Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Holly Beach, light pollution, & America’s dumping ground

I sat on the shore of Holly Beach, Louisiana, watching the tide creep up the sand. The distant offshore oil rigs, which shined brighter than the moon the night before, blended into the horizon again. The waves brought more trash—a rubber clog sole covered in seaweed and clams, an ancient bottle of detergent, a Bud Light sticker. The air was already dense with heat, the sand fleas hopping and biting. Sandpipers scurried around, looking for breakfast. The brownish-green Gulf of Mexico inched higher up the beach. Each time it got close to me, I scooted back—not much, but just enough to avoid getting wet. 

Holly Beach is nestled near Lake Charles in Cameron Parish in the southwestern corner of Louisiana, sandwiched between the Gulf Coast and miles of wetlands. It’s 7 feet above sea level. For years, Holly Beach was a Cajun Riviera destination; people came from all over the region to camp on the beach. It had an ice cream shop, dive bars, grocery stores, and hundreds of camps and cabins that were home to generations of Louisiana residents. 

In 2005, Hurricane Rita brought 16 feet of storm surge and wiped it off the map. Today, there are only a few rows of homes, most of them mobile homes on stilts. Building codes require houses to be 20 feet above sea level and there are also strict septic tank rules, so when residents started to rebuild houses, the prices were much higher. There are no more grocery stores, bars, or stores. There are hardly any street lights. On a cloudless, breezy Sunday evening, hardly anyone was outside. There has been talk over the years of trying to build this affordable coastal town back up, but the amenities leave much to be desired. “I’m a seventh-grade dropout,” one man told an out-of-state developer in 2008, according to the New York Times. “But I can tell you one thing, it’s not going to work.”

The main drag in Holly Beach, Louisiana. Credit: Lyndsey Gilpin

June 1 marks the start of the 2018 hurricane season. Two hours west of Holly Beach lies Houston, which is slowly rebuilding after being devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Several hours east are Baton Rouge, which has not yet recovered from 2016 flooding, and New Orleans, which was forever changed by Hurricane Katrina. Down in Puerto Rico, thousands are still living without electricity; in the Florida Keys, locals are prepping to enter the summer season while they continue to restore the islands.

Holly Beach is a different place than it used to be, and rising seas will alter it more. A quick Google search unearths dozens of stories about the irony of the existence of people in Cameron Parish—how its residents refuse to believe in sea level rise even though it’s at their feet. Wetlands in western Louisiana are struggling to survive with accelerated sea level rise: according to a 2017 Tulane University study, the rate of sea level rise in the region over the past six to 10 years is about half an inch per year on average. Louisiana officials have made recent changes to the state’s coastal master plan, like adding wave barriers along Cameron Parish coastlines, but completion of these types of projects is still years away.

The piece of beach I sat on—though dirty, polluted, and under the shadow of the oil industry—is one of the most serene I’ve ever visited. The seagrass is overgrown and wild, the seabirds well-fed. The homes are modest, some bright and modern, others dark and dilapidated. The place is authentically American, and it made me feel patriotic and ashamed, fearful and optimistic, heartbroken and in love. Although the water was encroaching, the tent getting sandy, I didn’t want to budge, didn’t want to return to Monday or the stressful, contradictory realities of this world we’ve created. I could understand why the people who live here are okay being invisible, why they wouldn’t want to talk about climate change and coastal erosion—and why, because of this remote lifestyle, they don’t have to until they have to.

When I finally stood and brushed off the sand, I stared out at the ocean and up the shoreline. As I drove out of town, I stopped fully at all four unnecessary stop signs along the road, though no other cars were in sight. I’m not sure if I’ll ever step foot on Holly Beach again, or if it will even exist by the end of my lifetime. I wanted to soak all of it up, just in case.

Stories worth your time

A few weeks ago, the media got a kick out of a story about a “poop train” carrying treated sewage from New York and New Jersey that was stalled in northern Alabama. I wrote an in-depth piece for Scalawag Magazine on how lax state environmental regulations and discriminatory policies have led to the rural South becoming America’s literal dumping ground. “Quality of life has got to mean something,” one small town mayor told me. “This is happening all over the country. If there was any kind of regulation or oversight, this much material wouldn’t have landed in a small town.”

Ohio Valley Resource reports on how a West Virginia pastor and his small community have been building solar light kits to send to Puerto Rico. President Trump’s solar tariffs are complicating the business model, making some components less economical.

When I was camping this weekend in Holly Beach, the only lights I could find were oil rigs off the coast. They were incredibly bright. The Revelator mapped light pollution across the country, including oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico that are as bright as Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts.

Last month, Elizabeth Shogren wrote for Reveal about a draft National Park Service report on sea level rise and storm surge that censored mentions of human-caused climate change. The final report, which aims to help coastal parks and monuments prepare for sea level rise, was finally released, uncensored.

News flying under the radar

Carolina Water Service in South Carolina plans to raise water and sewer rates on up to 28,000 customers to cover the costs of its legal expenses from defending a lawsuit over its pollution of the Saluda River.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) are lobbying to allow offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico if the U.S. military and federal government sign off—but their plan hinges on Florida lawmakers backing down their opposition against offshore drilling. An offshore drilling ban was just shot down by Florida House Republicans.

Two conservation groups compiled data on the risks oil spills pose to national parks and monuments. There are 68 at risk in the U.S.—23 of those in the Southeast.

Studies confirm a surge in black lung disease in Appalachia, including a 30 percent year after year increase in West Virginia and 16 percent in Kentucky and Virginia.