The Tea Party, a sinkhole in Louisiana, and the contradictions of American political life.
Image by Flickr user emmapebble
By Arlie Hochschild
By arrangement with TomDispatch
This essay has been adapted from Arlie Hochschild’s new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press), which will be published on September 6.
Sometimes you have to go a long, long way to discover truths that are distinctly close to home. Over the last five years, I’ve done just that—left my home in iconically liberal Berkeley, California, and traveled to the bayous of Tea Party Louisiana to find another America that, as Donald Trump’s presidential bid has made all too clear, couldn’t be closer to home for us all. From those travels, let me offer a kind of real-life parable about a man I came to admire who sums up many of the contradictions of our distinctly Trumpian world.
So come along with me now, as I turn right on Gumbo Street, left on Jambalaya, pass Sauce Piquant Lane, and scattering a cluster of feral cats, park on Crawfish Street, opposite a yellow wooden home by the edge of waters issuing into Bayou Corne, Louisiana. The street is deserted, lawns are high, and branches of Satsuma and grapefruit trees hang low with unpicked fruit. Walking toward me along his driveway is Mike Schaff, a tall, powerfully built, balding man in an orange-and-red striped T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He’s wearing tan-rimmed glasses and giving a friendly wave.
“Sorry about the grass,” he says as we head inside. “I haven’t kept things up.” On the dining room table, he has set out coffee, cream, sugar, and a jar of homegrown peaches for me to take when I leave. Around the edges of the living and dining rooms are half-filled cardboard packing boxes. The living room carpet is rolled into a corner, revealing a thin, jagged crack across the floor. Mike opens the door of the kitchen to go into his garage. “My gas monitor is here,” he explains. “The company drilled a hole in my garage to see if I had gas under it, and I do; 20 percent higher than normal. I get up nights to check it.” As we sit down to coffee at the small dining room table, Mike says, “It’ll be seven months this Monday and the last five have been the longest in my life.”
After the disaster struck in August 2012, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal issued an emergency evacuation order to all 350 residents of Bayou Corne—a community of homes facing a canal that flows into an exquisite bayou (a river through wetlands) with white egrets, ibis, and spoonbills soaring across the water. When I visited in March 2013, Mike was still living in his ruined home.
I had come to visit Mike Schaff because he seemed to embody an increasingly visible paradox that had brought me to this heartland of the American right.
“I was just starting life with my new wife, but with the methane gas emissions all around us now, it’s not safe. So my wife has moved back to Alexandria, 118 miles north, and commutes to her job from there. I see her on weekends. The grandkids don’t come either, because what if someone lit a match? The house could blow up. I’m still here to guard the place against a break-in and to keep the other stayers company,” he says, adding after a long pause, “Actually, I don’t want to leave.”
I had come to visit Mike Schaff because he seemed to embody an increasingly visible paradox that had brought me to this heartland of the American right. What would happen, I wondered, if a man who saw “big government” as the main enemy of local community, who felt a visceral dislike of government regulations and celebrated the free market, was suddenly faced with the ruin of his community at the hands of a private company? What if, beyond any doubt, that loss could have been prevented by government regulation?
Because in August 2012, exactly that catastrophe did indeed occur to Mike and his neighbors.
Like many of his conservative white Cajun Catholic neighbors, Mike was a strong Republican and an enthusiastic supporter of the Tea Party. He wanted to strip the federal government to the bone. In his ideal world, the Departments of Interior, Education, Health and Human Services, Social Security, and much of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be gone; as for federal money to the states, much of that, too. The federal government provides 44 percent of Louisiana’s state budget—2,400 dollars per person per year—partly for hurricane relief, which Mike welcomes, but partly for Medicaid and, as he explained, “Most recipients could work if they wanted to and honestly, they’d be better off.”
Louisiana is a classic red state. In 2016, it’s ranked the poorest in the nation and the worst as well in education, health, and the overall welfare of its people. It also has the second highest male incidence of cancer and is one of the country’s most polluted states. But voters like Mike have twice elected Governor Bobby Jindal who, during his eight years in office, steadfastly refused Medicaid expansion, cut funding for higher education by 44 percent, and laid off staff in environmental protection. Since 1976, Louisiana has voted Republican in seven out of ten presidential elections and, according to a May 2016 poll, its residents favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 52 to 36 percent.
