From Plantations to Plants

Sometime early Tuesday morning on July 7 a chemical reaction inside a holding tank ruptured the containment wall causing a major leak from an industrial facility upriver of New Orleans. The next night a thick and disturbing smell awakened and alarmed neighbors around the Carrollton neighborhood. They thought the odor, which can smell something like a burning house, was exactly that. They waved across the street at one another to go back to sleep, no emergency on their block.

Ethyl acrylate, the organic compound (C5H8O2) which spewed into the air through what local media describe as “a ruptured seam” of a 640,000 gallon tank, smells absolutely, positively horrid. Horrid and strong. Small amounts of it overpower the air and are impossible to ignore.

It’s also toxic. Up close in Hahnville, the township adjacent to the giant Dow Chemical plant where the stuff has been oozing forth, the vapors will make your eyes water, your skin itch, and your stomach turn. State troopers who had unfortunate duty of closing certain roads in the area and directing traffic took breaks to breath “fresh” compressed air out of tanks in the trunks of their cruisers.

At certain levels of exposure humans have been documented to get sick. The International Agency for Research on Cancer identifies ethyl acrylate as a probable carcinogen. Tests on animals have demonstrated the compound's health effects;

This substance is also carcinogenic in mice and rats, causing tumors of the forestomach after oral gavage [IARC 1986]. The LC(50) in rats is 2180 ppm for 4 hours, and the oral LD(50) in rats is 400 mg/kg [NIOSH 1991]. The dermal LD(50) in rabbits is 1834 mg/kg [NIOSH 1991].

So that we're clear, “LC” means lethal concentration, and LD means lethal dose. In the laboratory, lethal concentrations are atmospherically administered, and doses are force fed, all in precisely measured quantities. (In the real world when a substance like ethyl acrylate gets lose its next to impossible to measure its exact concentrations across time and space.) This description of the compound's effects, from the US Department of Labor's web site, continues;

Rats exposed to 300 or 540 ppm ethyl acrylate for 30 days died, and postmortem examination revealed pulmonary congestion, cloudy swelling of the liver and renal tubules, congestion of the liver, and excessive pigmentation of the spleen [ACGIH 1991]. Exposure to higher concentrations caused pulmonary edema, degenerative changes in the heart, liver, and kidneys, and death [ACGIH 1991]. Four monkeys were exposed by inhalation to concentrations of 24.5, 26.2, 272, or 1024 ppm (one monkey at each level). The monkeys exposed to 24.5 or 26.2 ppm for 130 7-hour exposures showed no signs of toxicity; the monkey exposed to 272 ppm was lethargic, lost weight, and had mucosal irritation after 28 days of exposure. The monkey exposed to 1024 ppm died after 2 days [ACGIH 1991].

Fortunately for those who live in Hahnville and all down river to New Orleans, this specific leak doesn't appear to have put extremely high concentrations in the environment. We are lucky. Our situation is not even comparable to “the monkeys exposed to 24.5 or 26.2 ppm for 130 7-hour exposures [who] showed no signs of toxicity.” We get to be the monkeys who were exposed to "single digits" parts per million. At least this vague “single digits” measurement is what the state's Department of Environmental Quality told reporters was measured in the air around the plant. But again, what officials and company technicians measure isn’t necessarily what people have been exposed to.

Reportage on the incident by the local media has been measured. It is evident from their tone that newsroom editors of all the big outlets, led by the Times-Picayune, are hard at work balancing their allegiance to the Dow Chemical Company and the industry at large, which is one of the major employers in the state, and their responsibility to report on what is, after all is said and done, an industrial accident and contamination event of major environmental importance.

Life goes on almost entirely unperturbed by this, except for the foul stench. (Unless you live in Hainville of course, and especially if you live in the little trailer park right up next to the plant, the kind of place we hear about in a passing phrase, thrown into the closing paragraphs of a story reporting the leak, this trailer park, the kind of sad hidden place that poor old tired people go to, to be forgotten, and to die alone in the Louisiana tall grass: ethyl acrylate acres maybe they could call it.)


