Louisiana cancer aisle: African Americans victims of industry

Audio 19:30


© Anne Corpet / RFI

By: Anne Corpet Follow

37 mins

More than 140 petrochemical plants have been installed for several decades along the Mississippi, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, in southern Louisiana.

Nicknamed “the cancer alley”, this industrial corridor releases toxic emissions in an area mainly populated by African Americans.

At the beginning of March, the United Nations worried about the announced establishment of several new factories in this already extremely polluted atmosphere, and denounced a form of “ 

environmental racism




From our permanent special correspondent in the United States,

Anne Corpet

US President Joe Biden has also referred to “

the aisle of cancer

” on several occasions, and announced his desire to fight against environmental injustices. On the spot, the population, powerless for nearly half a century in the face of the weight of an industry largely supported by the local authorities, oscillates between rage and despair.


Formosa is a death sentence!

 The sign is planted in front of Sharon Lavigne's house, located along the road, facing the dike that protects homes from the moods of the Mississippi. At 68, this resident of St James is trying to mobilize her entourage to prevent the arrival of a plastic manufacturing plant in her town, where a dozen industrial establishments are already installed. “ 

Formosa has purchased over a thousand hectares of land and plans to build fourteen units in a large complex. We can no longer breathe and they will triple toxic emissions in the district

 Says the retired teacher.

Sharon Lavigne points to Burden Lane, a stone's throw from her home: a poor housing estate, surrounded on both sides by factories.


My friend Geraldine lived here.

She is dead.

The woman who lives in that prefab has cancer.

His daughter too.

The lady in the house over there had both legs amputated.

Believe me, no one is healthy here,

 ”she blurted out.

" The death row "

Sharon Lavigne has always lived in St James and keeps the memory of a happy childhood, surrounded by nature. “ 

When I grew up here, there were fields as far as the eye could see around the river. The air was clean, the water was clean, the soils were fertile, and we were never sick,

 ”she recalls. The first factory was established in St James in the 1960s, on the land of a large sugar cane plantation. “ 

People thought it was great. Everyone was enthusiastic

, recalls Sharon Lavigne. 

For all, industrialization was a sign of progress, of wealth.

 "But the sexagenarian suddenly vibrates with anger:" 

The factories have multiplied,

but very few blacks were hired. And for years we have been drinking dirty water polluted with such dangerous substances as benzene. People started to get sick, and it took decades for us to realize that this was linked to the presence of these industries. If I hadn't been so ignorant believe me I would have fought sooner


 »It was after a public meeting on the arrival of Formosa in 2018, and after having been to pray at the church, that Sharon, a devout Catholic, got involved in the fight against the implantation. of the factory in his district


I became an activist before I even knew what that meant.

My association Rise St James, was born in my kitchen with some parishioners gathered around a plateful of shrimp gumbo



she smiled


And with a serious face, she adds: “ 

People call our region cancer aisle.

But I call it death row.

Because living here condemns us to certain premature death



Darryl Malek Wiley.

© Anne Corpet / RFI

A cancer risk fifty times higher than the national average

The name "cancer alley" was coined nearly forty years ago by Darryl Malek Wiley, an environmental activist with the Sierra Club association in New Orleans who was campaigning alongside union members at the time. BASF factory. He is enraged to see that since then unions have disappeared in almost all of the petrochemical industries bordering the Mississippi, and that little or nothing has been done to stem the maddening pollution. Looking back, he too finds the term he was proud to have found in the 1980s too restrictive. " 

Communities that live along the river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge are exposed to twenty different chemicals in the air, fifteen in the water, and others embedded in the soil. People are suffering from cancer, respiratory disease, diabetes. Some of these chemicals cross the placenta and cause birth defects or miscarriages. There are a whole series of disastrous health effects other than cancer caused by these petrochemical plants

 , ”he explains before deciding:“ 

Talking about the valley of death is more appropriate

. " 

The Japanese factory Denka in St John, the last to manufacture neoprene in the United States - material for scuba diving suits - is the one that worries experts the most, because of its emissions of ethylene oxide and of chloroprene. According to the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, in the area near the plant, residents face a risk of cancer fifty times the national average. The pollution emanating from the site is old: before the Japanese from Denka settled, in 2015, it was the Dupont company that occupied the premises. Leslie Checksnighter, a local resident, attributes the death of her parents to this sign. “ 

They built their house here a year before the


factory opened

, in

1964. My father died of lung cancer fifteen years ago. My mother has had cancer three times. My father cultivated his garden, he had fruit trees. Dupont killed it all. You couldn't even plant weeds anymore. Dupont released pollutants between two and five in the morning. The smell was omnipresent and everything turned black, our fruit trees turned black, she


Today, with Denka, things have improved. The pollution is still there, but it is easier to forget

: the smell is not as excruciating as it used to be.

