In Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley,’ inaction makes a sick town even sicker


Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” is America’s worst-kept secret. I know this because I’ve been writing about the state’s perilous and often unsightly stretch of chemical plants, oil refineries and other industrial plants ever since I started this blog nearly a decade ago, aiming to call attention to a major public health hazard in our midst.

My native state has one of the nation’s highest rates of cancer, and it’s hard to not believe that that the air and water pollution from having so many of these facilities concentrated between Baton Rouge and New Orleans isn’t a big part of that. Many of the neighborhoods surrounding these dangerous plants are poor, and many of the closest residents are black.

Three years ago, I wrote a post about a particularly egregious situation in a Mississippi River town called St. John the Baptist, which exists — or tries to, anyway — in the shadow of a chemical plant once owned by the conglomerate DuPont and recently bought by Japanese-based Denka. Citizens there have been exposed for roughly five decades to pollution from a facility that uses a highly toxic chemical called chloroprene, used to manufacture wetsuits and other sports gear.

In 2015, investigators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived in St. John the Baptist and found that the cancer risk for residents was 826 per million, a ridiculously high rate that, according to the government, was the worst of any locality in America. Residents demanded action — and normally this is the part of the story where regulators from Washington or Baton Rouge step in to close the plant or impose rigid pollution controls.

But nothing of the sort happened in a town called St. John the Baptist.

Three years ago, neither the outgoing administration of then-President Barack Obama not the Louisiana government was in any hurry to take action, instead relying on the empty promises from Denka that it would install state-of-the-art pollution controls.

Instead, writer Sharon Lerner recently visited St. John the Baptist for an article in the New York Times, and found that things in the town with America’s worst pollution crisis have only gotten worse in the two-and-a-half years since Donald Trump became president. She wrote about what happened in the period immediately after an EPA division called the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, uncovered the cancer problem.

“Of course, the news that they had been breathing toxic air for decades infuriated the people of St. John,” Lerner wrote in the Times. “But it also served as a cry for help. Surely once a federal agency pinpointed their problem, someone would have to fix it. But as the people of St. John soon learned, though lawmakers can use the risk levels from IRIS to legally limit chemicals, set levels at federal cleanup sites or shutter factories that emit them, they don’t have to do any of those things. And so far, in St. John, no one has.”

Even worse, Lerner notes that a much more affluent town in Illinois was also identified by the EPA’s IRIS unit as having a much higher than average cancer rate, but in that instance residents were able to pressure the state government to do something and close the offending plant down. In the matter of St. John the Baptist, where most of the citizens are economically disadvantaged, the government’s silence is deafening.

She writes that Denka had promised in 2014 to reduce pollution from its plant by 15 percent over three years — a fairly modest goal — but just now has it conceded to state regulators that it didn’t even achieve that. Rather than fix the problem, Denka — and the nation’s chemical lobby — have instead expended years of energy on trying to soften EPA’s safety regs on chloroprene.

Only now, in 2019, is Louisiana weighing a lawsuit to require action. Trump’s EPA — which has spent 29 months consistently siding with Big Business and downplaying any health threats from any type of pollution — is nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, during this long period of inaction, something not surprising has occurred. The residents of St. John the Baptist have grown sicker and sicker.

The government’s 2018 National Air Toxics Report found that the cancer risk in the tiny town has skyrocketed to 1,505 cancers per million people, or a whopping 50 times the national average. Residents have complained of immune disorders, respiratory distress, headaches, heart troubles and, of course, cancer. The writer Lerner, who first visited St. John the Baptist several years ago, found the several of the people she initially interviewed have died.

That’s a disgrace. When a large swath of your state is known as “Cancer Alley,” that’s a damn good time for government to start caring about the people who live there and not the dollars of the companies profiting off the pollution. In a place called St. Jean the Baptist, it’s long past time for the arc of the moral universe to start bending toward justice.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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