As I walked along the Mississippi River in Uptown New Orleans, 48 hours after the leak, I could smell ethyl acrylate in the air: the pungent flavor of artificial material. It is used mostly in the manufacturing of paints, varnishes and lacquers but is an ingredient in many polymer formulas. The shocking strong smell so far from the source, and the business as usual, “nothing to see here,” response welled up an anger inside me as I looked at the river and watched big tankers and barges float by, all them filled no doubt with petroleum and sundry bulk industrial chemicals.

Something down in my lungs and throat where tiny parts per million of the acrylate gunk were assuredly permeating my flesh and bloodstream wanted to scream and shout right there on the levee; Life shouldn't go on like this! Things should be different! This should be a wake up call! Let's not be goddamn monkey's at all! Let's not be monkey's to Dow Chemical or Shell, or anyone!

That's me being naive. Louisiana has endured far more inconvenient and unfortunate “incidents” out at the local plant. But in my naivety allow me to pose a question. Why do we call them “plants”? Objectively speaking they are concrete slabs topped with loops and towers and twists and turns of complex piping and pressured vessels, pots, kettles, drums, and hoppers, of steel, burning hot and burning cold, distilling synthetics and other unnaturals - herbicides, pesticides, polymers, fuels.

A plant, a real plant, is a living thing that turns sunlight and water into the basis for all other life on earth. Real plants leak oxygen and dump fruit, not ethyl acrylate. The complex root systems of real plants have the added benefit of cleaning the water that runs through them. They provide shade and shelter and sustenance for all creatures.

So there are plants, and then there are “plants.”


We call these big chemical manufacturing operations “plants” for several reasons. The most obvious is that large industrial facilities producing a commodity, be it electricity, high fructose corn syrup, or ethyl acrylate are known commonly as industrial plants. Industrial plants produce the raw materials, chemicals, and energy required for the rest of the economy’s manufacturing and consumption. This function and the name given to the modern industrial plant is closely tied up with one of the most important economic entities of industrial capitalism, past and present, the plantation.

Plantations existed long before capitalism, in Iraq, Iran, and the Mediterranean basin for example. However, with the rise a world market, and competition among expansionary imperial states in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the plantation grew from a peripheral to a central form of economic organization. The fertile landscapes of the Americas were literally transformed into a massive patchwork of plantations by European empires from 15th Century forward in order to produce the raw materials of industrial production and global trade – rice, sugar, cotton, indigo, tobacco, etc. Although another meaning of plantation during the era of colonization referred to the “planting” of a people upon new lands, to build a new society, the term has remained closely associated with the agricultural units of production supplying vegetable products for global capitalist trade. Plantations are literally massive plantings of commodity crops to supply global capitalist production.

For several millennia the Mississippi River has built land by splaying and layering thick alluvial mud further out off the continent's southern edge. All the while the only plants along the banks of the river were those which evolved naturally along its banks and in the cypress and tupelo swamps receding into seemingly limitless floodplains, plants like Carya illinoinensis (pecan), Celtis laevigata, (hackberry), Juglans nigra (black walnut), Prunus americana (wild plum), Quercus virginiana (southern live oak). These and other plants provided much of the material and food inputs for the Mississippian cultures who inhabited the Delta.

In the early 1700s a new kind of “plant” was introduced into the Delta and Gulf Coast ecosystems. This was the coming of the plantation. It would change everything. To build plantations on the Mississippi, the European colonists drove enslaved Africans further and further upriver, clearing the natural levees along the Mississippi and its tributaries, and slashing and burning their back into the rich bottomlands where the alluvial soil had been cultivated by wild processes into the darkest and richest in the world.

