cancer alley

Racism takes many shapes and forms, spanning from microaggressions and racial profiling all the way to the use of slurs, physical assault and murder, but one of the least talked about forms is environmental racism.

Environmental racism, a term coined in the 1980s, is hard to define, but it’s used to describe the increased exposure of minority communities to toxins and pollution.

In 2018 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded environmental racism was in fact a real occurrence. Not only is there a disproportionately high distribution of polluting facilities within minority communities, but individual facilities near minority neighborhoods release more emissions than those near predominately White neighborhoods, according to the Atlantic.

The 85-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, often referred to as Cancer Alley (or sometimes Death Alley), has over 150 fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities run by major corporations and industry leaders such as Exxon, Shell and Koch. The toxic emissions from these facilities are linked to all kinds of diseases and health issues, including cancer and respiratory illnesses. Parishes like St. James were promised jobs and livelihoods by these companies but instead got pollution, disease and death.

Residents have been protesting and petitioning for EPA intervention for years, forming groups such as RISE St. James and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, but now in 2020, emission regulation is more imperative than ever.

According to the 2015 EPA National Air Toxics Assessment, residents of parishes like St. John the Baptist and St. James are already 800 times more likely to get cancer from the pollutants released into the air and water, but they have almost no protections against COVID-19, a virus which is severely worsened by respiratory complications.

In April, St. John the Baptist parish had the highest death rate per capita in the country and the entire stretch of Cancer Alley has seen a destructive wave of fatal coronavirus cases, according to CNN. Despite the obvious effect these facilities and their toxic emissions have on the surrounding communities, Formosa, one of the largest polluters, still plans to set up a new facility in Cancer Alley.

These giant corporations are treating communities like they’re disposable commodities, helpful for keeping your plants running but unimportant in the long term, and residents are, quite literally, sick of it. Activists are fighting back appealing to Baton Rouge courts, starting groups, protesting in Parish Council meetings and making a difference for the future.

Five year plans and court cases might eventually help these people, but in the present they’re suffering from not only the effects of decades of pollution and mistreatment, but now global events threaten their lives even further. Both COVID-19 and the Saharan dust plume blowing across the Gulf Coast this month affect people with prior respiratory issues more severely, meaning that a disproportionate percentage of the Cancer Alley population will suffer. 

These people have been and will be affected by illnesses and ailments for generations, and we as a state have done very little to help out.

I know there are seemingly infinite social causes to be aware of and fight for, but environmental racism is a huge issue for our state. Our economy relies heavily on oil and petroleum, but that industry is harming us as much as it helps. What good are jobs if there’s no one left to take them?

Louisiana, we need to reevaluate our priorities because, in the long run, whether or not LSU has a football season in the fall doesn't matter, but these people, their families and communities, their health and livelihoods, do. 

Marie Plunkett is a 21-year-old Classical Studies major from New Orleans, Louisiana. 

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