Inside Louisiana's horrifying 'Cancer Alley,' an 85-mile stretch of pollution and environmental racism
- "Cancer Alley" is an 85 mile-long stretch of the Mississippi river lined with oil refineries and petrochemical plants, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
- People living in the area are more than 50 times as likely to get cancer than the average American.
- For years, residents have suffered from illnesses, but they've been unable to prove a causal connection between industry and the health effects.
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Surrounded by smokestacks, 'Cancer Alley' is one of the most polluted places in America.
Here, people don't need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows. According to ProPublica, they see cancer everywhere.
Its called 'Cancer Alley,' because of the high number of people living with cancer in the alley, which runs for about 85 miles along the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. It's made up of a dense concentration of oil refineries and petrochemical plants that run alongside suburbs and vulnerable communities.
Rolling Stone called it the "frontline of environmental racism."
But while residents think the industry is responsible for health problems, it's hard to prove a causal link. As environmental reporter Sharon Lerner wrote for The New York Times, "Even when there is severe suffering and a seemingly obvious culprit, it's often impossible to pin blame on any single cause."
LaPlace resident Geraldine Watkins described the problem to CNN in 2017, when she said, "Industry is wonderful to have, but if it's killing the people in the area that they live in, what good is industry?"
Here's what Cancer Alley is like.
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Entering Louisiana's 'Cancer Alley,' an industrial, polluted stretch of land between train tracks and a twisting river, might not be good for your health.
Unlike the black soot that used to linger in mining towns, here, the pollution registers quietly. It's in the oily taste of the water, on the blackened leaves of fruit trees, and in the acrid odor in the air, according to the Washington Post.
To get an idea of the toxicity, people living in Reserve, Louisiana, are 50 times more likely to get cancer than an average American.
People's lifetime risk of cancer in St. John the Baptist, which is about 2 square miles, is 800 times higher than an average American, according to the EPA's most recent air pollution report in 2015.
In total, about 150 facilities line the alley. It's the second-biggest producer of petrochemicals in the country, after Texas. But the key difference is that Texas' industry is spread out over hundreds of miles.
Locals live in the plants' shadows. Many see smokestacks from their windows. Others struggle to hear cicadas over the hum of machinery. Pollution wafts into houses, smelling "pungent and rotten," like "singed plastic" or "poison, according to The Intercept.
People in St. Gabriel, one of the towns, no longer sit outside in the evenings, since chemicals released at night sometimes fall like yellow raindrops or "golden mist."
Rolling Stone called it the frontline of "environmental racism," a term first used in the 1980s that refers to segregation around who gets exposed to contaminated elements.
Towns and cities, like St. James, Reserve, Burton Lane, Freetown, St. Gabriel, and Bayou Goula, are surrounded by petrochemical companies.
The industrial alley's pollution is a long-term problem and concerns three groups.
One group includes the communities that live in the smokestacks' shadow.
Sharon Lavigne, founder of protest group "Rise St. James," who recently changed its name to Coalition Against Death Alley, told Rolling Stone that locals can do one of three things: get sick, move away, or die.
Another resident and protester is Robert Taylor. He has lived in the alley his whole life. He's lost his mother, brother, sister, nephew, and several neighbors to cancer. His wife is currently fighting cancer, and his daughter has a rare disease that's linked to chloroprene.
Reverend Dr. William J. Barber has been helping the communities fight pollution. He told Rolling Stone that the land that once held people captive as slaves now holds them captive through pollution.
"It is killing people by over-polluting them with toxins in their water and in their air," he said. "This is slavery of another kind.
The second group is petrochemical companies, like Shell, Koch, Denka, and ExxonMobil. The industry has been a fixture in the area since the end of World War II, when America began to demand synthetic materials.
Chemical plants replaced sugar plantations. Originally, they clustered around Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but they soon began to spread out along the river. They were attracted to the area's cheap land and easy river access.
The companies were also looking for places with low populations. Craig Colten, a Louisiana State University geography professor told ProPublica, the black American communities they surrounded were effectively invisible.
Even the dead aren't left alone. Bishop cemetery, which holds the bodies of slaves and descendants from a nearby plantation, is within the grounds of the Marathon Petroleum Company.
Finally, there are the governing bodies. One of the reasons for the industrial boom is that Louisiana has had a tax exemption scheme, called the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, since the 1930s.
Since the 1960s, when petrochemical plants like Dow Chemical began to open, locals noticed signs of pollution, including the loss of lightning bugs.
In the 1970s, the area became known as America's Ruhr, because it produced 60% of America's nitrogen fertilizers and vinyl chloride, and a quarter of America's chlorine.
In 1976, as Coast Guard divers tried to collect sediment samples from the Mississippi river, their hands were covered in second-degree burns.
In 1981, 30 grazing cows died overnight grazing near Geismer, a predominantly black town next to St. Gabriel. This caused people to start worrying about the pollution.
