By objecting to the term ‘Cancer Alley,’ Sen. Bill Cassidy is defending polluters, not Louisiana

‘People are dying because of the pollution,’ environmental leader says

Signs outside Sharon Lavigne's house on the West Bank of St. James Parish indicate her opposition to a proposed $9.4 billion manufacturing complex proposed by Formosa Plastics and her advocacy on behalf of residents in "Cancer Alley." Lavigne is president of the environmental justice group Rise. St. James. (Photo provided by Sharon Lavigne)

“He call himself a doctor?” a fuming Sharon Lavigne said of U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy Thursday morning. “What kind of doctor is he?! A doctor to just let people die?”

For the record, the senior senator from Louisiana is a gastroenterologist, a physician who diagnoses and treats disorders of the digestive system, but Lavigne, a leader of the environmental justice group Rise St. James, wasn’t asking about Cassidy’s specialty. She was accusing him of a lack of concern unbecoming his profession.

Lavigne was worked up because Cassidy told The Advocate that President Joe Biden using the phrase “Cancer Alley” as he pledged to prioritize environmental justice was “a slam on the state.” Cassidy also dismissed a link between the number of industrial plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and elevated rates of cancer.

We have a higher incidence of cigarette smoking, of obesity, of certain viral infections, and other things which increase the incidence of cancer in our state,” Cassidy said. “So whenever you speak of Cancer Alley … you have to do what is called a regression analysis to separate out those factors … and several others that could be an alternative, and a more typical explanation for why some folks may have cancer. When you do that, the amount of cancer which is left unexplained is pretty marginal.” 

Lavigne, a 68-year-old retired teacher who’s been fighting to keep Formosa Plastics from building a $9.4 billion manufacturing complex about a mile from her house, doesn’t consider the cancers in her community on the west bank of St. James Parish unexplained. “We are not lying. This is fact. People are dying because of the pollution.” 

Formosa, according to its own permit application, would double the amount of air pollution in St. James.

Lavigne’s neighbors to her left and right both died of cancer, and the list of people she personally knows who’ve died of that disease is “no less than 50,” she said. “Me and my brother was sitting down, and we were trying to name all the people we thought about. We couldn’t stop naming. I said, ‘Golly, I forgot that one had cancer.’”

Cassidy calls “Cancer Alley” an insult to Louisiana, but he’s obviously conflating the chemical industry with the state itself. He claims to be defending Louisiana, but he’s only parroting language that the chemical industry has been using for decades to defend itself.  

In 1989, for example, a California lawmaker linked pollution caused by Louisiana chemical plants to elevated cancer rates in people who lived nearby. That lawmaker used that data to argue for an updated Clean Air Act. At the same time, the Louisiana Chemical Association blamed the state’s higher rates of cancer on cigarettes and the food eaten by people living near chemical plants.

“Tell Cassidy we’re gonna call it ‘Death Alley,’” Lavigne said. That might sound like a rejoinder Lavigne came up with in the moment, but it’s not.  When her organization, Rise St. James, joined forces with Concerned Citizens of St. John and with additional allies in New Orleans, they called the combination of all them “Coalition Against Death Alley.”

It’s “mostly cancer” that worries them, Lavigne said, but it’s also higher rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Historically, people in the area have expressed concerns about what seems to them to be an unusually high frequency of miscarriages.

A sign outside Rise St. James President Sharon Lavigne’s house indicates her opposition to a $9.4 billion manufacturing complex proposed by Formosa Plastics and her preferred name for “Cancer Alley”: “Death Row.” (Photo provided by Sharon Lavigne)

As hard as it might be to believe, calling it “Death Alley” was a compromise for Lavigne. “At first I wanted to call it ‘Death Row,’ and they said, ‘Oh, no, Sharon.’ I was just saying what I feel. We’re living on death row.”

Like the rest of Louisiana’s congressional delegation, Cassidy has only expressed concern about the death of jobs he says Biden will cause. 

For Lavigne, it means a lot that the plight of Black people on the west bank of St. James has been acknowledged by the president of the United States.  “I really have hope,” she said. “I really do.”

Her hope is no small thing. Lavigne said that there hadn’t been a single elected official — Democrat or Republican — who’d supported her community’s fight against Formosa.  She suspects that politicians from the parish council level to Congress know there’s more money to be had supporting the plants than opposing them. “Money can’t save my life,” she said.

She said she was asked: ‘“Sharon, if they come and offer you a million dollars, would you take it?” 

“I said, ‘Hell no. My life is more important.’”

 ‘“What if they offered you 5 million?” 

“‘Five times hell no.’”