On Wednesday, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw told a Senate hearing he was “terribly sorry” for February’s fiery train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The train was loaded with poisonous chemicals. The most notable was vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen. The resulting spills and plumes sickened many residents, killed 40,000 fish, and caused a temporary evacuation of many of the town’s 4,700 residents.
Shaw has been apologizing ever since the accident, to residents, local media, an earlier Senate hearing and a hearing Monday before Pennsylvania legislators. East Palestine is just over the border. Shaw has repeatedly said the railway will do everything to “make this right,” with “no strings attached.”
Meanwhile, Black communities smothered 24/7 by toxic industries keep getting strung along, with no apology in sight. This week is a perfect example.
As Shaw genuflected to lawmakers about the tragedy in 97 percent White East Palestine, the Environmental Protection Agency was in federal court, seeking a preliminary injunction for immediate emissions cuts of a likely carcinogen spewing over a 93-percent Black neighborhood.
The location is St. John the Baptist Parish, just up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. The parish is part of “Cancer Alley,” the nickname given to the infamous 85-mile river corridor that stretches up to Baton Rouge. More than 200 chemical plants must report emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency to prove they are not poisoning people and the environment.
The company at the center of the EPA’s attention is Denka Performance Elastomer. It makes neoprene, a synthetic rubber used for wetsuits, laptop sleeves, orthopedic braces, electrical insulation, and auto parts that need to be water resistant. The top chemical involved in neoprene is chloroprene, the likely carcinogen.
Denka, a Japanese company, purchased the plant in 2015 from Fortune 500 behemoth DuPont. DuPont built the plant in the 1960s. An Intercept investigation found that DuPont’s in-house toxicologists knew since 1941 how chloroprene can sicken its own workers. The Guardian newspaper reviewed internal documents which indicated that DuPont wanted to offload the factory to because it did not want to assume the costs of reducing emissions into the surrounding communities.
But DuPont still owns the land and is Denka’s landlord. It has since become clear that Denka, despite claims of spending tens of millions of dollars in supposed mitigation, has avoided the costs that matter to the surrounding community. EPA’s injunction request on Monday is a follow-up to an emissions-reduction lawsuit it filed in February against both Denka and DuPont.
The EPA says the nation’s top five census tracts for cancer risk are all at the feet of the Denka plant and directly “due to” its chloroprene emissions. The agency says the emissions levels are 14 times higher than recommended, posing “imminent and substantial endangerment” to residents. Children are particularly vulnerable to poison and the EPA says an elementary school of 300 children is just 450 feet from Denka. Extensive interviews of residents by the likes of the Guardian, Pro Publica, NBC, and USA Today have uncovered an endless trail of cancer deaths and decades of chronic illnesses.
Neither Denka nor DuPont have voiced an ounce of remorse. To the vicious contrary, Denka has sued the EPA, saying it is manipulating science to follow “a politically driven strategy to support the demands made by environmental activists and plaintiffs’ lawyers.”
The company website is a wall of denial. Despite DuPont’s own toxicology concerns 82 years ago, Denka touts an industry-funded study claiming no link between chloroprene and workers handling the chemical. It says reports of high numbers of cancers might be confounded by “lifestyle choices, diet, gender, race, age, etc.” A Denka spokesman told ProPublica, “There is simply no evidence of increased levels of health impacts.”
Denka, DuPont, and the chemical industry clearly hope that the nation ultimately does not care about the disproportionate siting of toxic industries in the poorest communities and communities of color. Such areas are nicknamed “sacrifice zones” by environmental justice advocates. Industrial giants clearly assume that people who live in such zones live with such feelings of defeat that they will never fight back.
One hopeful sign that they are wrong came Tuesday, when environmental justice activists in adjoining St. James Parish, another part of Cancer Alley, filed a federal lawsuit against the parish for racist industrial siting. The suit alleges that the parish has granted “every single” request by polluting industries to locate facilities in majority Black districts while rejecting requests to locate in white districts. While 9 of 11 facilities reporting to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory are in heavily Black districts, the lawsuit states that “no new facilities have been allowed to locate in the majority white parts of the Parish in the last 46 years.”
Back in East Palestine, it remains to be seen what Norfolk Southern will do to back up its apology, given the company’s past lobbying against rail safety rules. Residents are hardly convinced that the company is fully testing to see if the air is truly safe to breathe again.
But at least the company is on record for lip service responsibility for poisoning a predominately White community. Norfolk Southern’s website says it is committed to helping East Palestine “recover and thrive.” Alan Shaw said of his own visits to East Palestine: “I looked into their eyes. I have heard their concerns. I have been in their family rooms. I am committed to that community.”
Polluting industries never look into the eyes of Black people. They never go into their living rooms to hear their concerns. They are expected to wither and die under the plumes. Any lip service of caring is a cruel irony.
During the 2020 racial reckoning after the police murder of George Floyd, DuPont was one of the many corporations that promised a commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. DuPont CEO Ed Breen wrote in an open letter: “This moment in history demands a specific and targeted response to the daily and persistent racial injustices that Black Americans endure.
Three years later, Black people just remain targets for poison, as deadly as a police bullet. With no apology. Black Americans are just expected to endure the injustice.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a former Op-ed Columnist for the Boston Globe and pulitzer finalist