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The Endless Shame of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch issued a report entitled “We’re Dying Here’: The Fight for Life in a Louisiana Fossil Fuel Sacrifice Zone,” about a part of Louisiana that is dominated by petrochemical and fossil fuel plants. The report:

“‘…documents how residents of Cancer Alley suffer the effects of extreme pollution from the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry, facing elevated rates and risks of maternal, reproductive, and newborn health harms, cancer, and respiratory ailments. Parts of Cancer Alley have the highest risk of cancer from industrial air pollution in the United States. These harms are disproportionately borne by the area’s Black residents.”

In a nation that invented national environmental policy over half a century ago we now see the spectacle of part of America being investigated by an international NGO seeking to protect the human rights of victims of toxic pollution.

We have a federal system of environmental protection where regulatory powers have been delegated to states to enforce national rules. When those rules are not enforced by the states it is the national Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) responsibility to take over those enforcement duties and ensure that the law is upheld. Our national EPA has not lived up to these responsibilities. This failure is not due to a lack of effort, but rather due to a fear of conservative courts. According to Bloomberg’s Brentin Mock:

“When the US Environmental Protection Agency dropped a weighty investigation into a cluster of polluted Louisiana communities known as Cancer Alley, some observers suspected it was due to concern that a conservative court might strip its enforcement powers. Now, even though the EPA has abandoned the probe, that anxiety has been partly borne out: A federal court has temporarily halted the use of one of EPA’s key tools for rooting out racial discrimination. The ruling, a preliminary injunction blocking certain enforcement actions under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, could further weaken already-hobbled protections for over-polluted communities, advocates warn…Environmental justice advocates have pleaded with the EPA for decades to use its Title VI powers to stop the growth of pollution-spreading industries near low-income communities of color – particularly in Cancer Alley.”

The absence of effective federal oversight is compounded by a state government that is not interested in protecting its people from environmental poisons. The state of Louisiana and it’s Governor, Jeff Landry are wholly owned subsidiaries of the fossil fuel industry. Landy has called climate change a hoax and has appointed fossil fuel executive and lobbyist Tyler Gray as the head of Louisiana’s Department of Energy and Natural Resources. In a piece in the Louisiana Illuminator, Terry L. Jones observed that:

“Louisiana Republican Gov. Jeff Landry has filled the ranks of state environmental posts with fossil fuel industry executives. Landry has taken aim at the state’s climate task force for possible elimination as part of a sweeping reorganization of Louisiana’s environmental bureaucracy. The goal, according to Landry’s executive order, is to “create a better prospective business climate.” While the United States and other countries have vowed to move away from fossil fuels, Landry is running in the opposite direction.”

Landry also appointed as the head of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Aurelia S. Giacometto, the former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Administration during the Trump presidency. Earlier in her career she worked at the chemical company Monsanto and has been active in a wide variety of anti-environmental organizations. In another piece in the Louisiana Illuminator, Julie O’Donoghue reported that Louisiana’s DEQ head:

“Giacometto is active in groups that work to expand the rights of hunters and fisherman — and that expressly oppose environmental advocacy…Giacometto is also on the board of Protect the Harvest, a nonprofit set up to push back against “radical” animal rights organizations such as The Humane Society of the United States, according to its own website. Additionally, she helps lead the Steamboat Institute, a Colorado nonprofit that is skeptical of mainstream climate change science.

While Governor Landry is more overt and transparent about his anti-regulatory and anti-environment stance, his predecessors were equally ineffective in controlling toxics in Cancer Alley. It is very clear that the economic power of this industry has translated seamlessly into political power that is hardwired into the state’s permanent power structure. In addition to the state’s anti-regulatory ideology, Cancer Alley is also the result of racist governmental and corporate decisions to concentrate petrochemical plants in African American communities. In an article in the Villanova Environmental Law Journal, Idna G. Castellon observed that:

“Most of Cancer Alley’s residents are impoverished African Americans who live near, or next to, petrochemical plants. This is no coincidence. There is little evidence that communities of color move to sites where toxic waste facilities and landfills are located. Rather, toxic waste sites are often sited in primarily poor and African American neighborhoods, which suggests “[w]hen taking out the factor of income, race is the single most significant indicator of where toxic waste or pollutant sites are located.”

This environmental racism is coupled with corporate production practices that cuts corners and exposes workers and residents to harmful pollutants. With government unable and now unwilling to act, the battle by necessity becomes one of shaming industry with publicity and visibility to focus attention on their culture of worst practices in factory management. The notion that the only way to manufacture chemicals and refine fossil fuels is to poison your neighbors needs to be illuminated and discredited. Companies should be encouraged to develop closed-system production facilities that make use of waste emissions and effluents instead of disposing them into the environment. Alternatives to petrochemical based plastics that are less harmful to people and the planet also need to be encouraged and incentivized. The idea that the best or only way to generate wealth is by poisoning people needs to be questioned.

Since Texas and Louisiana are the states with the largest concentration of petrochemical plants in America and both states are led by anti-regulatory, anti-environmental Governors, it is unlikely that changes in factory management will be encouraged by these state governments. Since the public is getting no help from regulators in cleaning up existing factories, by necessity the political battle centers around stopping new factories. This is a step that must be taken if companies are to be convinced to move beyond business as usual and develop cleaner technologies. According to Floodlight’s Pam Radtke reporting about grassroots activism in Cancer Alley by in the Guardian last year:

“In recent years, the activists have successfully fought construction of two multibillion-dollar plastics facilities and what would have been the nation’s largest methanol plant…Now, those same groups are receiving millions of dollars from Michael Bloomberg and his Beyond Petrochemicals campaign, and the Louisiana energy and chemical companies along with the states’ business-boosting groups have, in turn, created the Louisiana Industry Sustainability Council – originally called the Industry Defense Council.”

The strategy by grassroots activists has been to expand the visibility and scope of the conflict. The development of an organized industry response to citizen activism is an indication that the grassroots strategy is having an impact. It’s noteworthy that the “Industry Defense Council” has morphed into the greenwashed “Sustainability Council,” although I doubt that anyone is really fooled.

The real shame is that the business and government leaders in Louisiana and Texas are unwilling to even try to do a better job of producing plastics that don’t kill us during the production process and damage the environment when they are carelessly discarded. The possibility of creativity and innovation are not even explored. Instead, environmental injustice is normalized as business as usual. These business and government leaders should be ashamed of themselves.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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