Cancer Alley: Big Industry & Bigger Illness Along Mississippi River
Image: Global Justice Game
There's a region in Louisiana known as cancer alley (or chemical corridor, take your pick). You can guess why. Cancer claims victims at an alarming rate along the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where more than 140 industrial plants spew pollution into the air and water.
Where is Cancer Alley?
Set in the middle is St. James Parish (Louisiana's counties are called parishes), considered by the Environmental Defense Fund to be one of America's 25 most polluted counties. Louisiana had the second-highest death rate from cancer in the U.S. in 2002; it had also been ranked second in the U.S. by the EPA for total onsite releases of chemicals and pollutants. Pat Melancon, a local activist, told Bill Moyers last year:
We've got just about every kind of chemical plant that you can imagine here. Most of these chemicals are either known cancer-causing chemicals or they're suspected to cause cancer in humans.
Right now, I have a father-in-law that's dying of pancreatic cancer. I lost my mother at 57 from cancer. My neighbor died of cancer. The next-door neighbor to us, my aunt behind us, all died of cancer.
Another local activist, as featured in a Sierra Club newsletter:
The reason is our refineries are our parish's largest private employer. It's not easy for our friends and family to talk about our cancer... I do not believe that citizens have to file suit with oil refineries to get clean air in our parish. I paid my taxes and expect DEQ to clean up this mess so I can begin to enjoy my family and retirement.
Can Cancer Alley See Environmental Justice?
Like other cases of environmental justice, it's no accident that the population in cancer alley is primarily minority and low-income. The alarming cancer rates are most often associated to all the industrial and petrochemical plants nearby, although Shell Oil has commissioned studies seeking to prove the cancer rate isn't actually higher in cancer alley.
But many don't buy it. This from pollutionissues.com:
Industrial accidents and accidental releases are common occurrences in cancer alley. For instance, in 1994 Condea Vista (Conoco) located in Lake Charles reported thirty-nine chemical accidents that released 129,500 pounds of chemicals. The following year, Condea Vista reported ninety accidental chemical releases. In 1997 the company was charged with contaminating local groundwater supplies by discharging between 19 to 47 million pounds of ethylene dichloride (EDC), a suspected human carcinogen, into a local stream. In 1999 hundreds of unskilled laborers filed suit against Condea Vista, claiming they were exposed to EDC while cleaning up a spill from a leaking underground pipeline.
Here's Brett Rogers, a documentary filmmaker talking about a boat trip he took first up to Alaska, where communities are fighting to preserve the environment, and then down the Mississippi River, where he is confronted with the realities of what the people in Alaska are trying to prevent. He describes waking up with headaches from sleeping under the smokestacks of cancer alley, and seeing a dead pelican hanging from a tree:
Yet despite the continued health problems and persistent environmental contamination, the North Carolina-based Nucor Corporation was just granted the air permit it needs to open yet another plant in the area, an iron and steelmaking complex.
"We do need jobs in Louisiana, and no one is going to negate that," said Jordan Macha, a field organizer for the Sierra Club. "But we need to take into consideration, at what cost? These residents here bared the brunt of these agencies moving into this area. It's been known since the '80s as 'cancer alley.'"...
Neighbors say their biggest concern is a proposed "pig iron" plant in the later phases of Nucor's project. The Sierra Club believes the plant would bring toxic carcinogens to the area.
Focusing on Solutions
This isn't to suggest no one is doing anything about the problems in cancer alley—groups like Advocates for Environmental Human Rights have been fighting, working to prove and publicize the link between pollution in the region and human health, and defending the rights of residents in the area for years. Last year, the organization convinced the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States to admit a complaint of human rights violations and lack of racial equality for the people of Mossville, marking the commission's first environmental racism case in the U.S.
The battle is a long one, but the people fighting it aren't giving up anytime soon.
More on cancer alley
The Importance of Environmental Justice
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Jerome Ringo: A New Face for a New Environmentalism?
TED Talk: Van Jones Links Plastics Pollution with Poverty