2019 in Photos: Impacts from Environmental Rollbacks and the Growing Climate Activism


Here is a selection of photos I shot for DeSmog in 2019, another year when arguably not enough collective action was taken to protect the planet from global warming. 

Throughout 2019 the Trump administration continued to roll back environmental standards. Meanwhile, advocacy groups and activists ramped up the battle for clean air and water and a livable climate. 

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen who inspired the school climate strikes movement, visited New York in September, inspiring millions worldwide to take to the streets calling for climate action. 

Yet in Louisiana and the Ohio Valley, the petrochemical industry, fed by fracked natural gas, has continued to expand, moving the U.S. further away from preventing catastrophic impacts from climate change.

On December 19, a few weeks after an explosion at a Texas chemical plant and less than a week before Christmas, Earthjustice, on behalf of 13 organizations, sued the Trump Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for gutting the Chemical Disaster Rule. This federal regulation was developed after a 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, that killed a dozen first responders.

The rule, developed under the Obama administration, strengthened chemical plant prevention and preparedness requirements for explosions and other catastrophes. 

The EPA’s rollback of life-saving components of the Chemical Disaster Rule is not just unlawful, it is irresponsible,” said Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse. “Instead, EPA should do its job and ensure that chemical companies do everything in their power to keep surrounding communities safe, and avoid a worst-case scenario. Now that Trump’s EPA has decided to try again to gut these protections, and put chemical companies’ preferences over the safety of children in danger zones, we have no choice but to go to court.”

In Louisiana, at the city of Norco’s annual Christmas parade, someone riding a float threw a plastic cup to me, one which was celebrating 90 years of Shell operating a chemical complex in the city. Shell, like Exxon, has known about the causes and dangers of climate change for decades, though they continue to lobby against climate change regulation.

Larry J. Morgan opposing Entergy's proposed natural gas power plant in New Orleans
Larry J. Morgan, a New Orleans resident opposed to Entergy’s natural gas plant, holds up an American flag after speaking to the New Orleans City Council. At the same meeting the council unanimously voted to uphold its approval of Entergy’s proposed plant while also passing a resolution imposing a $5 million fine on the company for its role in a paid-actors scandal over support for the gas plant.

Capt. George Ricks next to a dead dolphin in Louisiana's Breton Sound
Capt. George Ricks in the Breton Sound next to a dead dolphin, one of three he found on May 7, 2019. This year there was an unusually high dolphin mortality rate along this part of the Gulf Coast, a phenomenon connected to the opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway to divert flooding twice this year. This allowed polluted water from the Mississippi River to enter the Breton Sound. 

Coalition Against Death Alley on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol
Coalition Against Death Alley on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol at the end of their five-day march on June 3. The Coalition Against Death Alley (CADA), a group of Louisiana-based residents and members of various local and state organizations, are fighting against environmental racism in an area rife with petrochemical plants and pollution.

Activists holding signs at an LDEQ hearing about Formosa's proposed petrochemical plant in St. James Parish
Activists holding up signs during the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s July 9 air quality permit hearing for Formosa’s proposed petrochemical plant in St. James Parish. The project, if permitted, would allow for the release of millions of tons of greenhouse gases and hundreds to thousands of tons of pollutants, like fine particulates, sulfur, and nitrogen oxides, that can cause human health problems. Also in the mix of toxic emissions will be benzene and ethylene oxide, two cancer-causing agents that will be worsening the area’s already polluted air. 

Resident of Isle de Jean Charles returning to his home after Tropical Storm Barry 
A resident returning to check on the damage to his home on Isle de Jean Charles after Tropical Storm Barry brought intense storm surge. While most of Louisiana was spared Barry’s wrath, Isle de Jean Charles, a quickly eroding strip of land among coastal wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico, was not. A storm surge swept over the disappearing island, about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans, early in the morning on July 13 before Barry was upgraded from a tropical storm to a category 1 hurricane.

