ST. JAMES — Visiting rural western St. James Parish on Monday, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey called the industrial pollution spewed on vulnerable, minority communities "absolutely violence" and "an attack on families" that is often due to "corporate villainy."

Booker added that it is a "hateful hypocrisy" to put such high levels of pollution on poor communities like St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes. 

"… it's corporate villainy where folks are outsourcing the costs and the burdens of their economic enterprise onto others and privatizing all their profits," Booker said at Mount Triumph Baptist Church in the heart of southeast Louisiana's industrial corridor along the Mississippi River. "It is absolutely unacceptable to steal folks' livelihoods, to steal folks' health and, literally, drive down the cost of their land." 

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Booker, a liberal Democrat and former mayor of industry-heavy Newark, New Jersey who has been discussed as a possible 2020 presidential candidate, said he will pursue legislation that would require environmental justice to be taken more seriously on the federal level. But he said he would also press federal agencies to better use their civil rights offices to look at the disparate impacts of industrial activity on communities of color.

Booker was wrapping up a weekend tour of poor Southern communities struggling with environmental impacts from businesses and industry. He visited Alabama earlier in the trip and Plaquemines Parish on Sunday to see the effects of coastal erosion, climate change and industrial pollution.

The chemical industry is a major employer and taxpayer in Louisiana, providing 27,000 direct jobs, and, based on its trade association's estimates, another 150,000 indirect jobs. The association also regularly points to the progress its members have made through years in reducing emissions and emphasizing worker safety.  

Mount Triumph Baptist Church is on the west bank River Road just down from Mosaic's Faustina fertilizer complex and the American Styrenics plant, as well as oil storage tank farms. Farther downriver, Yuhuang Chemical is planning a $1.85 billion methanol plant, while other major plants are being discussed and the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is proposed to have its terminus in the area.  

Environmental and community groups spoke to Booker about pollution in St. James and neighboring St. John the Baptist parishes as retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen Russel Honoré, who leads the Green Army and served as the emcee, pleaded for Booker to help the area.

Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, delivered a presentation on the group's efforts to lower emissions of likely carcinogen chloroprene from the Denka plant in Reserve and detailed pollution levels based on the latest federal reporting data.

Based on that data, LEAN's analysis concludes that the amount of carcinogens released in St. James in 2014 was greater than what 96 percent of the counties and parishes in the nation had received. 

Robert Taylor, who lives in Reserve and leads Concerned Citizens of St. John, which has fought against Denka's elevated emissions, talked about the trouble his group had in getting the attention of state and local officials.

"When I formed this organization, the whole government in St. John the Baptist Parish fought against us. They accused us of being troublemakers," Taylor said. "They are not interested in helping us." 

Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Chuck Carr Brown, who was at the church Monday, pledged to look into the residents' concerns but mostly listened.

In a later interview, Brown said he will help push for an emergency exit route that many St. James Parish residents have asked for on the west bank, which has been heavily promoted for years as a site for industry. 

In St. John, he said, the Denka plant is installing control equipment that will significantly reduce emissions of chloroprene  by the end of year, though he disputed that the ambient air standard that LEAN wants to see is necessary for public health.

During the presentation with Booker, people gave testimonials about cancer and other illnesses in their communities that they claim were caused by chemical emissions. The EPA recently estimated the cancer risk in the census tract around the Denka plant is 802 times higher than the national average, though the agency has resisted specifically linking the risk to chloroprene.  

Brown said later that other public health data show the incidence of cancer in St. John is no higher than anywhere else in state and, according to the Louisiana Tumor Registry, the cancer rate for black females in St. John is actually lower. 

"If we thought there was some imminent danger, the Department of Health and LDEQ would be shutting the (Denka) plant down, but there is no smoking gun," Brown said.

After the gathering, Booker was asked if his trip was tied to presidential aspirations. He responded it wasn't but is related to his long-term interest in environmental justice.

"No, sir, this is why I got into politics. I still live in a central ward of New Jersey. I live in a predominantly black community. I live in a community below the poverty line. I live in a community that's dealing with similar struggles," he said. 

Booker told media outlets earlier this year he was not interested in the presidency, despite continued Beltway speculation to the contrary. 

Booker was also asked how he, as a New Jersey senator, responded to a common retort in Louisiana against criticism of the state's industrial base: that plants and other facilities produce a significant amount of oil, gas and critical chemicals used for modern life across the nation.

Booker said Louisiana's situation is not so different than other places', such as the rural Carolinas where large manure lagoons are a byproduct of industrial-scale hog operations, or clothing that is made under "slave labor conditions."

He said companies are placing the environmental costs of their operations on their neighbors when corporations should be bearing those costs through better environmental controls. 

"To artificially reduce the price, at the cost of the people here, that's not the free market. That is a perversion of the free market," Booker said. "The cost is being born overwhelmingly, disproportionately by the most vulnerable Americans."   

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.