Louisiana’s Most Unpopular Attraction: Cancer Alley

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.

Carbon dioxide is a major GHG, but locally, is one of the least dangerous chemicals in the air.

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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Mosaic Plant Under State and Federal Scrutiny in Louisiana- “Emergency Conditions”

The environment in Louisiana has long been held hostage by a plethora of giant factories and plants in the middle of the state. They use the Mississippi River as a source of freshwater for their operations, and are surrounded, in many cases, by fields of sugarcane or other crops. The oil industry is prevalent here, along with oil-user industries, like plastics producers. The story of the month, though, comes from the phosphate industry. Mosaic, a phosphate mining and processing company that also has heavy operations in Florida, is currently working under investigation by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality as well as the Feds at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The scrutiny comes after it was found that the north face of one of their phosphogypsum stacks was shifting. A stack is basically an area where acidic, toxic, and radioactive slurry runoff from the mining and processing of phosphate is dumped. As the solids settle to the bottom, the dumping site “stacks” upon itself, forming a giant, above-ground pool of incredibly acidic, environmentally unfriendly wastewater. The goal is to skim the top of the pool after a settling period for reuse. Of course, heavy rain can force the hands of the plant managers, and excesses need to be pumped into new stacks, or in some reported cases, pumped into “deep injection wells” underground, which can come with a litany of environmental issues in itself.

The stack in question- from the road, about a half-mile mile away, I still couldn’t get the entire length of the wall in frame.

The stack in question is gigantic- It’s 3000 feet long and over 187 feet high. And the north slope is shifting at a “half-inch to 0.6 inches per day,” according to DEQ spokesperson Greg Langley. The cause of the shift isn’t apparent, but a sudden failure of the wall would be environmentally catastrophic, and the site is operating under “emergency conditions.”

The plant is nestled next to the Mississippi River, upstream from New Orleans. Experts say it would be unlikely that much of the runoff would actually make it to the Mississippi for geographical reasons and the high land buffer between the plant and the river, but it could affect the Blind River to the north and all the land in between. It could also affect surrounding communities- in Florida, there are preliminary reports of high cancer rates near phosphate plants, which might be due to the radioactive nature of phosphogypsum and the runoff.

Satellite view showing relative size of the stack to other bodies of water.

The release of excess runoff into nearby waterways in Florida is seen as a possible contributing factor to harmful algae blooms that have plagued the state and the Gulf in recent years. Runoff is legal to dump if sufficiently diluted. Otherwise, there are no real options for dealing with these waste sites- they sit like open sores, waiting for some catastrophic natural event, like a sinkhole or a hurricane, to breach the stacks and release the waste into the surrounding environment.

Satellite close-up view of the stack and the Mosaic plant

Currently, Mosaic is constructing a road leading through the sugarcane fields to the north of the stack in order to allow access for large trucks to start dumping sediment to create a “buttress” in case of a breach in the north wall, according to Langley. They are also pumping what they can out of the 500-million gallon reservoir in hopes of slowing down the rate of shifting, but with a week of rain on the Louisiana horizon, it might be too little, too late.


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First Article- Saint Petersburg, Florida

First post!

Hello from Lieutenant Planet! Although my journey across the country hasn’t started yet (it kicks off in January), my collection of environmental issues and initiatives in America can start in my own hometown of Saint Petersburg, Florida. My hometown is fairly environmentally progressive, with many green initiatives in place.

A lot of the local environmental initiatives can by found in The Compendium of the Pinellas County Comprehensive Plan. The Compendium outlines a general “ethic of sustainability” in all projects, stressing the cooperation of different levels and elements of government in order to form a greener future. Specifically it outlines future endeavors in housing and transportation, resource conservation, water management, and solid waste recovery. Since the Compendium was released a decade ago, there have been major steps taken to increase recycling levels with a broad residential recycling program. There have also been major efforts to recover beaches from decades of erosion, protect wildlife like sea turtles and manatees, and educate the public about the importance of sustainable practices in everyday living.

Local required actions related to energy conservation are also outlined in Florida’s HB 7135, and include a requirement for all county buildings to be constructed according to green rating systems, include a compost plan, and use the most fuel-efficient vehicles available.

As part of Pinellas County’s solid waste program, there is an initiative to use clean, discarded building materials for coral installations around the county. The initiative was started in the seventies, but is now underfunded and utilizes older, slower methods of coral growth. It could be updated with more funding and the adoption of the microfragmentation method of coral growth, discovered in 2014, which is dozens of times faster than previous methods.

On the darker side of things, there are some things that Saint Petersburg famously fails at when it comes to the environment. The downtown area has historically been a smaller town, with smaller roads and alleyways, and a limited infrastructure. Over the past twenty years, however, the population of the downtown area has exploded. A view of the skyline reveals high-rises being built everywhere still, ready for a new wave of people to move in. The number of local businesses has also boomed concurrently with the population, and the rapid growth has led to some things being overlooked.

The sewage treatment system in Saint Petersburg, for one example, is completely overwhelmed. The downtown area floods with every major storm, forcing the cities hand and making them dump untreated or partially treated sewage directly into the bay, with major ecological impacts. In a time where Florida has no room for further contamination of its waterways, this is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Red tide and algae blooms devastated Florida this year, spreading at an unnatural rate and causing massive die-offs of fish and other sea creatures, as well as human health and respiratory issues. That issue stems from the state’s mishandling of the Big Sugar companies that operate around Lake Okeechobee, as well as other factors of runoff pollution and elevated water temperatures. The Everglades Foundation has launched a $10 million competition to find an answer for that problem, which has grown in the swamp for decades.

“Grown in the swamp for decades” sounds spookier than I intended it to. But it fits.

Another of Saint Petersburg’s shortcomings involves commercial recycling. In 2014, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on commercial glass recycling in downtown Saint Petersburg. I took data from a sample of bars and restaurants from the main strips downtown and extrapolated to find a huge amount of glass that was thrown away every year. Although most bar owners were open to the concept of glass recycling, there were very few (if any) viable options to do so. Alleyways are too tight for separate dumpsters in many cases, and the day-to-day amount of one-time-use glass containers used is too great for single trash cans, even if they were emptied daily, which no local waste management company offers.

Potential fixes are available, however. In the years since, I have found crowd-sourced methods for increasing recycling rates, such as reverse vending machines that pay you to bring and sort recyclables. Employees at these bars downtown could potentially pay off their parking tickets in the overcrowded downtown area with a recycling initiative like this. The homeless would also have a financial incentive to keep the city green. Of course, funding the initiative would have an initial and future maintenance cost. Even though glass has close to a 100% recycling rate, there still has to be a closed-loop economy involved to sell the recycled glass in order to mitigate the costs of collection and re-purposing.

Saint Petersburg has an eye to the future, and has for decades. Climate change and sustainability is at the forefront of a lot of Florida policy- the tourism industry depends on people being able to go to the beaches without getting sick. Florida would also, in the coming decades, have to remain in it’s current state of not being underwater. Maybe that sounds alarmist, but that’s what I’m here for- and the evidence overwhelmingly supports such a wet future for coastal areas everywhere if major steps aren’t taken globally, right now.