Inside Cancer Alley and the Grim History of Environmental Racism That’s Killing Black Americans
An otherwise unassuming 85-mile stretch of land extending from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, Louisiana, the aptly named Cancer Alley’s grey, toxin-laced skies are reminiscent of a dystopia. Residents of St. John the Baptist Parish, located in the heart of the area, are 50 times more likely to contract cancer in their lifetimes than the average American. In fact, the strip contains seven of the 10 census tracts with the highest cancer risk in the U.S., and those who live in the region have suffered one of the most abysmal per-capita COVID-19 death rates nationwide.
Cancer Alley’s astonishingly high levels of pollution are a product of the oil refineries and petrochemical plants that line the Mississippi River. Also dubbed the “national sacrifice zone,” Cancer Alley is the site of one-fifth of all U.S. petrochemical production. Some residents have as many as 15 plants within a three-mile radius of their doorstep, forced to hose chemical releases off their lawns.
The construction of new facilities hasn’t ended. Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa Plastics plans to erect a $9.4 billion plant in St. James Parish that would emit devastating amounts of a leukemia-linked carcinogen — just minutes from the local public school. Formosa was even a not-so-honorable recipient of the 2009 Black Planet Award, a distinction conferred upon the corporations wreaking the most ecological havoc globally. In the past, optimistic locals saw a potential silver lining: the plants might reinvigorate job growth and aid unemployed Louisianans. These empty promises arrive with every new plant, but hopes are always tempered quickly. In the city of St. Gabriel, local residents hold less than one in 10 full-time industry jobs, barred from accessing economic opportunity while bearing the brunt of the deadly pollution that commuting workers create and profit off of.
With almost surgical precision, Cancer Alley’s industrial pollution targets the Black and low-income communities near which the plants are predominantly situated. The neighborhood surrounding the Denka plant in St. John the Baptist Parish, for example, is 92% Black. And the forthcoming Formosa plant? To make matters worse, it’s being built by bulldozing over historic gravesites for enslaved people on the grounds of a former sugarcane plantation where, just earlier this year, Formosa attempted to block a Juneteenth prayer service.
Those horrors are embedded in a centuries-long legacy of institutional discrimination that has made one thing crystal clear: Cancer Alley is no coincidence. The stark racial disparities in the COVID-19 death toll are just one consequence of environmental racism, a phenomenon rooted in the perceived expendability of Black lives that has put communities of color on the front lines of both public health crises and climate change.
Kay Gaudet, a pharmacist from St. Gabriel, Louisiana, notices a trend so disturbing that she begins to track it: the women in her village endure miscarriage after miscarriage, and yet no one talks about it. She begins to ask around and collect data, notepad in hand — the list of women’s names only grows longer. Tammy from church and Irma from down the street say that they’ve experienced the same, so Kay scribbles their names down. Fumes drifting from the nearby plant, she coughs and furrows her eyebrows. “What could it be?”
Particulate matter, or PM2.5, is a widely-studied carcinogen that constitutes the most pressing environmental health risk faced by Americans. It’s roughly defined as any amalgamation of dangerous air suspensions, from dust to soot, that can penetrate someone’s lungs and bloodstream. Louisiana isn’t the only state where racial segregation is correlated with the distribution of PM2.5 pollution. In Michigan — home to the majority-Black city of Flint, whose water contamination crisis made national headlines — 2007 data shows that people of color comprised 66% of the populations of neighborhoods containing hazardous waste facilities, but only 19% of the population statewide. 40 of the 44 states with such facilities reported worrisome racial disparities.
Race is more predictive of where industrial polluters will be located than poverty. Nationwide, Black people are exposed to 56% more PM2.5 pollution than they create, while white people are exposed to 17% less. Beyond serving as quantitative measures of inequity, these statistics encapsulate the suffering of millions of Black people who have lost friends and family to asthma, cancer, COVID-19, and more. In spite of that trauma, they’re denied a seat at the table where the environmental decisions that disproportionately harm their own communities are made. From the petrochemical plants in St. Gabriel, Louisiana to the oil refinery that encircles a heavily Black part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, local voices are systematically silenced even as their diagnoses and deaths line corporate pockets.
It’s September 1982, and the people of Warren County, North Carolina are waging war against the state legislature for attempting to dump soil contaminated with chemicals that cause birth defects and cancer in a local landfill. Warren County is 65% Black. Governor Jim Hunt is unrelenting and insists that “public sentiment” will be no roadblock. The community mobilizes in opposition to the project; civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis and Congressman Walter Fauntroy are arrested at the demonstrations, among over 500 others. The soil is dumped anyway, but this signifies a watershed moment for the cause of environmental justice. Over two decades later, the soil is finally decontaminated.