 »Willy Me does not want to say her age, but goes home with very small steps. She lives on 31st Street, the one that runs alongside the fences of the Denka factory. " 

My son worked in this factory and he died five years ago.

He was forty-five, and had always been in good health.

For me, it was the factory that killed him, that's all I can tell you,

 ”she blurted out before closing her door.

A group of crows fly over the modest houses.


In the past, there were nightingales, but they have disappeared, just like the butterflies,

 ” remarks a neighbor sitting on his porch.

Air sensor, St John Elementary School.

© Anne Corpet / RFI

A chlorine derivative at a level more than three hundred times higher than the standards

More than a hundred kilometers west of the river, in New Iberia, Wilma Subra, chemist, has been analyzing toxic product emissions from the industrial corridor for decades. She founded her own laboratory, in order to transmit the results of her discoveries directly to the inhabitants, without having to fight against a recalcitrant hierarchy. Piles of documents clutter her sofa, shelves and the floor of her office. " 

According to the national assessment of toxicity in the air, chloroprene is probably carcinogenic, and the risk threshold in ambient air has been set by the federal authorities at 0.2 microgram per cubic meter

 ", begins t - before extracting a map of the surrounding area of ​​St John from one of his files. " 

This whole sector greatly exceeds the required threshold. These samples were taken in 2017 by the EPA, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. Near St John's Elementary School, the level of chloroprene in the air is almost 50

micrograms per cubic meter. And if you live near the railroad tracks, the level reaches 67.4, which is 337

times higher than the threshold not to be exceeded. No one should be so exposed


 », She indignantly. After the release of the first samples taken by the EPA in 2015, the offending company promised an 85% drop in its emissions, but no reliable control has been carried out by the authorities, and the toxic substances in the air remain well beyond the norm anyway. Denka also attempted - unsuccessfully - to change the threshold of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter. " 

It's as if a doctor asked you to quit smoking and you tried to negotiate your fifteen cigarettes a day

 ", exclaims Wilma Subra, before acknowledging annoyed: " 

You can go and take samples every six months, issue summons, they will always appeal to justice.

The remedies can take years and, during this time, the population still lives there, really very exposed


And the chemist concludes: “ 

The people of St John had the highest coronavirus death rate in the United States.

This is obviously linked to their degraded state of health, the result of the toxic emissions to which these people have been exposed throughout their lives.


Wilma Subra.

© Anne Corpet / RFI

The descendants of slaves: an invisible population

For more than a hundred kilometers along the Mississippi, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, factories follow one another without ceasing. Only a small wood or a few houses grouped together sometimes separate the gigantic steel structures, the immense reservoirs of crude oil, or the expanses of buildings reddened by bauxite dust. It is the presence of the river, the royal access route to the Gulf of Mexico, and the presence of raw materials - salt, crude oil, natural gas - that have attracted industries. But also the possibility of buying back the immense lands of the old sugar cane plantations, which once occupied the banks of the Mississippi. " 

After the Civil War, most of the slaves exploited in these plantations were freed, but many of them remained in the area. They settled on small plots on the edge of the land where they had been enslaved. The families of planters sold their properties to refineries and chemical industries, and nobody cared about the fate of these populations, of these “communities of fences”, so nicknamed because they adjoined the gates of the properties

 ”, relates Craig Colten, professor of geography at the University of Baton Rouge, author of research on the industrialization of Louisiana. And he strikes: " 

All the specialized literature from the beginning of the 21st century specifies that industries must avoid populated areas to choose their location, to avoid lawsuits, and not to expose people to odors or the risk of explosion.

But this advice has been completely ignored in southern Louisiana


Since they were mostly blacks, these people were simply invisible.


Joe Bonner.

© Anne Corpet / RFI

Joe Bonner descends from a black family settled along the Mississippi in the 18th century. She has a small cafe along the road, in a pretty pink house located just in front of the dike that isolates the river. “ 

The region is historically important to African Americans. We, the descendants of the plantations, we try to preserve our heritage, to protect it. But industries do not hesitate to buy sacred land

: several slave graves are now inaccessible, isolated in production areas surrounded by barbed wire.

 "And the young woman adds:" 

Some speak of reparation for the descendants of slaves, for all that work that has never been paid.

