“Cancer Alley”: Louisiana petchems target Black communities
The global plastics and petrochemical industry wants to build toxic facilities in Black communities. But residents of “Cancer Alley,” Louisiana, are fighting back.
(New Orleans, Louisiana) Gail LeBoeuf lives in Convent, a town in “Cancer Alley,” Louisiana, a meandering stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that hosts more than 150 petrochemical plants and refineries. LeBoeuf has seen too many friends and family members die from cancer.
LeBoeuf co-founded Inclusive Louisiana, a grassroots community organization that fights for cleaner air for the people of St. James Parish. In recent years, she and other residents of the River Parishes have fought to beat back the onslaught from the petrochemical industry, which continues to try to build new toxic facilities in Black communities along the Mississippi.
Now, she too is about to start chemotherapy. But her story is not unique.
“I’m just a typical person,” she told a group of reporters at a media briefing in New Orleans on January 26. “Either they move you out, or you die out. One of the two. That’s what the industry is counting on.”
A new study adds some scientific heft to that first-hand knowledge. In Louisiana, communities of colour are exposed to 7 to 21 times higher industrial emissions than their White counterparts, according to a peer-reviewed paper published in December in Environmental Challenges.
A study like this shouldn’t even be necessary, says Kimberly Terrell, a research scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and one of the paper’s authors. For decades, oil refineries, chemical and petrochemical plants have been packed into and next to Black communities along the Lower Mississippi River. Those facilities emit enormous amounts of cancer-causing pollutants. Indeed, the nickname for the area, “Cancer Alley,” is widely known.
But Louisiana officials often hide behind a narrative that there aren’t specific studies linking particular communities in the River Parishes to poor health outcomes as a result of industrial pollution. Research with such a narrow focus and small sample size is difficult to do. That ends up working to the advantage of polluters, Terrell said.
“Believe it or not, Louisiana [Department of Environmental Quality] does not acknowledge that there are racial disparities in pollution burden in our state,” Terrell said. “What we see again and again is that DEQ is set up more to serve industry than to fulfil its mission of protecting the health and well-being of the people of Louisiana.”
In a statement to Gas Outlook, Gregory Langley, a spokesperson for Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said that the racial makeup of the populations living near industrial facilities is “a matter of history.” Slave plantations were along the river, and heavy industry wanted to be near the river when they built big facilities throughout the 20th Century, he said. “The change to an industrial economy was inevitable. The facilities that have been built along the river are often near or adjacent to minority communities. LDEQ works with the facilities to make sure their emissions do not exceed protective standards set by state and federal regulations.”
But the study specifically looked at this explanation — that industry wanted to be near infrastructure and it just so happens that that’s where Black communities live — and found no evidence to back up that claim.
“There’s plenty of White neighbourhoods along the lower Mississippi River,” Terrell told Gas Outlook, responding to LDEQ’s explanation. But industry is highly concentrated in Black communities. “So, in addition to being pretty offensive, LDEQ’s explanation doesn’t explain why industrial emissions are higher in Black neighbourhoods.”
Her new study demonstrates what community members have long known.
Meanwhile, separate research published in January by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project finds that water pollution from oil refineries around the country are also disproportionately impacting communities of colour. Out of 81 refineries that discharge toxic pollutants such as selenium, nickel, and cyanide into waterways that were analyzed, 36 of them (40 percent) are in communities where the majority of residents are people of colour or low-income.
Many of the top ten most polluting refineries analyzed in that study are located in Louisiana.
“There is unequivocal scientific support that there is a racial disparity in pollution exposure in Louisiana. And we know that those pollutants cause health problems,” Terrell said. “And now we also have, in addition to the first-hand knowledge, peer-reviewed scientific support demonstrating that those pollutants contribute to the state’s elevated cancer rates and likely cause other health problems as well.”
None of this is new. The petrochemical industry has been polluting Black communities along the Mississippi River in Louisiana for a long time. But the petrochemical buildout has come in a series of waves.
Since 2010, the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry has pumped more than $200 billion into 235 projects – new facilities or expansions – as companies sought to find a use for the flood of shale gas that resulted from the fracking boom.
Looking forward, the oil and gas industry sees that demand for its products in the transportation sector may peak and begin to decline, and the same is true for electric power. As a result, they are hoping to pivot into petrochemicals – which mainly means plastics, and often plastics products that are used once and discarded.
Fossil fuel companies are “masters at creating markets,” said Eric de Place, interim campaign director for Beyond Petrochemicals, a campaign aimed at stopping the growth of petrochemicals. The industry is hoping to gin up demand for plastics because they are desperate to find new sources of growth.
“Left unchecked, global plastics production is expected to double over the next 20 years. That’s probably a direction we don’t want to go,” he said.
He said petrochemicals are a “triple threat,” posing climate, health, and environmental hazards for people and the planet.
The expansion of petrochemicals will “make it nearly impossible for the United States to meet its climate goals,” he said. “So, if we have the climate ambitions that we take seriously in this country, there is no way, realistically, that we can get to those climate targets unless we reduce our demand for and our production of petrochemical products,” he said. “That’s a challenge because the industry has different goals in mind.”
Beyond Petrochemicals has identified more than 120 petrochemical projects planned for the United States. Many of them are planned for Louisiana.
Long history of environmental racism
But how did it get this way? Why is so much industry concentrated in Black communities in Louisiana? It is not a coincidence that the industrial buildout occurred – and continues to occur – on former slave plantations, experts say.
“A lot of these [industrial] plants are literally in the footprints of these plantations,” said Joy Banner, Co-founder of The Descendants Project, a Louisiana NGO dedicated to the cultural and environmental preservation of Black communities in the River Parishes.