Mike was an intelligent, college-educated man with a sense of stewardship over the land and the waters he loved. Given the ominous crack in his floor and the gas monitor in his garage, could he, I wondered, finally welcome government as a source of help? And had the disaster he faced altered his views of the presidential candidates?
“Alka Seltzer” in the Rain Puddles
The first sign that something was wrong had been a tiny cluster of bubbles on the surface of Bayou Corne’s waters, and then another. Had a gas pipe traversing the bottom of the bayou sprung a leak? A man from the local gas company came out to check and declared the pipes fine. At the time, Mike recalls, “We smelled oil, strong.”
Soon after, he and his neighbors were startled when the earth began to shake. “I was walking in the house when I felt like I was either having a stroke or drunk, ten seconds,” Mike recalls. “My balance went all to hell.”
Not far from Mike’s home, the earth under the bayou started to tear open, and, as if someone had pulled the plug in a bathtub, the bayou began sucking down brush, water, and pine.
It was then that he noticed that crack in his living room floor and heard a sound like a thunderclap. A single mother of two living in a mobile home a mile from Bayou Corne thought her washing machine was on, and then remembered it had been broken for months. Lawns started to sag and tilt. Not far from Mike’s home, the earth under the bayou started to tear open, and, as if someone had pulled the plug in a bathtub, the bayou began sucking down brush, water, and pine.
Majestic century-old cypress trees crashed in slow motion and disappeared into the gaping mouth of the sinkhole then forming. Two clean-up workers had cast out booms not far from the sinkhole to contain an area of water shiny with oil. To steady their boat, they tied it to a nearby tree, which then slid into the sinkhole, as did their boat, though both men were rescued.
In the following weeks, pristine swamp forest was replaced by oily sludge as the earth began to leak natural gas. “During a rain, the puddles would shine and bubble, like you’d dropped Alka Seltzer tablets in them,” Mike said. Gradually, gassy sludge infiltrated the aquifer, threatening the local drinking water.
What had caused the sinkhole? The culprit was Texas Brine, a lightly regulated, Houston-based drilling company. It had drilled a hole 5,600 feet beneath the floor of Bayou Corne to mine intensely concentrated salt, which it sold to companies making chlorine. The drill accidentally punctured one wall of an underlying geological formation called the Napoleon Salt Dome, three miles wide and a mile deep, sheathed in a layer of oil and natural gas. (One hundred twenty-six such domes lie under Louisiana’s land and water and are often mined for brine, with toxic chemicals sometimes being stored in the resulting cavities.) When the drill accidentally pierced the side of a cavern inside the dome, the wall crumpled under the pressure of surrounding shale, sucking down everything above it.
The sinkhole grew. First, it was the size of one house lot, then five house lots, then the length of Crawfish Street. By 2016, it covered more than thirty-seven acres. The pavement of the main road into and out of Bayou Corne began to sink, too. Levees along the bayou, originally built to contain rising waters in times of flood, also began to go down, threatening to extend the oily sludge over nearby grassland and forest. Meanwhile, shell-shocked evacuees doubled up with family members in spare rooms, campers, and motels, turning to each other for news of the expanding sinkhole.
Environmental Protection: Missing in Action
Mike backs his boat into the canal. I climb in. It sputters to life and putts out into the wider bayou. “Around here you pull up bass, catfish, white perch, crawfish, and sac-a-lait,” he says, “at least we used to.”
Mike was a water baby. He loved to fish and could describe the habits and shapes of a dozen kinds of local fish. He headed for the water as often as he could, although he got little time off. So “environment” wasn’t simply a word to him; it was his passion, his comfort, his way of life.
Mike has long disliked the idea of a strong federal government because “people come to depend on it instead of on each other.” He grew up in a close-knit community not far from Bayou Corne on the Armelise sugarcane plantation, the fifth of seven children of a plumber and a homemaker. As a boy, he tells me, “I went barefoot all summer, and used to shoot crows with my rifle, use the guts for fish bait.” As an adult, he worked as an estimator,measuring and pricing materials used in constructing the gigantic platforms that house oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. As a child of the old South who grew to manhood in an era of big oil, he was for state’s rights and wanted even state government kept to a minimum.
This, however, was the last situation he’d ever imagined being in. “We’re a close community here. We leave our doors unlocked. We help each other rebuild levees during floods. You got the two-beer levee job, or the four-beer one.” He laughs. “We love it here.”
