Experience, April 2021
The air in Port Arthur, Texas, smelled like sulfur. It stung the nose of 7-year-old Shalanda Baker, a city girl spending a summer with her father in the Gulf Coast refinery town. The murky-brown Gulf of Mexico also “carried a stench,” Baker, a Northeastern University law professor, writes in her new book, Revolutionary Power, “but my dad and the other men dipped their nets and lines, in search of shrimp, crab, and fish, into the oil-slicked waters.”
To Baker’s father, who worked for the local electric company, Port Arthur was simply home. But it was, and still is, a deeply inhospitable environment in the shadow of six petrochemical plants, including the nation’s largest oil refinery. The American Lung Association gives the city’s air quality a grade of F. “Port Arthur is the epicenter of our modern fossil-fuel industry,” Baker says — which makes it an epicenter of the climate crisis. It’s also a classic example of a community facing environmental injustice — a place where people of color make up 80% of the city’s residents and live with unusually high amounts of pollution.
For Baker, that’s personal. “I come from a family where people have died too young, in their 30s, 40s, 50s,” she told a group of environmental justice advocates on a Zoom call this winter. Heart disease killed her father at 53 and her uncle at 38. It contributed to her grandmother’s death at 44. Baker believes Port Arthur’s dirty air contributed to their early deaths — and studies have found direct links between air pollution and both lung cancer and atherosclerosis, or clogged arteries. “I didn’t get to know that part of my family because of the type of place that Port Arthur is,” she said.