A 2021 article in The Atlantic mapped the more than 150 petrochemical plants in “Cancer Alley,” Louisiana, overlaying it with archival maps of pre-Civil-War-era slave plantations. They map onto each other almost perfectly.
“All of those chemical plants that currently line River Road, sit on the sites of former plantations,” said Ashley Rogers, executive director of the Whitney Plantation, referring to the main road that runs parallel to the Mississippi River. “In the 20th Century, as the plantation economy was changing, as those plantations were beginning to shut down, a lot of those plantation owners sold to massive industrial corporations.”
On a sunny day in late January, Rogers took a group of reporters on a tour of the plantation, connecting the dots between the experience of enslaved people in the 19th Century to the area’s situation today, where petrochemical companies continue to dump toxic pollution on Black communities along the river.
The Whitney Plantation was established to take an unflinching look at the horrors of slavery and White supremacy. But it remains a rarity. Most other Louisiana plantations highlight the opulence of slave owners and downplay or sanitize the history of slavery, catering to White tourists nostalgic for the genteel past. The Whitney Plantation is nearly alone in its attempts to educate the public and reckon with Louisiana’s (and America’s) violent history. “It’s not very popular, to tell you the truth,” Rogers said.
The blood-soaked past and the polluted present are perhaps more connected than one might think. Rogers described the brutal process of turning sugar cane into sugar. Mills were located on site. Enslaved people cut the cane and loaded it onto carts, each of which could carry a ton at a time. They would move the cane to the mill, grind it, and boil the juice in huge kettles. Enslaved people fed the fire to keep the steam-powered mill running 24 hours per day during the harvest season.
“This is the thing that sets Louisiana apart, that’s so distinct about Louisiana slavery. The people who were enslaved here were not just agricultural workers. They were industrial workers,” Rogers said. “So, when these [industrial] plants came and bought all these plantations and turned them into industrial facilities, guess what? They weren’t turning them into industrial facilities – they already were industrial facilities.”
The systems of environmental racism continue up to the present, and it is not simply because industrial facilities want to be located on the river for easy access to markets. Even within the River Parishes, industrial sites are disproportionately built in Black communities. And that appears to be by design, advocates say.
The land use plans set up by St. James Parish in 2014 quietly tweaked zoning laws to allow industrial sites in Black communities, while ruling out new industry in Whiter areas, according to a report from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade called “A Plan Without People.”
There are “really active attempts to kill off the community in St. James Parish, specifically the Black community,” Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a state-level NGO, told reporters. While local and state officials sought to hand over land in Black communities to heavy industry, they simultaneously disinvested in vital services, moving a school, closing down a post office, and even eliminating an evacuation route.
Ryan Louque, a district Councilman in St. James Parish, took issue with these characterizations.
“We are not Cancer Alley. That’s a misnomer to start with,” he said during a phone interview with Gas Outlook. “I’m sure you’re reading studies that claim to be peer-reviewed, alluding to the fact that we are the worst place in the country when it comes to pollution and we are oppressing people of colour. I completely dispute that. Any study that’s done, you can lean it anyway that you want, and they don’t look at the facts from the other side.”
Louque said he works in the petrochemical industry, but declined to name his employer. He said the petrochemical industry is “the biggest economic driver in the state of Louisiana,” and that it continues to improve its environmental performance.
He added that prior to the land use policies set by the parish, industry could go anywhere it wanted. In that sense, the land use plan added safeguards, protecting residents. And the North End of the Parish had no population growth, he said, so it made sense to rezone to allow more industry.
“These stories are becoming absurd. We’re tired of the false reporting,” he said.
But the Louisiana Bucket Brigade report argues that it was almost as if state and local officials wanted to make parts of the Parish increasingly difficult to live in, seemingly in an attempt to depopulate the area. Taken together, it amounts to a “written plan for racial cleansing,” Rolfes said.
Victories against industry
For decades, the industry has had its way in the River Parishes of Louisiana. But lately, fortunes are starting to turn. Thanks to the organizing of Inclusive Louisiana, Rise St. James, and other organizations, the industrial conglomerates that want to build more toxic petrochemical facilities in the “Cancer Alley” Louisiana area are suddenly running into trouble.
Years of organizing, educating, protesting, letter-writing, and speaking out at public meetings is finally yielding results. In 2019, in the face of intense community pressure, Chinese chemical giant Wanhua Chemical pulled the plug on a $1.25-billion proposed facility that would have manufactured MDI, a chemical used in polyurethane.
Last September, a proposed methanol facility in St. James Parish was scrapped, capping off a decade-long battle by residents. It would have been the largest methanol facility in North America.
A few days later, the people of St. James struck an even larger blow against the industry. A federal judge shot down a permit for the $9.4 billion Formasa Plastics plant, a proposed petrochemical facility, that would have tripled the amount of cancer-causing pollutants in some parts of the Parish. The town where it was proposed, Welcome, is 87 percent Black. “The demographics of Welcome reflect its roots as a place once dominated by plantations, populated by the enslaved ancestors of present-day residents,” the judge wrote in her decision.
Formosa Plastics did not respond to a request for comment from Gas Outlook.
Combined, residents of St. James have defeated three enormous petrochemical projects in as many years. When asked if the string of victories represented some positive momentum, Barbara Washington, a co-founder of Inclusive Louisiana said: “Yes, definitely,” but she added that major petrochemical companies and state officials will continue to support a buildout of polluting infrastructure in Cancer Alley. “So, we still fight,” she said.
While the petrochemical and fossil fuel industry wants to continue to grow, the string of defeats has slammed the brakes on the petrochemical buildout, at least in St. James Parish. “There is a de facto moratorium in [St. James] Parish, which is kind of phenomenal when you think about all the levels of government that are determined to get these plants built and yet everything has been stopped,” Rolfes said. “So, it’s been a pretty fun few years.”