The people of ‘Cancer Alley’ are fighting back


Suddenly, chemical plants in Louisiana were in the news last week. That’s understandable — two explosions on back-to-back days in Geismar and Donaldsonville in the very heart of “Cancer Alley” not only killed three people and sent others to the hospital but made for dramatic television, as smoke billowed into the bayou air as if set off by a massive bomb (and there was a third explosion, at a natural gas transmission line near New Orleans). In the days and weeks ahead, we will learn whether others were sickened by exposure to the airborne toxins.

But the reality for those of us on the environmental front lines here in Louisiana is that chemical plants and their shoddy maintenance are a slow and mostly silent killer. They don’t call the stretch of river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge “Cancer Alley,” for nothing, after all. As regular readers know, we have a remarkable group down here called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade that monitors carefully for chemical leaks and spills, watches over the so-called “watchdogs from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and other state agencies, and takes threats to the public health seriously.

One facility that environmentalists have been monitoring carefully for violations is the ExxonMobil chemical plant and refinery in Baton Rouge, which abuts a working-class neighborhood, as many of these facilities do. The Bucket Brigade has documented several significant leaks from the ExxonMobil facility — developing information that the extent of these accidents were underreported and that the impact on the surrounding community was ignored by the company and by local officials:

A leak in ExxonMobil’s sulfur recovery unit last week resulted in the release of various chemicals that harm human health, including the carcinogen benzene and the respiratory irritant sulfur dioxide.

 Seventy-four percent of 92 residents surveyed – – all African American – reported a health impact, from nausea and headaches to eye irritation and respiratory impacts.

“The purpose of this survey is to document the impacts of ExxonMobil’s ongoing accident on people living in the area,” said Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “The refinery acted as if it was no big deal and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality echoed that attitude. But the fact is that people felt and still feel the impact.”

The door to door survey was conducted on Thursday, May 30th in the Standard Heights neighborhood. Standard Heights is the neighborhood nearest the leaking sulfur recovery unit.

The Bucket Brigade survey of residents who live near the ExxonMobil plant found that among 92 people, 36 percent reported nausea, 22 percent reported headaches. 15 percent said they suffered from respiratory irritation, 7 percent reported eye irritation and 4 percent reported skin irritation. Many citizens of Standard Heights called the Bucket Brigade at the height of the incident at the plant and reported foul smells. “Me and my babies sitting on the porch and I smell a bad odor,” one said. “It smells like it’s coming from Exxon.”

You can’t blame the residents of Standard Heights for feeling a strong sense of deja vu. The incident investigation by the Bucket Brigade is just one of a series of similar episodes involving the Baton Rouge facility, including a significant leak last year. My law firm, SmithStagg LLC, recently filed a class action of behalf of local residents who have evidence they were sickened by that leak at the ExxonMobil site:

According to the suit filed on behalf of more than 10 residents who live in Standard Heights, a community within a two-mile radius of the Exxon plant, a bleeder plug at the Exxon Facility’s Aromatics Production Unit leaked benzene and other hazardous substances on June 14, 2012 but Exxon never notified the public of attendant health or other dangers. Exxon claimed the incident resulted in a leak greater than 10 pounds.

Exxon Mobil admitted on July 20, 2012 that in truth, 28,688 pounds of Benzene, 10,822 pounds of Toulene, 1100 pounds of Cyclobexane, 1564 pounds of Hexane and 12,605 pounds of Volatile Organic Compounds were released illegally. Exxon admitted a month later in 2012 the release amounts of these dangerous chemicals were much greater.

Exxon, the second largest refinery in the nation, subsequently documented that in 2012 alone, over 30 accidents occurred at the Baton Rouge refinery and chemical plants, releasing a combined total of pollutants reaching nearly 200,000 pounds.

Even low levels of exposure to benzene and related compounds released by oil refining can lead to convulsions, blood disorders, central nervous system dysfunction and cancer. EPA inspections, according to the suit, found the neighborhood was at risk due to sustained and continued exposure to the toxic releases. Plaintiffs are seeking property damages as well as medical and personal injury claims.

You can see what’s happening here. The beleaguered residents of “Cancer Alley” are finally fighting back — in the courts and through environmental activism. They are taking matters into their own hands because the faceless bureaucrats and their corporate overlords in Big Oil have failed, for decades, to acknowledge the reality of the problem. The right to sit on your front porch and to breathe the free air, untainted by the mammoth oil company across the way, is a basic human right. One way or another, the people are going to force ExxonMobil to make things right.

To read the entire Louisiana Bucket Brigade report, please go to:

Check out details of the residents’ lawsuit against the ExxonMobil refinery at:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

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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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