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A conversation with John Beard of the Port Arthur Community Action Network in advance of an online panel highlighting the historic and ongoing struggles of frontline BIPOC communities in Louisiana and Texas.
Last week, environmental justice champion John Beard was in motion. There was a speaking gig at Columbia University, a gathering back in New Orleans and a “toxic tour” back home in Port Arthur, and, of course, testifying before the US House Resources Committee against efforts to “streamline” federal environmental permitting processes. (Check his opening remarks and some of that dialogue here.) The founder of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, a group dedicated to protecting environmental and community rights in Southeast Texas, is in demand as efforts to address the root causes of our climate crisis are centered in an increasing number of spaces. ¶ As a San Antonio-based project, Deceleration is increasingly interested in drawing lines of solidarity with coastal communities, so frequently taking the brunt of our unjust energy and consumption practices (read: storms) but also an inequitable share of the daily violence and poisoning the goes along with that. Next week, you can hear from Beard as part of a panel dedicated to unpacking how people of color “have historically and continue to bear the brunt of the fossil fuel industry’s insatiable appetite for profits.” (See event link above.) Panel guests, in addittion to Beard, include: Roishetta Ozane of the Vessel Project (Louisiana), Michael Esealuka of Healthy Gulf (Louisiana), a rep from RISE St. James, and Juan Mancias of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas. ¶ Deceleration caught up with Beard during his busy week to ask him about the meaning of environmental racism and ways non-coastal residents can express solidarity with Gulf South frontline communities. — Greg Harman
Deceleration’s interview with John Beard
Deceleration: How do you define environmental racism for folks who maybe haven’t heard the term before?
John Beard: When you have a community of color that has been overburdened and oppressed by environmental pollution and contamination over decades—over any period of time—when those same sources of pollution are not found in non-communities of color, then you have environmental racism. Why? Because they don’t site these [polluting facilities] is River Oaks in Houston or Beverly Hills or any of the more affluent places. Port Arthur was incorporated in 1898. In 1901 Spindletop [oil discovery] came in, and in 1903 the first refineries were built. People of color lived in close proximity because most of them did not have the means to build or live anywhere else. However, other groups, over time, moved away because they were able to make more money. That created a situation where people were exiled to live in some of the cheapest areas, which happened to be located near these plants and their fencelines. We learned over time that the [chemical] releases from these plants, that we all thought were quite normal, in fact, weren’t normal at all. And worse than not being normal, it’s unhealthy for people who live in close proximity. Once again, the economics come into play. People can’t move or relocate to somewhere cleaner or better or safer.
I contend that all peoples, regardless of where they live, should be able to breath clean fresh air and feel safe and comfortable in their own home and property.
How did you first come to understand environmental injustices in relation to the air and the water along with other expressions of structural racism, such as people of color being paid less or having fewer other sorts of opportunities?
It was always there. But there was a learning process even for me. We came to accept it, but then we saw the consequences of accepting it. Still today the links between cause and effect hasn’t been made. In 2010 Port Arthur was declared to be a “Showcase City” by the EPA and told that we had over twice the state and national average of certain forms of cancer as well as heart, lung, and kidney disease. We know many in our community, including myself, have allergies, some of my children have allergies, some of them more severe than others. And there’s some people who have asthma, COPD, they have strange rashes the pop up and yet can’t explain why or where they come from. No study has been done.
We’ve come to believe now that [local illnesses] are from the decades of environmental pollution and contamination that has saturated our communities and even that ground that we live on.
There was a time you could go out in the evening or the cool of the day, sit on the front porch with your neighbors, and go to bed at night. And if your house was painted white or facing one of the refineries or tank farms and wake up the next day, my mother would go out and tend to her flowers, and see this yellowish stain on the side of your house. Well, you knew that something had been released in the night. You didn’t know what it was. And even today you may smell it in your home and think that something was wrong or burned or caught fire. We still have those problems, because of that proximity.
A lot of our readers are inlanders, right? They live at a distance from the Gulf Coast and Port Arthur. To your mind, how can they demonstrate solidarity with what your community and others like it are experiencing?
The opportunity is to ask how would you feel if you are in those people’s shoes in terms of exposures and health issues. If you can’t put yourself in their shoes consider what it’s like when they are putting tons of these chemicals that are hazardous and toxic into the air that we all have to breathe. You know, there’s only one earth. There’s only one planet with the water system we have and it’s all interconnected. And we’re beginning to see already the effects of climate change and all that pollution. Even in our oceans we’re seeing microplastics showing up not only in the water itself and these large garbage patches, but now we’re seeing it show up in the food chain, in the fish that we eat. And in some cases, it’s showing up in pregnant women and their children and in our bodies. That should set off alarms that we’re doing something wrong and we have to change it. Solidarity looks like understanding that we’re all interconnected. And even if I don’t live on the coast I’m supportive because of how they are being impacted.
To get gas from the Permian Basin to the coast necessitates putting pipelines over and around and through areas where some of these people are in San Antonio and other places and they are going to be affected.
We have to be mindful that what affects one affects all. And if we’re truly to be focused on our fellow man and not just on ourselves and whatever satisfies us in that moment then we have to say whatever affects my brother affects me—and then find ways to assist in that effort.
This could include finding ways to disinvest in the petrochemical industry to finding alternatives in terms of how you practice and live in your home. This could mean converting from a gas stove to an electric stove and use a car that’s more efficient and changing your traveling habits. You can always play your part where you are. There’s something you can do right where you are. You don’t have to be part of some big movement, just practice where you are with yourself. This battle is going to be won when we join hands and hearts, house to house, block to block, door to door, neighborhood to neighborhood, across entire cities, the country and the world, that’s what needs to happen. It has to go out. And that’s the only way we can do it. Every person has to take up that fight in their own way.
Is there a particular campaign or action you want people to take from where you are?
We’re working with the Climate Reality Project on what’s called Climate Action Now, where we have a petition to send to various elected officials that we need a study done to address the pollution in Port Arthur. (Ed note: You can download the app here, search “Save Port Arthur”)
What’s causing the cancer? Nobody’s looked into it. We’re a cancer cluster. Why has nobody taken the time to do that?
The current health department head for the City of Port Arthur is a cancer survivor herself and yet she’s never undertaken an effort to find out. The county knows about this but they’ve never undertaken an effort to find out. Our elected leadership should know about this because we all know someone [who has been sick]. Why is the rate so high here? My organization is also part of an organization called Stop the Money Pipeline, which is basically trying to stop the expansion of petrochemical industry. If we are going to avoid turning this planet into an inhospitable place for current and future generations we have to find a way to transition from fossil fuels to cleaner and greener energy. And they way you’re going to have to do that is you’re going to have to attack the money. When you start messing with someone’s money you get their attention real quick.
(Editor’s note: Deceleration reached out to the Department of Health and Human Services to better understand cancer rates in Port Arthur and Jefferson County, which do appear at the higher end for the state. No one from that agency responded to our request before press deadline.)
The US town swallowed by Big Oil’s ‘chemical soup’
John Beard and Port Arthur story is featured in this recent Guardian mini-doc about sacrifice zones in the United States.
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