmental dangers of living near, or working in, facilities like plastic plants but said, “I think a sense of perspective is in order. American manufacturers are subject to the most rigorous environmental standards in the world. And industrial emissions are declining.”

She believes there’s insufficient research showing that health issues among low-income populations living near plastic plants, and/or working in them, exceed those in other low-income communities.

Sharon Lavigne, founder Rise St. James, told a different story. She lives in a Louisiana community that is 85 percent African American, near sugarcane fields surrounded by petrochemical plants and refineries.

“We cannot drink the water, plant a garden, or breathe clean air.”

Diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis and testing positive for aluminum and lead in her body, she said cancer rates are high among her neighbors. Many of them say their children have trouble breathing, experience skin rashes, nose bleeds, respiratory ailments, among conditions.

Lavigne is fighting plans for a $9.4B facility to be built two miles from her home by Formosa that she said would substantially increase air pollution in her district.

“Many other toxic industries are trying to move in. But we must stop them.  We are not leaving our community. We need industry to leave,” she said.

Lavigne called on President Biden, the U.S. EPA, and the U.S. Army Corps to use existing tools to protect impacted communities and wants Congress to defend established laws and pass new ones to stop build out of fossil fuel projects.

NJEJA worked with other environmental justice organizations to lead passage of New Jersey’s environmental justice law requiring the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate plants’ potential environmental and public health impacts on urban communities when reviewing permits. The agency can deny or limit permits if it concludes impacts of pollution.

“The law is a beacon of hope for communities like mine,” said Tandazo. He paused on incinerators, citing a study showing a several-year window where New Jersey ratepayers paid over $60M in renewable energy credit subsidies to incinerators.

“This does not sit well with me that my community, my family, and myself are paying incinerators to pollute us,” Tandazo said.

There’s more to consider. Policy must expand opportunity for all citizens, advance sustainability, and support economic growth, according to Sunday.

The June hearing was the second in a series that will be ongoing.


About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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