Digging deeper for the roots of the problem reveals a sinister history that may explain how so many industrial polluters ended up in poor, Black neighborhoods. In 1984, the California Waste Management Board hired Cerrell Associates, a consulting firm, to guide its placement of trash incinerators. “All socioeconomic groupings tend to resent the nearby siting of major facilities, but the middle- and upper-socioeconomic strata possess better resources to effectuate their opposition. Middle- and higher-socioeconomic strata neighborhoods should not fall at least within the one-mile and five-mile radii of the proposed site,” the firm subsequently advised in a report. That amounts to a chilling, nearly explicit directive to target disempowered communities short on political capital for the stationing of noxious waste dumps. The same line of reasoning is used to rubber stamp siting decisions today.
Redlining, a post-Reconstruction practice outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and whose impacts now shape the demographic distribution of major U.S. cities, is also to blame. Discriminatory lending practices and exclusionary zoning forced Black families into neighborhoods marked “Hazardous” and thereby undesirable to white residents — or in other words, forced them near the highways, plants, and landfills that many are still surrounded by generations later, predisposing them to pollution-related illnesses. People who live in historically redlined areas in California are more than twice as likely to visit the emergency room due to asthma. Across the country, those districts are about 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than non-redlined districts, and sometimes up to 20 degrees hotter in the summer.
Marsha Jackson sniffs and looks up above her. She clutches her 12-year-old granddaughter’s hand as they stand in their backyard. Over the fence, they see what seems like the Everest of toxic waste, Shingle Mountain, right in the middle of South Dallas. “It’s up in my throat,” the little girl cries out. Marsha sighs, returning her gaze to the stockpiled trash. She hasn’t been able to get City Council’s attention. “Somebody’s gotta do something about this,” she mutters.
A 2007 research report compiled by environmental policy experts found that, in some respects, things haven’t been getting better; on top of previously existing problems, “government cutbacks in enforcement, weakening health protection, and the dismantling of the environmental justice regulatory apparatus” have created more. In just one four-year term, the Trump administration has rolled back the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, repealed the Clean Power Plan, amended the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, and even went as far as to delete mentions of climate change from Environmental Protection Agency websites. The ills of deregulation hit Black people the hardest and set back progress made under previous administrations.
With so many pivotal policies scrapped, it’s important to address the additional challenge of unequal enforcement of existing federal law. An eight-month study of penalties doled out for violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act found that fines in white areas were over 5 times higher than fines in areas with a larger Black population. “Lower average penalties for minority communities were also found in federal enforcement cases under the Clean Water Act (28% less), Clean Air Act (8% less) and Safe Drinking Water Act (15% less), and in cases enforcing violations of multiple statutes (306% less),” the study continues.
President-elect Biden has pledged to establish an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the U.S. Department of Justice, develop a “data-driven Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool,” and pilot a community hazard notification program. Racial inequity should be factored into all future climate policy action, and discrepant enforcement procedures require aggressive investigation.
An analysis of 2,057 environmental non-profits found that 80% of their staff members were white. As we applaud climate strikes inspired by the likes of Greta Thunberg, we must also elevate the work of Black environmentalists.
It was Black students, later maligned as radicals, who took to the streets of Houston in 1967 to protest a trash incinerator that had taken the life of an 11-year-old child.
It was Margie Eugene-Richard, a Black activist raised in a city in Cancer Alley where over a third of children have asthma or bronchitis, who audaciously stood up for her people. She was awarded the 2004 Goldman Prize after she pressured Shell Chemicals to cut its toxic emissions by 30%, donate $5 million to a community development fund, and offer financial support to people in her neighborhood so they could move to a less polluted area.
And it was Dr. Robert Bullard, now recognized as the father of the environmental justice movement, who spent decades researching the relationship between racial segregation and pollution risk. His testimony motivated a court ruling in favor of a local activist group in the Citizens Against Nuclear Trash v. Louisiana Energy Services case, which arose after the proposed construction of a uranium enrichment plant in a 97% Black locality spurred allegations of racial discrimination in the siting process.
Whether the words “I can’t breathe” are uttered as a final plea when a police officer has his knee on an unarmed man’s neck or when a teenager with asthma laments his town’s fatal air quality levels from a hospital bed, racism kills. Injustice is hardwired into every institution and facet of life, and the juggernaut of environmental oppression is no exception. As we chart the course of climate policy and COVID-19 vaccine distribution, we cannot afford to leave our most vulnerable behind. We owe it to Kay Gaudet, Benjamin Chavis, Walter Fauntroy, Marsha Jackson, Margie Eugene-Richard, and Robert Bullard. We owe it to the heartbroken expectant mothers in rural Louisiana and the children from South Dallas who choke up when they speak because of the waste mountain sitting mere feet from their backyard. We owe it to the students of Houston who, in 1967, first sowed the seeds of justice, and to those who watered the sprouting plant as they marched in Warren County. We must see to it that their transformative visions for an all-encompassing ecosystem of happiness and healing are realized — and we have no time to waste.
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