I’ve written a lot over the last decade about Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” the stretch along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge down past New Orleans that’s practically wall-to-wall with the bright red flares and shiny steel tangled guts of chemical plants and oil refineries that exploit the rich natural resources of my native state.
The non-stop pollution of the air and water that led to the well-deserved Cancer Alley nickname has been the result of a power dynamic that is all too familiar for anyone who knows about the Deep South. The residents of these old river towns are mostly black and struggling to make a middle-class living in tiny houses on dusty streets. The plant owners are wealthy and — thanks to their ability to make big campaign contributions or hire fancy lobbyists — have the ability to buy political influence that poor folks simply don’t have.
Over the last few years, a lot of work has gone into changing this age-old story. True leaders like Gen. Russel Honore, the Louisianan who is nationally renowned for his yeoman’s work after Hurricane Katrina, have worked hard to raise awareness about environmentalism and to organize regular folks. Groups like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade have tried to change the mentality that’s ruled this region for so long – to bring back the quaint notion that in a democracy true power rests with the people.
This year, we’ve seen that organizing start to bear real fruit. I’ve told you how residents of a tiny town called Reserve — rated by a division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the most polluted town in America, with the high rates of cancer that come with it — have rallied and even traveled to Tokyo to try to shut down the Japanese-owned Denka factory. And state officials are starting to listen.
Now, residents of St. James Parish in the heart of Cancer Alley have persuaded officials to put on hold — and possibly kill for good — a plan to open yet another petrochemical facility, this time a $1.25 billion facility backed by a Chinese-owned concern called Wanhua Chemical that wants to pump another 300 tons of toxic chemicals into the air.
Activists persuaded the St. James Parish Council to send the project back to the planning board — which had initially approved the new facility — after learning that the owners are seeking to make its location a so-called ”free trade zone,” which would mean that the tax revenue that the planning board had cited as a reason to tolerate the pollution wouldn’t even be realized.
Among the air pollutants slated to be released from the Wanhua Plant would be 1,700 pounds of phosgene — a colorless gas used in chemical warfare during World War I. The 250-acre site — if ever built– would manufacture a key component of polyurethane foam that is used in automobiles and furniture.
“Look at what is coming into the Parish, instead of saying ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’ — it is time to say ‘No,’” Pastor Harry Joseph told the parish council meeting last month, as he joined with other civil rights and environmental activists in urging that Louisiana officials start rating pollution and the health of residents over solely economic concerns.
In addition to the ecological concerns about the massive plastics plant, opponents — including Kimberly Terrell, director of community outreach at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic — noted that Wanhua Chemical hasn’t been up front with Louisiana officials about the firm’s Chinese ownership, including its direct ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. But political concerns aren’t as pressing as the prospect of more dirty air in Cancer Alley.
The small town of 700 or so people — Convent, Louisiana — where the Wanhua plant would be located is only about 22 miles up the Mississippi from Reserve, the locality where the Denka factory has been manufacturing a synthetic rubber called neoprene under various owners since 1968. The primary ingredient in its manufacturing process — chloroprene — is highly toxic and has been identified by the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection as a carcinogen.
The people of Reserve — like Convent, a mostly black, largely underprivileged community — grew familiar with the foul odors coming from the Denka plant but didn’t realize the health risks….at first. The science of cancer clusters can be controversial but today there’s evidence that cancer rates in Reserve — dubbed “Cancer Town” by the British publication The Guardian — are as much as 30 times higher than normal.
The people of Convent have no desire to become the next “Cancer Town” in the United States. That’s not very surprising, but what is unusual is that the politicians who tend to be wowed by the jobs and the big money are starting to listen to their constituents for a change. An engaged citizenry may be the first step toward finally taking the “cancer” out of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley.