Black Communities Fight for Cleaner Air in ‘Cancer Alley’
Staggering rates of cancer, asthma, and other illnesses in a Louisiana region filled with petrochemical plants have united individuals and the Black church in a demand for environmental justice.
At 82, Robert Taylor feels fortunate that he is relatively healthy aside from some unexplained dizziness.
The same can’t be said for many of his family members and neighbors where he lives in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana: His brother died from lung cancer, and his mother from bone cancer. Her brother and his three sons all died from prostate cancer. Taylor’s wife, who is now cancer free, had breast cancer. And when their daughter was 40, she developed a rare and debilitating autoimmune disease that has left her housebound for the past several years.
The parish is located in an industrial corridor often referred to as Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that is home largely to Black communities. Many have extraordinary levels of cancer and other illnesses that they attribute to industrial pollution.
Taylor and members of his family live a short walk from a manufacturing plant that emits waste identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a possible human carcinogen. The plant itself has been cited for violating proper waste disposal procedures. It’s just one of 150 chemical and petroleum plants in the corridor.
In addition to Taylor’s family members, the fathers of the families on both sides of his house died from cancer, one son currently has cancer, and the other son is in remission.
“We are in the sacrifice zone,” says Taylor, a retired general contractor. The parish has one of the highest cancer risks in the nation from exposures to air toxics, according to the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment Results.
Following her treatment for breast cancer, Taylor’s wife actually moved to Anaheim, California, to get away from the pollution, and his daughter moved an hour south of the parish for the same reason.
“Environmental pollution is coming from the environment,” says Taylor. “We’ve got to breathe, we’ve got to drink water. If the air, land, and water are being polluted, what are we to do here in Cancer Alley?”
Searching for answers, Taylor in 2016 founded the advocacy group Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish to hold government officials and industry accountable for the quality of air in the parish, which includes eight separate towns.
The plant near his home, Denka Performance Elastomer, is the only neoprene manufacturing plant in the country. Opened in 1969 and owned until 2015 by DuPont, it emits chloroprene waste during the manufacturing of neoprene, which is used to make wetsuits, hoses, computer sleeves, and more. The EPA identified chloroprene as a likely human carcinogen in 2010, and it has also been linked to problems in the nervous, immune, and respiratory systems of mice and rats.
Taylor’s group of local residents has protested in front of the Denka plant and at the parish’s 5th Ward Elementary School — just 1,500 feet from the plant — in an effort to relocate the students. They’ve petitioned the EPA and the Organization of American States, filed complaints with the EPA and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, marched through Cancer Alley to the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge, and even traveled twice to Denka’s headquarters in Japan and made several trips to Washington, DC, to stand before federal agencies and representatives to fight for change.
In a health survey conducted by the University Network for Human Rights of people living near the Denka plant, nearly half of all children within a 1.5-kilometer (0.94-mile) radius said they regularly experience headaches, nosebleeds, or both, while more than half of adults experience headaches, dizziness, or lightheadedness. One-third or more of the adults living in the same area reported symptoms including chest pain, heart palpitations, wheezing, and eye and skin irritation.
Asthma rates in the parish are also sky-high. Children living there are hospitalized for asthma at 2.5 times the rates in other parts of Louisiana and the rest of the United States, and rates of asthma-related emergency room visits among all parish residents are the highest in the state and third highest nationwide, according to data from the Metropolitan Hospital Council of New Orleans and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that epidemiologist and environmental engineer Vickie Boothe, MPH, compiled for a presentation to the Greater New Orleans Interfaith Commission.
The consequences can be dire. Pollution in general has been linked to lung and heart diseases, as well as preterm births, research shows. “Science shows that pollutants can lead to premature death,” says Monique Harden, assistant director for law and public policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans, which since 1992 has been conducting research, raising awareness, getting communities and students engaged in policy change, and providing training for environmental careers — all to improve the lives of people in the Gulf who have been harmed by pollution or are vulnerable to climate change. “Pollution is driving the climate crisis, which is a worldwide problem.”
For Robert Bullard, PhD, distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston and director of the school’s Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice, this fight is unfortunately nothing new. Often referred to as the father of environmental justice, Dr. Bullard has been researching these issues for decades and documented the connection between waste dumping, pollution, income, and race in his groundbreaking book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, first published in 1990.
In his staggering amount of research, Bullard has, among other things, traced the link between environmental disparities and health disparities in part back to the discriminatory redlining housing practices from the 1930s, which isolated communities of color and significantly inhibited their ability to build wealth through home ownership.
In the Cancer Alley area in particular, petrochemical and petroleum plants have largely been built on land that was formerly home to sugar crops and plantations. Emancipated Black people formed small towns on this land as far back as 1861 at the start of Reconstruction — and many of their descendants still live there today. These wide swaths of land and their proximity to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes are very opportunistically placed for these plants.
“The problem is overwhelming and persistent. The root cause of the poisoning in our communities is systemic and structural racism. What happened to our rights — to breathe clean air, have clean water? Our rights are violated,” says Bullard, adding that “The South is the most environmentally degraded region in the country.”
A New Ally: Green The Church
Not only are Black individuals and community organizations raising awareness, Black churches are raising their voices. Green The Church aims to expand the role of Black churches in the environmental and sustainability movements — including keeping communities safe. They also work with local and national government officials to effect change.
