When people think Louisiana, they think of New Orleans and Mardi Gras, of raucous debauchery and drunkenness. They also may think of truly unique cuisine, music, and culture from a historically contested piece of land, handed back and forth between different European colonizers. Maybe they think of the mysterious swampland that covers much of the Mississippi River delta.
Louisiana indeed has all those things- But after staying and studying for longer than a vacation would allow, one begins to really see Louisiana’s dark side. It is a state full of desperation, hustling, struggle, toxicity, and death. And the state’s largest attraction? An 85-mile corridor of extreme environmental degradation and injustice between Baton Rouge and New Orleans along the Mississippi River, housing more than 150 large industrial plants and refineries for oil, natural gas, plastics, phosphate, and more, un-affectionately called Cancer Alley.
Cancer Alley has a population wherein around 20% of people live below the poverty line, and a suspiciously large amount of that population develops mysterious, toxicity-related illnesses and cancers. The poorest are more likely to live closest to these industrial giants, in places where literally everything is contaminated. In an industrialized country that refuses to provide its citizens with universal healthcare, environmental injustice is often a nail in the coffin for people in these communities.
The air here is polluted, often to the point where the stench from these factories is unbearable, and your eyes water and burn. A light coat of grime coats everything. The water is also polluted, both from accidental spills and intentional (and somehow legal) dumps of chemical and radioactive wastes into injection wells underground, where there is more an “Out of sight, out of mind” mentality rather than any guarantee those waste products won’t leach into the aquifer or the watershed at large. The toxins in the water then affect the seafood that many depend on, in bitter irony, for survival. The latest list of “Fish Consumption and/or Swimming Advisories” for Louisiana can be found here, along with an interactive map here.
Lobbying and corruption from some of the richest fossil fuel and other industrial giants in the world make all of this possible, in an area largely forgotten or given-up on. The EPA and the state tend to turn a blind eye to the area, saying everything is mostly safe. But most of those conclusions seem to be based on short-term standards, not long-term living situations. According to the CDC, Louisiana consistently ranks among the states with the highest rates of cancer, along with many other states along the Mississippi River.
And the problem keeps getting worse. As other companies and tycoons look to take advantage of this perfect spot for industrial building, supported by tax incentives, standards for self-reporting emissions, and a lack of real oversight, locals are not included in the conversation. With every new plant, property values drastically decrease, trapping many in an area that will, because of that same decrease in value, now get less funding for schools, medical facilities, police, and other necessities for a thriving community.
The long chain of transformative wealth that could have taken place since the time of institutionalized slavery has been stolen in Cancer Alley. African Americans have been trapped here at a much higher rate than whites, as much of that potentially transformative wealth was invested in family homes, passed down for generations, that are no longer worth enough to be considered an investment. Homes of sick factory workers with little opportunity and no options for healthcare. In Cancer Alley, though slavery was abolished long ago, it still blows in the wind, burning your eyes and blackening your lungs.
Recently, Louisiana has continued in its steadfast jog towards the obliteration of its own communities and the health of their most vulnerable populations. The Department of Natural Resources announced earlier this month that it has approved the permit, against much local backlash, for the construction of a new plant in the 5th district of St. James Parish, in the middle of Cancer Alley. The permit goes to Formosa Plastics, a Taiwanese company with a checkered environmental past in Baton Rouge and Texas, and well as Taiwan and Vietnam. Formosa will also get a $1.5 billion tax break to build its new plant through the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Permit, destroying another hundred acres of wetlands to do so.
Every single one of these factories and plants in Cancer Alley are bleeding sores on a body of pollution. What’s worse, every one of those sores is in more danger of bursting every year due to Climate Change. Hurricanes are becoming stronger and more frequent, and have the potential to rip these plants apart, spewing their insides everywhere. All of the pollution in the water that actually makes it out of the delta goes straight into the Gulf of Mexico, feeding red tides and expanding dead zones. In other states, injection wells are thought to be the cause of increasing seismic activity, which would be devastating here. Open and abandoned oil wells are scattered all over Louisiana as well, with nobody to close them because of lack of oversight and enforcement.
Cancer Alley, and Louisiana in general, is in desperate need of saving from the corruption that Big Money plays in its politics. Those at the top are destroying what is left of one of the most important hubs of trade and cultural diversity in American history. Cancer Alley is a social and environmental blight on the United States, barely containing itself from becoming a World Event scale environmental catastrophe.
At this point it seems that the only thing that can save a state so deep in a socioeconomic and environmental sinkhole would be sweeping federal green-initiative mandates targeting environmental injustice at the expense of environmental offenders.
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