Wilma Subra, a longtime environmental scientist, stands by the roadside in front of a sulfur pile at The Mosaic Co.’s Faustina plant on March 13, 2023. (Photo by Lauren Whiddon/WUFT News)

This is the second story in series, “The Price of Plenty.”

ST. JAMES PARISH, La. — From the crest of Louisiana’s Sunshine Bridge, the expanse of modern industry is laid out along the banks of the Mississippi River.

Leviathan petrochemical plants loom over fields of sugarcane and livestock. Bright yellow hills of sulfur are visible in the distance. It’s difficult to tell where the fumes stop and the clouds begin.

For generations, exposure to chemical pollutants has been a fact of life for residents in Louisiana’s industrial corridor.

The 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is home to about 150 chemical production sites. Elevated cancer rates have been documented among residents living in the corridor, earning it the nickname “Cancer Alley.”

One short section of the river is home to three massive fertilizer plants run by industry giants. The Mosaic Co.’s Uncle Sam and Faustina plants sit on opposite banks in St. James Parish. Just upriver is CF Industries’ Donaldsonville Complex, the largest nitrogen fertilizer plant in North America.

Health and safety concerns around these plants are a microcosm of the larger environmental justice movement that is gaining steam nationwide. Residents near the plants live with the risk of industrial accidents and the burden of increased air pollution.

“There are just as many (people living) on the fencelines of fertilizer facilities as there are on the fence lines of the other industrial facilities on Cancer Alley,” said Wilma Subra, a longtime environmental scientist and an expert on life in the industrial corridor.

‘This huge immediate concern’

In this part of the country, if you mention the fertilizer industry, people inevitably bring up a notorious incident involving Mosaic’s Uncle Sam phosphogypsum stack.

In late 2018 and early 2019, a sugar cane farmer harvesting a field noticed a strange bulge in the land adjacent to the Uncle Sam Phosphogypsum Stack 4. The 300-acre, 200-foot-tall  mountain of gypsum waste contains acidic and radioactive materials.

The farmer reported the bulge to Mosaic, which informed environmental authorities, who eventually determined that the pile was slouching. Residents were alarmed, fearing that the pond could burst, spilling sulfuric acid into the watershed.

“There was this huge immediate concern, because you have a massive amount of liquid toxic waste close to communities, close to the Mississippi River, which is where a lot of places get their drinking water, including New Orleans downstream,” said Kimberly Terrell, director of community engagement and a staff scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.

Gail LeBoeuf, a St. James Parish resident and co-founder of Inclusive Louisiana, a nonprofit that aims to protect residents from industrial pollution, said she believes the issues with the stack were only reported when it couldn’t be kept secret anymore.

CF Industries’ Donaldsonville facility, photographed on March 13, 2023, is the largest nitrogen fertilizer plant in North America. (Photo by Lauren Whiddon/WUFT News)
Equipment works on a phosphogypsum stack at the Mosaic Co.’s Uncle Sam plant on March 13, 2023. (Photo by Lauren Whiddon/WUFT News)

Mosaic eventually removed some water from the stack and used a dam and berm to slow down the slope’s movement, company spokesperson Jackie Barron said in an email. Mosaic also injected liquid into underground wells, according to a news report from The Advocate.

Barron said Mosaic leaders updated the community regularly via meetings with parish officials and ads in the local newspapers. The stack is still monitored and hasn’t produced any off-site impacts, she said.

Barbara Washington, a St. James Parish resident who lives about three miles west of the Uncle Sam plant, said she’s received no information on the site cleanup over the past few years. She sees it as a typical situation for residents concerned about local polluters.

“The process of getting something done is really slow,” Washington said. “They just slap industry on the hand…They keep on polluting, and we keep on dying.”

‘I think I’m far away enough’

Just 11 miles away, across the Sunshine Bridge, sits CF Industries’ 1,400-acre Donaldsonville complex. The plant sports a large waste-burning flare that persists day and night, and abuts patches of farmland, a veterinary clinic and quiet neighborhoods on two sides.

