Cancer alley residents are fighting for a sustainable future

Nketiah Berko, Views Editor

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Amidst the industrial smog clouding the River Parishes, the residents of Cancer Alley insist upon being heard. We owe them our attention.

Last Tuesday, Newcomb Art Museum hosted a free screening of “Women of Cancer Alley,” a series of films made by women residing along the eponymous corridor along the Mississippi River in south Louisiana. For years, the region, also known as Death Alley, has been the site of dozens of petrochemical plants emitting toxic chemicals, some of which have been designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as “likely carcinogens.” 

By launching a two-week march between New Orleans and Baton Rouge on Oct. 15, the residents of Cancer Alley are protesting both toxic waste and the political and economic disenfranchisement underlying this environmental injustice. The protestors and their demands deserve the support of every Louisianan.

Since 1968, factories like the Pontchartrain Works facility in Reserve have emitted chemicals such as chloroprene into the atmosphere of communities along the southern banks of the Mississippi. Likewise, locals have recognized the region’s toxicity for decades. In 1988, for instance, residents and Greenpeace activists hung a banner from Baton Rouge’s Interstate 10 Bridge saying “Cancer Alley, La., brought to you by Dow,” referring to Dow Chemical.  

Despite this awareness, industrial pollution continues to plague Cancer Alley. Since 2009, toxic chemical pollution has increased. In 2015, the EPA found that the census tract next to the Reserve plant experiences a cancer risk 50 times that of the national average. Moreover, the plant, currently owned by Japanese manufacturer Denka, has at times emitted up to 755 times the EPA’s guideline for chlorophene emission levels. 

The pattern of pollution in the region, however, is far from random. 

Instead, African-American neighborhoods are overwhelmingly saddled with the toxic industrial waste. St. James Parish’s Fifth District, which is nearly 90% black, houses 12 petrochemical plants. 

Moreover, the Fourth and Fifth Districts receive little of the economic windfall reaped by these plants the Fifth District’s total recreation budget, for instance, is one-sixth of the First District’s allotted budget for ball field improvement.

Instead, its residents have been forced to watch as their schools have closed, post offices have been shuttered and loved ones have died. Much like before these plants were built, on land that previously bore sugarcane instead of chlorophene, black Americans are expected to bear the costs of economic “prosperity” while sharing in none of the profits. 

Refusing to cower in the face of such overwhelming obstacles, however, the residents of Cancer Alley have mobilized to reclaim their communities. Sharon Lavigne, a St. James resident, founded RISE St. James last year to block the construction of two industrial plants in the Fourth and Fifth Districts by Wanhua Chemical Group and Formosa Petrochemical respectively. 

This September, facing local opposition, Wanhua withdrew its approved application to build a plant in Convent. Though construction for the Formosa plant is still planned, St. James residents remain mobilized in opposition.

The petrochemical industry nonetheless continues to hold significant economic power in Louisiana. 

Louisiana is the country’s second largest petrochemical producer, and the EPA reported in 2011 that the state had the lowest levels of environmental regulation enforcement in its region. Some state officials have even cast doubt on the health risks reported by the EPA and experienced by citizens. 

For instance, data from the LSU Tumor Registry does not suggest above-average rates of cancer. This data, however, does not track rates of cancer by zip codes, an egregious oversight when much of the pollution is concentrated in specific districts.

With these latest protests, however, the residents of Cancer Alley are reasserting their right to exist. Protestors, a few weeks before the Louisiana gubernatorial runoff, have a list of demands which includes a moratorium on petrochemical plant construction in the River Parishes, an end to the Industrial Tax Exemption Program and the coverage of residents’ health care costs resulting from pollution exposure.

These demands are not only reasonable — they are an economic and moral obligation that both the state and local governments owe to its citizens. Clean water, clean air and clean lungs should not be privileges reserved only for specific zip codes. 

Moreover, families who have lived on this land for decades deserve to live in dignity, not be forced out of dying neighborhoods, all while facing plummeting property prices.

The women featured in “Women of Cancer Alley” can attest to the human costs of unbridled corporate greed and political apathy. Eve Butler’s skin has peeled when it rains, and the bountiful gardens of her youth no longer grow. 

Ariel Williams, pleading with us to care, ruefully speaks of having to tell her young son not to go outside for fear of getting sick. We owe it to these women, and too many others in the River Parishes, to care. 

Visit https://www.enddeathalley.org/ to get involved with the Coalition Against Death Alley.