In 1986, a woman in Plaquemine was knocked off her ride-on lawnmower when Dow Chemical plant released a cloud of chlorine. She told The Washington Post, "I respect chlorine just like I respect a gun."
That same year a sign was erected on the side of the road, with the question, "Bhopal on the Bayou?" This was referring to a disaster at a pesticide plant in India that killed 2,000 people when a toxic gas escaped.
In 1989, the Los Angeles Times reported that, over three years, women in St. Gabriel had 75 miscarriages. It was a one-in-three ratio. The findings were contested by chemical companies.
By the beginning of the 1990s, there were signs, but no hard evidence. Taylor told WBUR News that while people suspected the emissions were making people ill, taking on these companies was too much. They felt powerless.
The contrast in power between petrochemical companies and locals is stark. Residents of St. John earn on average $17,000. Whilst the chemical sector generates $80 billion for Louisiana every year.
One example of a harmful chemical is chloroprene, a colorless gas. For 47 years, DuPont produced it. Chloroprene is used as a base for neoprene. Neoprene is used to make wetsuits, gaskets, and hoses.
The invisible gas induces headaches, rashes, and heart palpitations, weakens immune systems, and causes stomach and kidney problems. But no one could definitively say how dangerous chloroprene was.
...even though The Guardian found a 1956 DuPont technical manual that described the dangers of chloroprene.
The Guardian also reported that Dupont experimented with chloroprene on rats in 1971, and three out of 10 died from exposure.
Still, no correlation between the emissions and locals' health was established. The state was strapped for resources, and couldn't afford to research it. There wasn't even enough money to properly monitor the chemical plants.
In the early 2000s, New Sarpy, another town in the alley, was in the media. New Sarpy was bordered by Orion Refining Corp, which burned off about 772 tons of sulfur dioxide between 1999 and 2001.
Residents felt the effects of the pollution. Resident Dorothy Jenkins' oranges turned black in her backyard. She said it was so bad she sometimes had to put her head in the fridge to breathe.
In 2001, Orion had a big fire, prompting locals to visit former Sen. John B. Breaux for his help. But he had different priorities, and had one of his staff take the meeting.
In 2001, Orion hired his son John Breaux Jr. as a lobbyist. By 2003, the senator's son had been paid at least $120,000. The sign says "land sharks" because Orion was gradually expanding closer and closer to the town.
The EPA did investigate Orion for failing to comply with air pollution requirements when upgrading plants. But its investigation was weakened when Breaux pushed for former President George W. Bush's administration to take it easy on air pollution rules for chemical plants.
Louisiana's air pollution regulations didn't help. Unlike Texas, the state doesn't measure air pollution in areas near polluters, only in the air around plants.
Some pollution measurements have improved. The EPA requires plants that are emitting over a certain threshold to report it. Unlike the national trend, which was a 16% decrease over the last 30 years, plants in Cancer Alley reported toxic releases grew by 25% in that time.
On the health side of things, researcher Wilma Subra told The Nation it was difficult to demonstrate increased cancer rates because the tumor registry used to only report data on parish levels. This made it impossible to measure differences within parishes.
What worries locals is that the chemical industry continues to grow. Since 2015, seven new petrochemical facilities have been approved, which the EPA said would be "major sources," of air pollution. Another five await approval.
In December 2015, The EPA released a report on toxic air. It showed that the 10,000 residents were at a much higher risk of harm from the pollution.
Despite the findings, nothing changed.
Examples of pollution continue. In November 2017, Fifth Ward elementary school, which had 400 students, had Chloroprene levels 755 times above EPA guidelines.
In 2018, Governor John Bel Edwards announced Formosa Plastics planned on opening a $9.4 billion industrial factory, with 14 plants across 2,300 acres in St. James Parish. The plant would create plastic bottles and grocery bags and would double toxic emissions in the area.
Across the river, Wanhua Chemical Group plans to build a $1.25 billion plant over 250 acres to produce a plastic that's used to make polyurethane foam, for furniture and beds.
In 2019, Hampton and Taylor visited their Congressman Cedric Richmond for his help. He's the only Democrat in Congress from Louisiana. Richmond spoke with them for two minutes. He acknowledged their concerns, urged them to vote against President Donald Trump, and suggested they write a letter to the chemical plant.
As for Chloroprene, in 2019, EPA regional director David Gray told citizens that he thought it was unlikely the EPA would ever set a legally enforceable standard for chloroprene.
In August 2019, the Louisiana health officials announced it would conduct a door-to-door inquiry into how many people had developed cancer. This could help with health records, but it is a small victory.
As recently as June, the risk of cancer in the area was up to 1,505 cancer cases per million people, nearly 50 times the national average. Lavigne told Rolling Stone, "We are boxed in from all sides by plants, tank farms, and noisy railroad tracks. We live in constant fear."
The countless smokestacks and the continuing struggle to be heard makes locals question whether it's worth fighting, or time to up and leave. Like Lavigne said, it is one of only three options.
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