All of this of course required taking these lands over from the nations of peoples who already lived there, who hunted, tended to the forest ecologies, and farmed corn, beans, squash and other crops in biologically and anthropologically diverse settings. Europeans rendered what they could from the Native nations transforming the landscapes under their control into monocultures labored over by Africans and indentured whites. (The Americans would take this plantation building project to its logical and brutal conclusion with wars of removal fought against the Choctaw and Cherokee and wars of extermination fought against smaller nations.) The period of genocide and African enslavement culminated in the reign of a plantocracy. The South became a society ruled over by planters and their executors, allied with bankers, lawyers, and merchants in key cities like Memphis, Jackson (which is named after Andrew Jackson, the architect warrior proponent of US Indian removal policies), and New Orleans.

At its height the agricultural plantation system of the lower-Mississippi Delta produced a significant portion of the entire cotton and sugar crops traded globally. The struggle to abolish slavery helped put an end to this plantation system, but it did not do away with the plantation. The plantation as a superexploitative economic form would morph eventually into the neo-plantation, and new kinds of plants would arrive exploit the labor power, land, water, and culture of the deep South.

Worldwide, plantations remain the primary means by which agricultural inputs are produced for industrial capitalist manufacturing. Corporations like Weyerhaeuser, Georgia Pacific, International Paper, Michelin, and Monsanto run operations in Africa, Australia and the Americas that far outproduce any plantation that existed during the era when cotton was king. Much food is also grown on neo-plantations by agribusinesses: large scale, mono-crop farms, well capitalized, mechanized, and often employing migrants to tend labor intensive produce like strawberries and grapes. It is estimated that 5% of all forests today are actually plantations: natural forests clear cut, soils treated with fertilizers and herbicides, neat rows of douglas fir or eucalyptus planted by machine or low-wage laborers, tended by giant machines, harvested over a period decades, ad infinitum. Neoplantation food crops cover even more landmass.

Much US South is an agricultural landscape of these neo-plantations. Cotton has somewhat declined as a crop, replaced by fruits and vegetables, or else timber and cattle.


Alongside the agricultural neo-plantations of southern Louisiana that link along the river in the same neat, thin-sliced allotments of land they were originally carved into by French colonists and American settlers, are the new plants, the chemical refineries that give the region it’s modern nicknames, “chemical corridor,” a.k.a. “cancer alley.”

The chemical plant-ations of Louisiana have quite literally supplanted many of the old sugar fields that used to command the views from Plaquemines Parish to Baton Rouge. Owned by transnational corporations like Dow, Shell, ExxonMobil, and DuPont, many chemical plants retain a named association with the agricultural entities they have replaced. Some companies like Shell have even made the preservation of plantation architecture and history a part of their corporate-citizen pact with the state. “Shell Chemical is committed to preserving the plantation great house,” as one company sponsored booklet says about the Ashland-Belle Helene Plantation. The company’s Geismer plant now occupies the former plantation’s site and the Geismer operation has funded archeological work to preserve the plantation’s big house and records.

Geismer plant produces Ethylene oxide, a widely used compound that must be stored as a refrigerated liquid. When evaporated in the air it can be inhaled. It is widely recognized as a human carcinogen. Significant exposure causes nausea, headache, and can lead to convulsions, seizure and death.

Louisiana’s chemical plants arrived mostly during and after World War II. Federal spending on chemicals to support the war effort led to rapid growth of the industry. By the 1950s Louisiana's eminence as the “chemical corridor” was established. Geography conspired with state policy and the crucial leadership of regional elites (including many planters) to transform sugar and cotton plantations into sprawling industrial zones. The river system was made navigable by the Army Corps of engineers so that transporting bulk petroleum and other mineral resources would be more than cost effective. These federal subsidies multiplied the already favorable access to oil and gas in the swamps and increasingly along the Outer Continental Shelf. By 1962 there were 284 refineries and chemical plants in Louisiana. By 2002 the number had grown to 320. More than half of these are concentrated along the lower-Mississippi River.

To be continued....