By mid-2013, officials had declared Bayou Corne a “sacrifice zone” and most of the 350 residents had fled.
For a man who could lose himself for hours in his garage welding together parts of a two-seater Zenith 701 airplane from a kit, and who described himself as “to myself,” he welcomed the easy sociability of Bayou Corne. It wasn’t the simple absence of government Mike wanted; it was the feeling of being inside a warm, cooperative group. That’s what he thought government replaced: community. And why pay heavy taxes to help the government rob you of what you most prize?
At a distance, we see a sign nailed to the gray trunk of a Tupelo tree: “DANGER, KEEP OUT, HIGHLY FLAMMABLE GAS.” Around it in the water are concentric circles of bubbles, scuttling outward like small bugs. “Methane,” says Mike, matter-of-factly.
By mid-2013, officials had declared Bayou Corne a “sacrifice zone” and most of the 350 residents had fled. A small group of “stayers” like Mike were now criticized by the “leavers” who feared their presence suggested to Texas Brine that “it wasn’t so bad,” and so might lower the price the refugees could set for their suffering.
Everyone knew that the company’s drill had caused the sinkhole, but that didn’t settle the question of blame. To begin with, Texas Brine blamed Mother Nature, claiming (falsely) that earthquakes were natural in the area. Then it blamed its insurers and the company from which it rented space in the dome.
Both those who stayed and those who left were mostly angry at “the government.” For one thing, Governor Bobby Jindal had waited seven months before visiting the victims. And why was his first visit so delayed, he was asked, and why was it announced so abruptly on the morning of a mid-week day when most sinkhole refugees were at work?
Like so many of his neighbors, Mike Schaff had twice voted for Bobby Jindal and, as someone who had worked in oil all his life, approved the governor’s $1.6 billion tax incentive program to lure more of that industry to the state. For three years, it was impossible to tell whether the oil companies had paid a penny to Louisiana since, under Jindal, the job of auditing their payments had been handed over to the Office of Mineral Resources, which has close ties to the industry and between 2010 and 2013 performed no audits at all.
In Louisiana, on-the-books environmental regulations were laxly enforced by conservative state legislators many of whom were oilmen or, like Governor Jindal, took donations from Big Energy. An eye-opening 2003 report from the Inspector General of the EPA ranked Louisiana last in its region when it came to implementing federal environmental mandates. Louisiana’s database on hazardous waste facilities was error-ridden. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality (a title missing the word “protection”) did not know if many of the companies it was supposed to monitor were “in compliance.” Its agents had failed to inspect many plants and even when it did find companies not in compliance with state regulations, it neglected to levy or collect penalties.
The Inspector General was “unable to fully assure the public that Louisiana was operating programs in a way that effectively protects human health and the environment.” According to the state’s own website, 89,787 permits to deposit waste or do other things that affected the environment were requested between January 1967 and July 2015. Of these, only sixty—or .07 percent—were denied.
The Redder the State, the More the Toxic Waste
Louisiana was, it turned out, in good company. A 2012 study by sociologist Arthur O’Connor showed that residents of red states suffer higher rates of industrial pollution than those of blue states. Voters in the twenty-two states that went Republican in the five presidential elections between 1992 and 2008 live in more polluted environments. And what was true for Red States generally and Louisiana in particular was true for Mike himself. Looking into exposure to toxic waste, my research assistant Rebecca Elliot and I discovered that people who believe Americans “worry too much about the environment,” and that the US already “does enough” to protect that environment were likely to be living in zip codes with high rates of pollution. As a Tea Party member enmeshed in the Bayou Corne sinkhole disaster, Mike was just an exaggerated version of a haunting national story.
Mike wanted to live in a nearly total free-market society. In a way Louisiana already was exactly that. Government was barely present at all. But how, I wondered, did Mike reconcile his deep love of, and desire to protect, Bayou Corne with his strong dislike of government regulation? As it happened, he did what most of us tend to do when we face a powerful conflict. He jerrybuilt a new world out of desperate beliefs, becoming what he termed a “Tea Party conservationist.”
“This is the closest I’ve come to being a tree-hugger…. But I’ve had to do something. This bayou will never be the same.”
