Cancer Alley Essay

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The land known to the Louisiana environmental justice movement as Cancer Alley follows the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Otherwise known as the chemical corridor, this area is home to facilities producing gasoline, fertilizers, plastics, and numerous other petrochemical products.

This high ground along the river was settled by Europeans who, with slave labor, created sugar cane plantations. After emancipation, many freed men remained in the region but sought to establish independent African-American towns in the interstices between plantation properties. These “freetowns” dotted the landscape of parishes along the river.

The discovery of petroleum in Louisiana in 1901 led eight years later to the building of the massive Standard Oil refinery in Baton Rouge. New oil fields were opened up in and around the Gulf of Mexico from the 1930s and on. Combined with convenient access to the ocean, abundant fresh water from the Mississippi and nearby deposits of other feedstock materials like sulfur and salt, Louisiana was well-suited for the emerging chemical industry. A compliant state government that imposed little in the way of taxes or regulations and the availability of large tracts of undivided land on the river-the plantations made for an even better location for rapid industrialization.

The chemical plant boom started in the early 1960s, as plantation owners sold out to industries and towns and villages found themselves the neighbors of, and sometimes almost surrounded by, the new facilities. Local residents received few jobs from the new industries, which were highly capital-intensive and have only become more automated over time. Since locals owned homes and land even though most saw few benefits from industrialization they stayed where they were. This brought about an increasingly strained relationship between people living on the fencelines of those industries.

The modern industrial corridor has grown to 156 facilities and generates one-sixteenth of the entire toxic emissions of the United States. In 1988, one-third of the nation’s underground injections of hazardous waste were in Louisiana. In 1991, Louisiana generated 16,280 pounds of toxic pollution per chemical industry job, compared with Texas at 8,997 and New Jersey at 1,084. Because of Louisiana’s industrial tax exemption, the most expansive of any in the country, local school boards lost an estimated $129 million statewide in 1995.

The environmental justice movement in Louisiana cannot be separated from the Civil Rights movement. African Americans, who organized in the 1960s to get access to education, voting rights, employment in industry, became the backbone of environmental justice in the 1980s. Driven by personal experiences of strange smells and gas clouds drifting through their neighborhoods, explosions and chemical leaks that left people to close their doors and windows and hope for the best, and illnesses and deaths of family and friends, a number of local environmental justice fights began at this time.

These local campaigns came out of places like the community of Alsen, just north of Baton Rouge. Surrounded by industrial zoned property, Alsen’s neighbors include a disposal facility and injection wells for hazardous waste and several chemical plants. Residents of Alsen and other communities have been able to stop expansions of some facilities and link up to statewide and national organizations to conduct actions like the Great Louisiana Toxics March in 1988. In the mid-1990s, the Shintech Corporation attempted to build a polyvinyl chloride plant in St. James parish. The accumulated experience and infrastructure of the Louisiana environmental justice movement helped these campaigns to win victories such as Shintech’s decision not to locate in St. James, and the relocation of the community of Diamond-sandwiched between a chemical plant, an oil refinery, train tracks full of carloads of chemicals, and the Mississippi River.

Disposing of the debris left by Hurricane Katrina poses difficult questions for Louisiana. The Agriculture Street landfill in New Orleans was used to dump debris from Hurricane Betsy in 1965; the mostly African-American neighborhood that was built on top of it subsequently became a Superfund site, and a still-unresolved cleanup or relocation. Progress toward environmental justice in Cancer Alley has come slowly and at great cost to those who have suffered for industrial development.

Bibliography:

  1. Barbara Allen, Uneasy Allies: Citizens and Experts in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor Disputes (The MIT Press, 2003);
  2. Lerner, Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor (The MIT Press, 2005);
  3. Roberts and M. Toffolon-Weiss, Dispatches from the Environmental Justice Frontline (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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