Geraldine Mayho's body was laid to rest in the St. James Catholic cemetery across from oil storage tanks.
On August 7, Geraldine Mayho’s body was laid to rest in the St. James Catholic Cemetery in southern Louisiana, across the street from a cluster of oil storage tanks. The tanks are like those that surround the Burton Lane neighborhood in St. James where she had lived, and are emblematic of the type of polluting industry she spent her last years rallying against.

New York City Climate Strike March in September 
Start of the Climate Strike March in New York City on September 20, an one of many global events inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, and held to demand politicians take urgent steps to stop climate change. An estimated 250,000 strikers marched in New York City from Foley Square to Battery Park, while millions of students worldwide also took to the streets.

Greta Thunberg speaking at the United Nations in New York in September
Greta Thunberg gave a scathing speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York this September. While some world leaders announced pledges to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, they overall failed to offer visionary solutions for the rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

Donald Trump, Antonio Guterres, and Mike Pence at the United Nations
President Trump, next to UN Secretary General António Guterres and Vice President Pence, at a meeting about protecting religious freedom taking place at the same time as the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations in New York City. 

Resting angel on tombstone in Pennsylvania next to the now-closed Bruce Mansfield coal plant.
Resting angel on a tombstone in Bethlehem Cemetery in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, next to the Bruce Mansfield coal power plant. Steam in the background is rising from the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station, also slated for closure. The Bruce Mansfield Power Plant, the state’s largest coal power station, was closed for good in November.

Shell's ethane cracker plastics manufacturing complex in Beaver County, Pennsylvania 
Shell’s plastics plant, also known as an “ethane cracker,” under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, along the same stretch of Ohio River in western Pennsylvania as the now-closed Bruce Mansfield coal plant. The juxtaposition of these two projects, in which one powerful fossil fuel supply rises as the other falls, reflects the broader pattern of changing energy sources in America. A growing chorus agrees the expansion of the natural gas industry, which feeds plastics and petrochemical plants like Shell’s, is moving the U.S. in the wrong direction to prevent catastrophic impacts from climate change.

Stuffed polar bear outside a restaurant near the Cheswick coal power plant in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County
Polar bear outside of a closed restaurant near the Cheswick coal power plant in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County. There, climate pollution isn’t the only concern for a region which has received an “F” grade for high ozone days (the main component of smog) and particulate pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s 2019 State of the Air report.

Lydia Gerard of Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish raising awareness about the risks of a school being near the Denka Performance Elastomer plant in Louisiana. 
Lydia Gerard, a member of the Concerned Citizens of St. John, protesting near the Fifth Ward Elementary School and giving information to parents of students at the school about the dangers from the Denka neoprene manufacturing plant in St. John the Baptist Parish. The synthetic rubber plant emits chloroprene, a likely human carcinogen, at levels greater than the level the EPA suggested as safe.

Pastor Gregory Manning with Justice and Beyond being pinned to the floor by police officers during a protest outside the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry office in Baton Rouge. 
Pastor Gregory Manning, with Justice and Beyond, a New Orleans-based civil rights advocacy group, pinned to the ground while being handcuffed in the hallway outside of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) office in Baton Rouge, on October 30. The incident took place on the last day of a two-week protest against environmental racism in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. Charges against Pastor Manning, including a felony count of inciting a riot, were thrown out of court on December 17. 

Plume of smoke from explosions at the Texas Petroleum Chemical Plant in Port Neches, Texas.
Plume from the Texas Petroleum Chemical (TPC) Plant moving over a park across from the plant in Port Neches, Texas, on Thanksgiving, the day after two explosions rocked the plant. TPC’s plant manufactures highly flammable 1,3 butadiene, a known human carcinogen used to make rubber tires and plastics. 

Main image: A Christmas tree on a grave in a cemetery near the coal-fired Harrison Power Station in Haywood, West Virginia. Credit: All photos by Julie Dermansky for DeSmog

Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Visit her website at www.jsdart.com.

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