Seated at his dining room table surrounded by cardboard boxes filled with his belongings, he composed letter after letter of complaint to members of the Louisiana legislature, demanding that they force companies like Texas Brine to pay victims in a timely way, that they not permit storage of hazardous waste in precarious waterways, or again permit drilling in Lake Peigneur, which had suffered a devastating drilling accident in 1980. By August of 2015, he had written fifty of them to state and federal officials. “This is the closest I’ve come to being a tree-hugger,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the environmentalists I meet are liberal. But I’ve had to do something. This bayou will never be the same.”
As we putted around the bayou, I asked, “What has the federal government done for you that you feel grateful for?”
“Hurricane relief,” he finally responded.
He paused again. “The I-10…,” he added, referring to a federally funded freeway.
Another long pause. “Okay, unemployment insurance.” (He had once briefly been on it.)
I ask about the Food and Drug Administration inspectors who check the safety of our food.
“Yeah, that too.”
The military in which he’d enlisted?
“Do you know anyone who receives federal government benefits?”
“Oh sure,” he answers. “And I don’t blame them. Most people I know use available government programs, since they paid for part of them. If the programs are there, why not use them?”
And then the conversation continued about how we don’t need government for this, for that, or for the other thing.
Mike and his wife had recently moved from their ruined home near the sinkhole into a large fixer-upper on a canal flowing into Lake Verret, some fifteen miles south of Bayou Corne. At nights, he can hear the two-toned calls of tree frogs and toads. He had jacked up the living room floor, redone the bedroom molding, put in a new deck, and set up his airplane-building kit in the garage. A recent tornado had ripped the American flag from a pole on that garage, although it hadn’t harmed the Confederate flag hanging from the porch of his neighbor.
His new home lies near the entrance to the spillway of the magnificent Atchafalaya Basin, an 800,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge—the largest bottomland hardwood swamp in the country—overseen, in part, by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. On my last visit, he took me in his flatboat to fish for perch, pointing out a bald eagle on the bare branch of a tall cypress. “I’ve gone from the frying pan to the fire,” he explained. “They are disposing of millions of gallons of fracking waste—the industry calls it ‘produced water’—right here in the Basin. It can contain methanol, chloride, sulphates, and radium. And they’re importing it from Pennsylvania and other fracking sites to go into an injection well near here. Salt can corrode the casing of those wells, and it’s not far from our aquifer.”
A Sinkhole of Pride
Mike loves the waters of Louisiana more than anything in the world. A vote for Hillary Clinton would protect the Clean Water Act, secure the EPA, and ensure that government would continue to act as a counterbalance to the Texas Brines of the nation. But there was one thing more important to Mike than clean water: pride in his people.
Culturally, demographically, economically, and now environmentally, he felt ever more like a stranger in his own land.
He had struggled hard to climb out of the world of a poor plumber’s fifth son, to make it to a salary of 70,000 dollars a year with a company that built oil rigs, to a third and at-last-right wife, and to a home he loved that was now wrecked. At the entrance gate to the middle class, he felt he’d been slapped in the face. For progressive movements from the 1960s on—in support of blacks, women, sexual minorities, immigrants, refugees—the federal government was, he believed, a giant ticket-dispensing machine in an era in which the economy was visiting on middle-class and blue-collar white men the sorts of punishment once more commonly reserved for blacks. Democrats were, he was convinced, continuing to make the government into an instrument of his own marginalization—and media liberals were now ridiculing people like him as ignorant, backward rednecks. Culturally, demographically, economically, and now environmentally, he felt ever more like a stranger in his own land.
It mattered little to him that Donald Trump would not reduce the big government he so fervently wanted cut, or that The Donald was soft on the pro-life, pro-marriage positions he valued, or that he hadn’t uttered a peep about the national debt. None of it mattered because Trump, he felt, would switch off that marginalization machine and restore the honor of his kind of people, of himself. Mike knew that liberals favored care for the environment far more than Republicans, Tea Partiers, or Donald Trump. Yet, despite his lost home in a despoiled land, like others of his older white neighbors back at the Bayou and here in the Basin, Mike was foursquare for Trump; that’s how deeply his pride was injured and a measure of just how much that injury galled him.
What would Trump do to prevent another calamity like Bayou Corne with its methane-drenched mud, its lost forest, its dead fish? He has been vague on many of the policies he might pursue as president, but on one thing he was clear: he would abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.
Arlie Hochschild is the author of many books, including The Second Shift and The Time Bind. Her latest book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press), will be published in early September. This essay is adapted for TomDispatch from that book.