“I’ve always been a social advocate and am blessed to be able to speak out, to have dialogues with community organizations and the EPA,” says Reverend Emily Carroll, a sister of Green The Church founder Reverend Dr. Ambrose Carroll Sr. She's also pastor of Shady Grove United Methodist Church in Mansfield, Louisiana, and is now head of the Louisiana chapter of Green The Church in which Cancer Alley is located.
By practicing and spreading their green theology of liberation — a belief that God desires all people, notably people of color, to live lives of freedom that are also free from toxins, air pollution, asthma, and cancer-causing carcinogens — the group hopes to create health and prosperity at the community level. Their ability to do that is tied to state, local, and federal policy decisions, says Rev. Emily Carroll, so Green The Church "supports member churches in identifying how they can flex their shared political and people power to transform how our government acts on climate change, supports the green economy, and invests in resilient communities.”
“The climate is our responsibility,” she says. “I am fighting to care for God's land, and fighting to get people to understand it’s our responsibility to do our part so that we can benefit from the land versus die (via polluted soil, air, and sea) from the land.”
Part of spreading that mission means talking to the church community, as Rev. Carroll did last year when she met with 600 clergy at the annual United Methodist conference in Baton Rouge. It also means working with and speaking to groups that can advocate for change.
In January, she spoke at a virtual EPA public hearing on a proposal aimed at reducing pollution from the oil and natural gas industry. And for the past several years, Green The Church has attended the Congressional Black Congress Foundation’s annual legislative conference that examines issues relating to the global Black community.
Last year, she joined members of the Climate Action Campaign for Lobby Day on the Hill in support of their Solutions for Pollution campaign, which they shared with Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA). The campaign supports various EPA standards that will aid the Biden Administration in keeping its promise of cutting pollution by 50 to 52 percent by 2030.
The family’s work never stops. Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll Sr. sits on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a federal advisory committee to the EPA, where “his voice and presence ensure member churches are represented,” says Rev. Emily Carroll, adding that he gives counsel to the EPA on how to ensure that equity and justice remain pivotal to their work.
The Collective Fight for Environmental Justice
All of these efforts and voices have not gone unheard. In response to a complaint filed to the EPA on January 20, 2022, on behalf of Taylor’s Concerned Citizens of St. John and the Sierra Club, the EPA started an investigation last April into the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) and the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH). In October, partway through their investigation, the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights sent a letter of concern to the LDEQ and the LDH regarding their role in health issues and disparities in the region.
While both departments are “charged with the important mission of protecting the health of the people of Louisiana,” the letter states, their “actions or inactions have resulted and continue to result in disparate adverse impacts on Black residents of St. John the Baptist Parish, St. James Parish, and the industrial corridor.”
“There is no question … that elevated cancer risk for residents of all ages and school children still exists and has existed as a result of breathing air polluted with chloroprene and that this risk has impacted and currently impacts Black residents disproportionately,” the letter continues, saying that these residents have been “subjected to discrimination through LDEQ's actions and inactions.”
In a statement to the Associated Press, the LDEQ said the letter “was not a finding, but rather a step in the ongoing process,” and that the department will keep working “to resolve any issues and is committed to being protective of human health and the environment.”
The LDH said in a statement that they “take these concerns very seriously and are committed to health equity — which is why we are fully cooperating with the EPA’s investigation into Denka,” as CNN and other outlets reported.
Last December, the EPA issued a final order to Denka to address the company’s violation of proper hazardous waste management practices.
Denka spokesperson Jim Harris said in an email to Everyday Health that the company is working to “develop and implement further emissions reduction efforts” at the plant to build upon the “over 85 percent reduction in chloroprene emissions achieved at the facility as a result of the company’s $35 million in emissions reduction technology and equipment since it purchased the facility in 2015.”
Taylor says more still needs to be done. “We need to stop the dying if we know what’s causing the cancer. Is it something inherent in this community that they’ve called it Cancer Alley? What are they doing to stop it?” he asks. “Negative ramifications go far beyond cancer. Cancer is a terrible way to try to live.”
Yet he’s encouraged that, with Green The Church and other groups’ dedication to get individuals and communities involved, the fight for environmental justice is growing. “[The church] has been absent in my struggle,” says Taylor. “I’m excited about their support.”
Efforts by Rev. Emily Carroll and the newly created Louisiana-Texas affiliate chapter will ramp up in 2023, starting with their first climate revival this spring: a one-day event featuring nationally recognized Black pastors, top gospel artists, workshops, worship services, and environmental justice leaders aiming to raise awareness, educate, and inspire people to take action.
In a somewhat more intimate setting, she will also organize “chat and chew” panel discussions with local organizations in which they “talk about the ails in the community, educate people about what’s happening in their backyard, how these chemicals are impacting them, and how they can help make change happen,” she says. “There are regulations and hearings — and a period for the public to comment on these issues. We don’t want people accepting what’s going on. They must be conscious of the companies coming into our cities so we don’t get any more of certain kinds of companies,” she says.
As passionate as Rev. Carroll is about making environmental justice and policy a priority, she acknowledges that the work is a struggle.
“It’s an uphill fight. It’s about money. Companies are making a lot of money, and there are a lot of jobs in those plants,” she says. But she refuses to lose heart and says she will continue educating people to protect God’s creation, as well as the health and well-being of vulnerable communities of color. “Knowledge is power. Half the battle is getting knowledge out there.”