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Reporting on disparities in Louisiana's oil and gas jobs

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Big industrial development is often framed as a trade-off. The companies building refineries and factories or drilling big oil wells will argue the downsides of pollution are outweighed by the economic benefits of all the jobs the industry brings to a community. But new research from Tulane University shows that most of the oil and gas jobs in Black majority communities in what's known as Louisiana's Cancer Alley, an area known for high levels of pollution and way higher than normal cancer rates, go to white workers. Researchers from Tulane shared their findings with Floodlight, a nonprofit newsroom focused on environmental reporting.

Terry Jones is a reporter with Floodlight and has a new article published on Friday based on this new research published on the Grist, as well as NPR affiliate WWNO. He joins us now from Baton Rouge, La. Hey, Terry.

TERRY JONES: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So, big picture, let's start here. What did Tulane find?

JONES: Well, basically what they found is the highest percentage in disparity was in St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana, which is home to the third-largest oil refinery in the nation. And there, people of color represented 70% of the working-age population but make up only 28% of the manufacturing workforce. The disparity was even greater with respect to higher-paying jobs such as managers and cell workers and technicians, where minorities only hold 19% of those positions. So this is according to the Tulane research data. And they used basically publicly available data on jobs, tax exemptions and the toxic air emissions, and which is part of a larger analysis that the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic is doing that's taking a look at the hiring and disproportionate pollution exposure from industrial facilities across the country.

DETROW: And that's a good thing to just kind of to underscore and explain. This wasn't necessarily a list of all the employees at a company. They were looking at the big-picture data, the demographic makeup of the people getting these jobs and comparing that to the demographic makeup of the people who live in the community. And you're saying there's a really big gap here.

JONES: Right. And, Scott, I've been covering communities in Cancer Alley for almost 10 years. And this is something that I always heard anecdotally from people, residents there. Anytime I went to do stories, they would always say, yeah, you know, we have all these health risks because we live next to these polluting facilities, and they also don't hire us. I mean, I've heard this for years and years and years and years. And I actually just happened to meet one of the researchers from Tulane's Environmental Law Clinic. And this discussion came up. And I was - kind of pointed out that, listen, this is something that I've always heard, but there really isn't a way for us to get at this as journalists because these are private companies. They don't have to share employment data with us. And the researcher that I talked to in this article said, hold up, hold up, Terry. I think there's a way that we can get at this. And this is some work that I want to do, and I would love to share it with you. And that's kind of how this all came about.

DETROW: So you have that initial conversation. They get to work. They come up with these findings. And I'm curious what the response has been. First of all, what has the response been from people in the community who have been saying it's felt like this way for a long time?

JONES: The best way to describe it and how they describe it to me was that it was kind of like a gut punch. It was something that they always suspected. They always knew. But when they saw the hard numbers, it kind of knocked the wind out of them a little bit.

DETROW: And what has the response been from the industry? Because I covered oil and gas drilling in Pennsylvania, and there wasn't necessarily as much of a racial disparity, but there was certainly a disparity between local people getting the jobs versus people coming in from out of state. And the answer was always, look, it's highly specialized. You have to hire the people who know how to do it and sometimes that's not the local community. I mean, that's been the argument for years and years.

JONES: Well, and so let's have - let's take this two ways. So let's go back to this - the last question you just asked me. One of the residents I talked to, she said that she had multiple family members - this is in St. John the Baptist Parish - who went to college and specifically majored in things like industrial engineering because they wanted to stay home close to their family so they can get these jobs. They went to go get the jobs. And she said they were told by industry, oh, no, no, no, no, you need to go through our, like, trade program. That's where we kind of funnel our hires through. They do that, still didn't get hired.

DETROW: So these are people with that specific background that they're looking for.

JONES: With specific background, people of color. I reached out to a lot of the companies that I cited in the article. Many of them did not respond to me. Marathon Oil did respond to me. I shared all of the data with them. I said, what is your response to this? This is what people are saying. They feel that you're not hiring them. The jobs are not going to the local community. What do you have to say to this? They did not answer that question directly. But they did say that, well, listen, we have been providing all of this money - I think approximately $500,000 - to scholarship programs that are designated for minorities looking to study and get jobs in industrial-related fields.

DETROW: Yeah. And we had gotten a similar statement, I think, from Marathon. And a lot of the things that you talked about, they said that more than 30% of their hires now companywide are people of color. I wonder what the people you talked to make of a stat like that. Is that enough?

JONES: I would love to share that with them. I didn't get that stat when I reached out to them a couple of months ago.

DETROW: I just want to broaden this out to end the conversation. You know, the high cancer rates in this stretch of the state are so well known, as is the fact that the harm disproportionately goes to people of color. The EPA had recently opened a civil rights investigation into the area last year. A lot of people who live there were hopeful that that could lead to changes. The case was shuttered in June before any negotiations between the EPA and the State Department of Environmental Quality could conclude. Any sense of what that means going forward here?

JONES: Some of the people in that case were the people I interviewed in this story, St. John the Baptist Parish. They were very, very heartbroken by that decision. But what I did find is that they're not letting that beat them down. They seem dedicated. And they seem poised to continue fighting and pushing back as much as they can.

DETROW: And I will note that we will have a lot more reporting on that EPA investigation and what happened to it on tomorrow's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Thanks so much for coming on the show.

JONES: Thanks so much for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emma Klein
Adam Raney
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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