‘We live in constant fear’: New map shows staggering risks of La.’s ‘Cancer Alley’

There was a time not that long ago — back when Sharon Lavigne was still back in high school in the community of St. James, Louisiana, long before she became a grandmother of 12 — when the people of her tiny Mississippi River town were happier and healthier. It was before “Cancer Alley” became “Cancer Alley.”

It was during her teenage years that the first petrochemical plant opened up in St. James, nestled on the river banks about halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Many more would follow, as the bustling stretch of America’s busiest river earned its nickname, with seven of the top ten census tracts with the highest cancer risk in the United States.

Today, Lavigne can rattle off the names of the dead or the dying in St. James — a list that includes two close friends who just recently passed away at a young age, two brothers both ailing with cancer, and her longtime boyfriend she insists was “vibrant and healthy” until a pipeline company located right next to his house expanded. The boyfriend developed a respiratory disease and died.

“It was the pollution that killed him,” Lavigne told Rolling Stone magazine, in the latest piece aiming to bring the health woes of “Cancer Alley” before a national audience. Today, the magazine reports, there are a staggering 12 petrochemical plants within a 10-mile radius. “We are boxed in from all sides by plants, tank farms, and noisy railroad tracks,” she said. “We live in constant fear.”

Three incredible things are happening in and around “Cancer Alley” right now. The bad news is that if Big Petrochemical gets its way, southern Louisiana will be getting even more new plants — some massive, all with the potential to greatly increase pollution of the air and the water. The good news, which I’ve chronicled in this space recently, is that everyday people understand the threat to our ecology and are fighting back. What’s more, some of the biggest and best names in investigative journalism are joining them.

In late October, scores of fed-up Louisiana residents marched the length of “Cancer Alley” and staged daily protests to get the attention of key players and to call out the worst hot spots. When the demonstrators reached St. James, they gathered at the site where plastics giant Formosa wants to build a massive new complex worth a whopping $9.4 billion. There, they were joined by an icon of civil rights in the 21st century, the Rev. William Barber, who founded the “Moral Mondays” movement in his native North Carolina.

“It comes down to greed,” Barber told the crowd. “You could take an area like Cancer Alley and focus on things that would fix the environment and put people to work cleaning up the mess. But it’s almost as if people decide ‘we just want money’. And then they decide who can we make the money off of that will give us the least resistance. It’s evil economics.”

A few days later, Barber’s crusade was boosted by a powerful new weapon: The investigative journalists from the site ProPublica, winner of several Pulitzer Prizes for its deep dives into complicated issues — joining forces with top local reporters from New Orleans’ two recently merged news organizations, the Times-Picayune and the Advocate — have begun a deep dive into the chronic pollution problems along the Lower Mississippi.

This week, these journalists issued dramatic maps of “Cancer Alley” which — truly for the first time — are allowing residents to see the cumulative impact all of the toxic pollutants that are released by all of the dozens of petrochemical plants in the region. The maps not only add new evidence of the deep-rooted pollution problems that now exist in these communities but seriously question the wisdom of building any new ones.

“A ProPublica analysis using a scientific model developed by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that some of the neighborhoods where new plants are being built already have very high concentrations of toxic chemicals,” the article notes. “But Louisiana continues to approve the building of these new plants and the expansion of existing ones.”

The piece zeroes in on seven different Louisiana parishes that between them have some 200 petrochemical plants. It notes that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, has the ability to deny new permits or issue limitations on seven major new plants that have been proposed for “Cancer Alley” — yet historically has never done so. Not even for a plant like Formosa which, their report shows, would double toxic emissions.

Honestly, the words of the new ProPublica project are powerful, but it’s hard to verbally do justice to its mapping tools which outline, in deep red, the poor and often predominately non-white communities where American citizens are inhaling deadly air. It’s an unconscionable situation, but the other side is finally making itself heard, even as it gets harder to breathe.

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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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