Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ Is Getting More Toxic — But Residents Are Fighting Back
Sharon Lavigne knows some 30 people who have died in and around her tiny parish of St. James, Louisiana, in just the past five years. She buried two close friends this past weekend — one died of cancer, the other heart disease. Two of her brothers have cancer, and her boyfriend of 17 years died of COPD, a respiratory disease linked to air pollution and chemical fumes, in 2013. He was “vibrant and healthy,” she says, until a pipeline company expanded its operations next to his home, adding millions more gallons of crude oil storage tanks. “It was the pollution that killed him,” Lavigne says.
This is life in “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch along the banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where industry leaders like ExxonMobil, Koch, and Shell operate about 150 fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities. Seven of the 10 census tracts with the highest cancer risk in the nation are found here. The exceptionally elevated toxic air emissions released by the industry are linked to a host of ailments, from cancer to cardiovascular and respiratory disease to reproductive and developmental disorders. And in It is the frontline of environmental racism. And it is poised to get worse.
Five generations of Lavigne’s family have lived in St. James, including most of her six children and 12 grandchildren. Not far from her home stands a historical marker heralding the 1872 founding of the Settlement of Freetown by former slaves, who began cultivating the land with sugarcane farms. Lavigne still lives on the original 40 acres purchased by her grandfather. The first petrochemical plant opened down the road when she was a student at St. James High. There are now 12 petrochemical plants within a 10-mile radius of her home. The air still fills with the sweet syrupy scent of candy when the sugarcane is harvested in the area, but now it’s often overwhelmed by acrid smells that irritate the eyes, sinuses, and skin.
“We are boxed in from all sides by plants, tank farms, and noisy railroad tracks,” says Lavigne. “We live in constant fear.”
Spurred by the national oil and gas fracking boom, a new wave of industry expansions and mega facilities is pushing into St. James. Since 2010, 333 new chemical manufacturing projects have been announced in the U.S., mostly along the Gulf Coast, according to the American Chemical Council. Much of the new infrastructure is dedicated to plastics – 99 percent of which is made from chemicals derived from oil or natural gas. The International Energy Agency predicts that in 2050, 50 percent of the growth in oil demand will be related to plastics production, overtaking that for passenger cars. St. James is also the endpoint of the Bayou Bridge pipeline, which became operational in June. It’s the final extension of the Dakota Access Pipeline, carrying fracked oil from North Dakota, the subject of years of mass protest before Trump ordered its completion within days of taking office in 2017.
“They promised us jobs,” Lavigne says. “Instead they pollute us with these plants, like we’re not human beings, like we’re not even people. They’re killing us. And that is why I am fighting.”
In 2018, Lavigne, 67, founded RISE St. James, the lead organizer of a two-week-long protest, “The March Against Death Alley,” which culminates today in Baton Rouge. Along the way, she’s been joined by civil rights leader Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, II, the North Carolina pastor who relaunched Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign with co-chair Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis. “The same land that held people captive through slavery is now holding people captive through this environmental injustice and devastation,” says Barber, who joined the march in St. James last week and gave a fiery speech in a sugarcane field set to give way to another petrochemical complex. “It is killing people by over-polluting them with toxins in their water and in their air. This is slavery of another kind.”
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