Mossville’s end

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“As Sasol’s huge petrochemical project lifts Southwest Louisiana, an environmental justice community dissolves in its shadow.

Blessed by light rush hour traffic through Baton Rouge on a Thursday morning, I arrive 20 minutes early for an interview with Michael Hayes, vice president of public affairs for Sasol U.S. Mega Projects at the South African chemical firm’s offices in Westlake, La. This gives me more than enough time for a tour of the small town that is likely to dominate our discussion. I proceed across the tracks.

It has been a long drive from New Orleans, mostly along Route 10, a highway elevated for long stretches over swamp water. Crossing the bridge after Lake Charles, however, the landscape is suddenly dominated by refineries and petrochemical plants. I move through the outskirts of Westlake, driving one of the few passenger cars in a line of construction vehicles until I reach Old Spanish Trail, a road running away from the factories but parallel to a construction site. It becomes the main street through Mossville.

The prospect on both sides of the road is bleak. A handful of houses, some obviously abandoned, are interspersed with concrete slabs where others have been razed. Thin clusters of bare trees can be seen behind the buildings still standing. Past these, dust clouds rise around heavy machinery tearing at the earth.

I pass the Miracle Deliverance Holiness Church. A chain stretches across its gravel driveway. Further along, I see the first people on my drive through Mossville—a young woman sitting on the steps of a trailer home with a baby on her knee. I turn around and head back to Westlake, noticing on this pass that a 1950s-vintage school building now houses Sasol business offices.

By all accounts, Mossville is dying. Settled by freed slaves as early as the 1790s, it was one of the first black communities in the U.S., an unincorporated town famous for a sense of community and self-sufficiency that carried it through the Jim Crow era. But in recent decades, Mossville has been less successful standing up to the steady encroachment of heavy industry.

Now it would appear that Mossville’s final demise is at hand. Seeking to take advantage of low-cost natural gas extracted from shale, Sasol has embarked on a huge expansion of its Louisiana facility that will run right up to the town line. Well over half of its residents have opted to accept a buyout from the company and abandon Mossville…”

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