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Why Louisianans blame government, not corporations, for pollution problems

UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild traveled to Louisiana, the second-poorest state, to explore why its neediest populations simultaneously rely on federal aid and reject the concept of “big government.” As Paul Solman reports, the author and professor discovered many residents feel betrayed by their state's government for failing to protect them from toxic pollution that risks their health.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As almost all of us have noticed, Americans have been growing more and more politically divided.

    Now a new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that Americans believe that polarization will deepen in the coming decades.

    Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, is just back from Louisiana, where he looked at some of those big divides, and particularly with regard to jobs, industry, and how to regulate industrial pollution.

    It's part of our weekly series Making Sense.

  • Paul Solman:

    What do you make of Arlie?

  • Man:

    One of the best persons that I have come to know.

  • Paul Solman:

    But she's a liberal.

  • Man:

    She's a communist. She's from Berkeley, California.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    In 2011, Arlie Hochschild trekked from the deep blue Berkeley hills of California to bright red Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana.

  • Arlie Hochschild:

    I lived in a blue bubble. I wanted to get into a red bubble, and, behind it, I was wondering about this red state paradox.

  • Paul Solman:

    It was the supposed paradox that prompted Hochschild, a prominent sociologist, to make 14 trips here, and resulted in her 2016 bestseller, "Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right."

  • Arlie Hochschild:

    It is the poorest states, those with more high school dropouts, higher crime rates, more pollution, lower life expectancies, are also those states that receive more money from the federal government in aid than they give to it in tax dollars, and revile the federal government. That's the red state paradox.

  • Paul Solman:

    And Louisiana, she came to believe:

  • Arlie Hochschild:

    … turns out to be an exaggerated version of the red state paradox. It is the second poorest state in the union. It has a life expectancy five years less than Connecticut, more like Nicaragua, actually — 44 percent of the state budget comes from the federal government.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, why do so many here hate government so much? Because, Hochschild thinks, they feel betrayed by it, most immediately at the state level.

  • Arlie Hochschild:

    The state of Louisiana, for example, which is dominated by the oil industry, has permitted Louisiana to become highly polluted. They feel that companies at least are giving jobs, even though the companies are doing the polluting. But the state is paid to protect them, and it isn't.

  • Paul Solman:

    To make the point, one of Hochschild's book subjects, environmentalist Mike Tritico, took us on a toxic tour of the Lake Charles area, starting with the Interstate 10 Bridge over the Calcasieu River.

  • Mike Tritico:

    All of this that we're crossing over is contaminated with ethylene dichloride, a synthetic, manmade chlorinated hydrocarbon that is toxic and destroys the clay. It collapses the crystals, which means that, underneath that bridge, there is not sufficient support.

  • Paul Solman:

    The contamination was first reported in 1994. But since they can't replace the bridge because of the chemical's effects, the latest plan? A suspension toll bridge over the troubled waters.

  • Mike Tritico:

    It'd be like the Golden Gate Bridge, that kind of scale.

  • Paul Solman:

    Does driving on it make him nervous?

  • Mike Tritico:

    I don't go across it unless I have to.

  • Paul Solman:

    In nearby Sulphur, Louisiana, named for the sulfur mines down below, a landfill is accepting hazardous waste from as far away as Hawaii.

    How hazardous?

  • Mike Tritico:

    The most dangerous molecules ever invented.

  • Paul Solman:

    How come it comes here?

  • Mike Tritico:

    Because they got themselves grandfathered in before the Louisiana regulations were developed. And that was before some of the federal regulations, like Hazardous and Solid Waste Act.

  • Paul Solman:

    Meanwhile, dotting the sky:

    How many flares around here?

  • Mike Tritico:

    Oh, I don't know, dozens and dozens.

  • Paul Solman:

    And what are they burning?

  • Mike Tritico:

    Usually it's off-spec products. And they can't sell it. They just burn it off and try to start over and do a more pure product.

  • Paul Solman:

    In Westlake, around the corner from the old PPG plant that makes silicas for use in tires and footwear, and right across the street from the new Lotte Chemical plant that makes ethylene glycol for use in antifreeze and polyester, Hochschild took us to a pair of her subjects, now friends.

    Annette and Harold Areno live in what used to be paradise for them, cypress-proud Bayou d'Inde.

    How come the cypresses aren't here anymore, and the fish aren't here anymore?

  • Harold Areno:

    They all died.

  • Paul Solman:

    As industry bloomed all around them.