Wouldn't it be fair to make sure that we can at least live healthy lives


Stop poisoning us, just let us survive, have clean air


 Sharon Lavigne assures us: only white owners are offered takeover offers for their properties from industries.


We African Americans are being ignored.

They do not employ us, do not offer us nice sums to allow us to move.

They are just waiting to see us die,

 ”denounces the retired teacher. 

Blame the victims


Environmental justice will be at the heart of our policy,

 " assured Joe Biden on January 27, signing a presidential decree on the climate. " 

The communities most affected are communities of color, like that of cancer aisle in Louisiana,

 " said the US president. What to give hope to the inhabitants of the petrochemical corridor. But the few words of the White House host immediately prompted a retaliation from the Republican senator from Louisiana, who denounced " 

a slap in the face

 " against his state. " 

In Louisiana, we have a higher rate of cancer than in other states

 ", admitted Bill Cassidy before weighing: " 

We have more cigarette smokers, obese people, certain viral infections and other factors that increase cancer in our state

 ”. In the process, the Louisiana Chemical Association, an industry lobby, released an advertising spot in which it presents itself as environmentally conscious. " 

Every time someone brings up the term 'cancer aisle' nationally, it's the same refrain, victims are blamed

 », Laments Vickie Boothe, an epidemiologist installed in New Orleans for her retirement. The industry and the Republican Senator can say whatever they want: While the high cancer risks are unquestionable and have been established by a federal agency in the petrochemical corridor, there is no precise data on the state of real health of the inhabitants. “ 

There has never been a high-quality epidemiological study that has examined the wide range of health consequences that one might expect from the toxics and particulate matter in the air. Louisiana cancer registry dilutes petrochemical corridor cases among those in much larger area, skewing data

 », Deplores Vicky Boothe.

And the retiree, determined to compensate for this lack of information by attempting to carry out a study herself, explains: “ 

The petrochemical industry exerts decisive pressure.

Universities depend on its funding and jobs to secure the future of their students.

As a result, none has an epidemiological department worthy of the name.

And state authorities are on the side of the industry

: The Louisiana Department of Health director called the residents of St John liars and fear mongers at a town hall meeting. 

Sharon Lavigne.

© Anne Corpet / RFI

"Cancer alley is a political decision"


The cancer aisle is a political decision

," asserts Wilma Subra, a chemist who has studied toxic emissions from the petrochemical corridor for decades.

The factories came because we have natural resources, but also because politicians invited or encouraged them to move here. The State helps them financially to build their infrastructures, offers them tax advantages. These factories were welcomed with open arms to poison the community

. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, a state agency responsible for ensuring compliance with federally enacted standards, is underfunded and does not always bother to verify that manufacturers are complying with permits to pollute that 'they obtained from local authorities. “ 

In this state there is a political mentality that anything that harms the industry harms the people. And according to which the safeguards of public health are too expensive

 , deplores Andrew Jacoby, lawyer, specialist of the environment in New Orleans. " 

We go to Parliament regularly to try to change laws or propose resolutions that seem reasonable, but the legislature always tells us no and assures us that it will be expensive in terms of jobs. But when the industry makes suggestions, even the most ludicrous are accepted. It's as if they had a big green stamp that says yes to the industry, and a big red stamp that says no to the communities

 ”, annoys the young lawyer before regretting:“ As a 

result, people lose their taste. to fight, because they have the impression that their interests will never be protected.

 In fact, on 31st Street in St John, which borders the Denka factory, the majority of residents feel helpless.


I'm scared, I know they're poisoning us, but what can I do

? I can't afford to move and they never offered to buy back my land. I can't fight these people with my few thousand dollars

 : they have billions


 Sighs Carl Selders. At his side, two neighbors nod. " 

They kill us for nothing, that's how it is,

 " adds Carl, fatalistic. 

Sharon Lavigne, she is nevertheless determined to fight with all her might to prevent the establishment of new factories near her parish. “ 

I don't fight just for myself, but for the whole community. I don't want to let my neighbors die without a fight. If we lose, we will at least have tried. But we're not going to lie down and let them take our land. No it won't be like that

 », Launches the sixty-year-old with energy.

Sharon Lavigne is also convinced that Joe Biden will soon come to visit the inhabitants of the aisle of cancer.

She plans to sing her association's anthem, written after a federal judge revoked Formosa's first building permit.

A victory song, inspired by the hymns she sings every week in church.

Even if Formosa is far from having laid down its arms.

Program originally aired on April 5, 2021.


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  • United States

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