Systems of oppression beget systems of oppression

Founder and CEO of The Vessel Project of Louisiana Roishetta Sibley Ozane, discusses the environmental injustices plaguing Sulphur, Louisiana and how she discovered Louisiana's oil, gas and plastic production industries' role in those iniustices.
Posted on September 2, 2023 
By Alexis Young

In Calcasieu Parish, a little over three hours away from New Orleans, sits the city of Sulphur, Louisiana. The over 85-mile stretch of oil and gas and petrochemical (plastic production)plants along the Mississippi River includes the Calcasieu and Cameron parishes surrounding Lake Charles.

Founder of The Vessel Project of Louisiana and Gulf Fossil Finance Coordinator for Texas Campaign for the Environment Roishetta Sibley Ozane, lives in Sulphur with her children.

“Sulphur is surrounded by good people, good music. It's a beautiful country place that unfortunately is surrounded by several petrochemical facilities and a new LNG [liquified natural gas] facility that's been proposed and approved.”

In People over Plastic’s conversation with Miss Ozane at her Sulphur home she discussed the multi-pronged degradation her community faces as well as an ongoing legacy of oppressive systems disproportionately impacting Black, Indigenous and low-income residents in her community.

Facilities like those operated by Westlake, Sasol and Chevron, only minutes from Miss Ozane’s home, don’t just build facilities on acres of land that impact wildlife. They pollute unsafe amounts of methane and other greenhouse gasses that overwhelms air quality, and contributes to high cancer and asthma rates and extreme weather conditions while stripping away natural protections to severe coastal storms.

“We are seeing hurricanes hit each end of the state in one year. So folks started talking and wondering what is happening, what's different? When we started looking at it, the climate in Louisiana has warmed significantly in the last several years,” Miss Ozane explained.

“We were like, ‘what is contributing to the warming of the climate here in Louisiana that's also contributing to how massive these storms are and how soon they're coming back to back like that?’ We looked at what we're overflowing with in Louisiana, and that's fossil fuel extractive industries; whether it is petrochemical facilities, LNG facilities or any other facilities that extract fossil fuels.”

Miss Ozane and community residents in Sulphur aren’t the only ones connecting the dots between climate change and over industrialization. The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ) founded by Dr. Beverly Wright published, “The More Things Change, the More They Remain The Same: Living and Dying in Cancer Alley” in May 2023. The report is an update on maps drawn by the DSCEJ thirty years ago and primarily “illustrates proximity of petrochemical facilities to Black communities in the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor” and several outcomes from that proximity.

According to Miss Ozane, one of those outcomes is wetland erosion. Wetlands act as buffers during storms, allowing the severity of the winds and rain to hit the wetlands first before moving into more populated areas.

Miss Ozane said, “for the Gulf South, our wetlands are a natural storm surge protection, that's one of the first things you learn when you live in a Gulf state, that the wetlands are what protect you from whatever is coming in the water.”

But Miss Ozane also revealed a lesser known history of the wetlands that suggests a deeper significance for Black and Indigenous folks in Sulphur, especially those with deep-rooted ancestral and generational ties to the land.

“Our ancestors lived in those wetlands and in those swamps, so that's very sacred for especially Black and Indigenous people back during slavery,” Miss Ozane pointed out.

“A lot of times we only hear about the Underground Railroad and we don't think about the path to the Underground Railroad. They protected themselves and made lives and made communities within those wetlands and those swamps.”

Now it seems the very industry that is eroding what were once sites of refuge for enslaved people is the same industry that replaced the oppressive industrial system enslaved people escaped from. The state's petroleum industry shows how slavery laid the groundwork for environmental racism.

“Only a few people owned massive amounts of land; you would have maybe one family that would own acres and acres and acres of land where that plantation sits. It was always located near the water because this is where cargo and different things would come in and out,” Miss Ozane described passionately.

“Here in the 20th century, 21st century, when folks are coming back and they want to buy that land, they only have to talk to a few people. When the fossil fuel industry started coming here to Louisiana, they looked at where plantations were sitting because they knew only one family owns all of this land.”

And just like that, one system of oppression begets another.

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© People over Plastic 2023
© People over Plastic 2023