On Wednesday, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said at a Senate hearing that he was “terribly sorry” for February’s burning train derailment in eastern Palestine, Ohio. The train was loaded with toxic chemicals. Most notable was vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen. The resulting spills and swaths sickened many residents, killed 40,000 fish and prompted the temporary evacuation of many of the city’s 4,700 residents.
Shaw has apologized to residents, local media, an earlier Senate hearing and a hearing Monday before Pennsylvania lawmakers since the accident. East Palestine is just across the border. Shaw has repeatedly said the railroad will do whatever it takes to “fix this,” with “no strings attached.”
Meanwhile, black communities choked by 24-hour toxic industries continue to strain with no apology in sight. This week is a perfect example.
When Shaw knelt before lawmakers over the tragedy in 97 percent White East Palestine, the Environmental Protection Agency was in federal court seeking an injunction for immediate emissions cuts of a probable carcinogen spewing across a 93 percent black neighborhood.
The location is St. John the Baptist Parish, just across the Mississippi from New Orleans. The community is part of “Cancer Alley,” nicknamed the infamous 85-mile river corridor that stretches all the way to Baton Rouge. More than 200 chemical plants must report emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency to prove they are not poisoning people or the environment.
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The company that is the focus of the EPA’s attention is Denka Performance Elastomer. It makes neoprene, a synthetic rubber used in wetsuits, laptop cases, orthopedic braces, electrical insulation and car parts that need to be waterproof. The main chemical in neoprene is chloroprene, the probable carcinogen.
Denka, a Japanese company, bought the plant from Fortune 500 giant DuPont in 2015. DuPont built the plant in the 1960s. An Intercept investigation found that DuPont’s in-house toxicologists had known since 1941 how chloroprene could make its own workers ill. The Guardian newspaper examined internal documents showing that DuPont wanted to outsource the factory because it did not want to bear the cost of reducing emissions to surrounding communities.
But DuPont still owns the land and is Denka’s landlord. Since then, it has become clear that despite claims of having spent tens of millions of dollars on alleged mitigation measures, Denka has avoided the costs that matter to the surrounding community. EPA’s request for an injunction on Monday follows an emissions reduction lawsuit it filed against both Denka and DuPont in February.
The EPA says the five counties with the highest cancer risks in the country lie at the foot of the Denka plant and directly “due to” its chloroprene emissions. The agency says emission levels are 14 times higher than recommended, posing an “imminent and significant risk” to local residents. Children are particularly vulnerable to the poison, and the EPA says an elementary school with 300 children is just 450 feet from Denka. Extensive interviews with residents like the Guardian, Pro Publica, NBC and USA Today have uncovered an endless trail of cancer deaths and chronic illnesses that have spanned decades.
Neither Denka nor DuPont have expressed remorse. On the contrary, Denka has sued the EPA, saying it is manipulating the science to follow “a politically-driven strategy in support of the claims of environmental activists and plaintiffs’ attorneys.”
The company website is a wall of denial. Despite DuPont’s own toxicological concerns 82 years ago, Denka is promoting an industry-funded study that claims there is no link between chloroprene and workers who handle the chemical. It said reports of high rates of cancer could be confounded by “lifestyle choices, diet, gender, race, age, etc.” A Denka spokesman told ProPublica, “There is simply no evidence of increased health effects.”
Denka, DuPont and the chemical industry are clearly hoping that the nation ultimately doesn’t care about the disproportionate location of toxic industries in the poorest and blackest communities. Such areas are referred to as “victim zones” by environmental justice advocates. Industrial giants clearly assume that people living in such zones live with such feelings of defeat that they will never fight back.
A hopeful sign they are wrong came Tuesday when environmental justice activists in adjacent St. James Parish, another part of Cancer Alley, filed a federal lawsuit against the community over racist industrial sites. The lawsuit alleges that the municipality has granted “every single” request by polluting industries to locate facilities in black-majority counties while denying requests to locate in white counties. While 9 of 11 facilities reported to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory are in heavily Black counties, the lawsuit states that “no new facilities have been constructed in the white-majority portions of the community in the past 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 railroad safety rules. Local residents are hardly convinced that the company is conducting extensive tests to ensure that the air is really safe to breathe again.
But at least the company pays lip service to poisoning a predominantly white community. Norfolk Southern’s website says it is committed to helping eastern Palestine “recover and prosper.” Alan Shaw said of his own visits to East Palestine: “I looked them in the eye. I heard your concerns. I was in their family rooms. I am committed to this community.”
Polluting industries never look black people in the eye. They never go into their living room to listen to their concerns. They are expected to wither and die under the feathers. Any lip service to caring is a cruel irony.
During the 2020 racial census following the police killing of George Floyd, DuPont was one of many companies pledged a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. DuPont CEO Ed Breen wrote in an open letter, “This moment in history calls for a specific and focused response to the daily and ongoing racial injustices faced by black Americans.
Three years later, blacks remain targets for poison as deadly as a police bullet. Without apologies. Black Americans are simply expected to endure injustice.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a former Boston Globe columnist and Pulitzer finalist