It doesn’t bother some neighbors, like Renee Steib, who has lived next to the plant for about a decade. The view from her front steps, about 600 yards from the plant’s fenceline, includes a field and fuming towers. Her father and uncle worked at CF for years, and Steib works at Bayer’s chemical plant in nearby St. Charles Parish. She said she moved to the neighborhood because she likes how quiet it is, and she doesn’t look out her front door much anyway.

In fact, the only time she has been bothered by CF was last winter. It was a December morning, and she got a call from a friend asking to see if she was all right. An ammonia leak had forced the evacuation of a nearby school and a number of road closures.

Although CF Industries told the media that people neighboring the plant had been informed, Steib said she was not notified. But otherwise, she said, she doesn’t have a problem with the company – despite deadly accidents linked to CF fertilizer manufacturing.

In 2013, a blast at the Donaldsonville plant killed one man. That same year in West, Texas, CF supplied the West Fertilizer Company with ammonium nitrate that caused an explosion that killed at least 15 people and injured hundreds.

Steib said she wasn’t worried about such accidents at the plant impacting her. “I think I’m far away enough,” she said.

And aside from the fact that her allergies get a little worse when the CF-owned sugar cane field in her back yard is burned, she doesn’t have any health concerns.

“Come on, we’ve lived in Louisiana our whole lives. It’s nothing new to us. You smell it, then you just keep going,” she said.

CF did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Environmental justice leaders Stephanie Aubert, Jo Banner, Joy Banner, Gail LeBoeuf, Barbara Washington and Myrtle Felton pose for a portrait in Wallace, Louisiana, on March 13, 2023. (Photo by Lauren Whiddon/WUFT News)

‘Something had to be wrong’

Regardless of residents’ perceived risks, EPA data show that each fertilizer facility emits chemicals that can harm human health and the environment.

The three complexes ranked in the top third of more than 15,000 facilities in the U.S. for potential health risks from on-site air emissions, according to EPA data. According to EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, in 2021 the facilities collectively emitted and discharged millions of pounds of ammonia and nitrate compounds, as well as lesser amounts of methanol, lead compounds, formaldehyde and sulfuric acid.

Ammonia can hurt the lungs and irritate the throat and eyes, and contributes to the formation of particulate matter that can penetrate deep in the lungs and cause deadly lung ailments. Formaldehyde exposure is linked to rare cancers, rashes and breathing difficulties.

People living around the plants have a higher cancer risk than at least 80% of Americans and are at a higher risk of respiratory illness than at least 95% of Americans, according to the EPA.

But communities don’t always get the health information they need, Terrell said. Misinformation and economic interests complicate the picture, and battles over new facilities can garner more attention.

Myrtle Felton, an Inclusive Louisiana co-founder, said on March 14, 2023, that she joined in the fight against industry after five people in her family died within a few months. (Photo by Lauren Whiddon/WUFT News)

Washington said she knows a number of people in the area who suffered from emphysema, headaches, coughs, cancer and early death. Her sister who lived nearby died at 57 from lung cancer. She attributed these health issues to the chemical production sites in the area. 

Another co-founder of Inclusive Louisiana, Myrtle Felton, joined the fight against industry after five family members died over the course of three months in 2014.

“I knew something had to be wrong for people just to start dying like that all of a sudden,” Felton said.

It’s difficult to directly trace negative health outcomes to pollution from one specific plant. However, a correlation can be drawn between cancer rates and collective emissions from local plants, according to a 2022 study from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.

Felton said plans for new developments are often in the works well before nearby communities are informed of new construction. And, Washington said, groups actively working to stop new companies from coming in don’t always have time to worry about combating existing plants.

What activists want now is accountability for industry and regulators – and action to prevent current and future pollution.

LeBoeuf credits modern technology and science, media coverage and today’s youth for getting the word out about exposure to pollutants. “We are not sleeping anymore,” she said.

This story is part of The Price of Plenty, a special project investigating fertilizer from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications and the University of Missouri School of Journalism, supported by the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiativeand distributed by the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk.

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