  • Annette Areno:

    We had fish kills from the chemicals that were getting in the water.

  • Harold Areno:

    Yes, killed the trees, killed the fish, killed the frogs, killed everything, everything big enough to die.

  • Paul Solman:

    Well, you must have complained.

  • Harold Areno:

    It didn't do any good. Nobody heard you.

  • Paul Solman:

    Though there are no warning signs, PCB-drenched Bayou d'Inde, poisoned years back, was named a federal Superfund site in 2003. The polluters have been ordered to pay for cleanup, but there's no plan yet. Meanwhile, the side effects of local industry continue.

  • Harold Areno:

    It wasn't a long time ago when that tower fell, all that pollution come in here so thick.

  • Paul Solman:

    A plume of carcinogenic vinyl chloride from a 2013 explosion at the nearby Axiall plant.

    Did anybody come and explain what happened?

  • Annette Areno:

    No, no.

    And no one has ever come and said, we need to get you people out of here.

  • Harold Areno:

    This is my family. We had 10 in the family.

  • Paul Solman:

    What's happened to all these brothers and sisters?

  • Harold Areno:

    Most all of them died or had cancer. And this is my sister that just died within, what, the last — about the last month.

  • Paul Solman:

    Harold Areno has also had cancer, though he acknowledges there's no hard evidence the chemicals caused it.

    Who do you blame for this? Do you blame the companies that are around here? Do you blame local government?

  • Harold Areno:

    See, government wants all this stuff, but government don't have to live in it. The people that's living in it have got to tolerate all the noise, the pollution and everything that's been destroyed.

  • Annette Areno:

    We have had Democrat governors. We have had Republican governors. I haven't seen much difference in our situation.

  • Paul Solman:

    Now, many of Arlie Hochschild's sources, though they too have become friends, dispute the claims of unusual environmental degradation in Louisiana.

    The Arenos' niece, Janice Areno, ardent champion of the GOP, is a conservative who thinks the federal government has made too much of an effort, on climate change, for instance.

  • Janice Areno:

    I think it's a whole big ripoff. I don't think that we are doing things to the climate that's making the Arctic melt. Or, I mean — I mean, look at Northern United States, is all snowed in right now.

  • Paul Solman:

    As for the state's pollution and health record:

  • Janice Areno:

    People have cancer all over the United States. There's been studies on it, and some have said, but we also like having the industry here. And over the years, lots of things have been done to change the emissions and to change the regulations about what goes up in the air or what they're exposed to on the job.

  • Sharon Galicia:

    If you do get hurt off the job or you're sick, Aflac will pay you until you can come back, for up to two years.

  • Paul Solman:

    Insurance broker and Republican activist Sharon Galicia is yet another of Hochschild's sources who disagrees with her.

  • Sharon Galicia:

    We're not saying, just go ahead and pollute everything. But we feel like there's too much government overreach in our everyday lives. And…

  • Paul Solman:

    Examples?

  • Sharon Galicia:

    Well, guns. We're very big hunters down here, lots of guns. We want to buy the guns we want to buy. Don't tell me how much ammunition I can have. Health care or not health care, they want to buy it if they want to, not because they have to.

    If they want a car that gets 10 miles to the gallon, they want to buy a car that gets 10 miles to the gallon.

  • Paul Solman:

    There's a general sentiment around here — I don't know if you guys share it or not — that government's the problem.

  • Kody Sittig:

    Louisiana government or just the government in general? The state is broken. I mean, that's why the highways look like they do, and that's why the I-10 Bridge is probably one of the top 10 worst bridges in the world.

  • Paul Solman:

    And whose fault is that? I'm sorry?

  • Kody Sittig:

    The state? I mean, we pay our taxes.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, in the end, what's Hochschild's conclusion about the resentment of government in a state like Louisiana, so dependent on it?

  • Arlie Hochschild:

    It's a colonized state. It's colonized by oil, gas, petrochemicals. And the government does what it does at the behest of these larger interests.

  • Paul Solman:

    To Republicans, though, the larger interests are those of liberal federal ideologues, who overreach on social issues and dictate orders to local agencies like Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality.

  • Sharon Galicia:

    Thirty cars came to take a picture of a little diesel spill. I just think there's too many people, too many bureaucrats. I believe it could be run a lot more efficiently with less people.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, no red state paradox for the likes of Sharon Galicia, because it's the swamp in Washington, D.C., that needs draining, not the bayous of Louisiana.

    But tell that to the Arenos.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana.

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