(By Josh Archote for Reveille) In St. James Parish, a welcome sign sitting beside a gravel road is covered in reddish-brown dust called bauxite, a potentially harmful byproduct of an alumina manufacturing plant nearby.
Below the sign in white letters barely visible through the dust reads “Don’t Litter” and the phone number to report litterers. But littering is the least of concerns for residents in St. James and surrounding parishes, who are exposed to some of the highest concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals and toxic air in the country. [1, 2].
“You can see that the air is not clean,” LSU graduate student Adam Dohrenwend said.
Dohrenwend, who studies geography, is doing his dissertation on the land along the lower Mississippi River. He said the number of plants in the area shocked him while he was doing field work.
“There are fence-line communities that are right next to these plants, just divided with a little fence,” he said. “These people in these communities are basically treated like surplus space or surplus people.”
The area is known as Cancer Alley, a petrochemical corridor along the lower Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. More than 150 chemical plants and oil refineries occupy this stretch of land, where most communities are predominantly Black.
Some residents in St. Gabriel Parish have complained of nighttime chemical releases that result in thick yellow mists coating their yards and dead birds in their lawns. Residents are also convinced the pollution is leading to higher rates of cancer and miscarriages in the region.
Residents and activists have been fighting to keep out more chemical plants and ensure stronger air quality regulations since the early 1990s.
It’s an environmental justice problem that’s received national attention. President Joe Biden mentioned Cancer Alley while signing executive orders targeting climate change and industrial pollution during his first week in office.
Recently, the problem received international attention as well.
Experts from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council deemed new development in Cancer Alley a form of environmental racism in a press release released March 2.
The statement comes from the UN’s rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerances. Read the full story here.