The term ‘Cancer Alley’ has a long history in Louisiana — and even a history before Louisiana

Sen. Cassidy calls Biden’s use of it ‘a slam upon our state’

By: - February 5, 2021 3:28 pm

Photo courtesy of Ted Quant

Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy said he took offense to President Joe Biden using the term “Cancer Alley” to describe an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that has 150 chemical plants and refineries that nearby residents have long blamed for a variety of illnesses. Cassidy called the president’s remark “a slam upon our state” that he would not accept.

How did the Mississippi River corridor come to be called “Cancer Alley?” And when?

The phrase appears to have first gained notoriety not as a description of the River Parishes but as a description of a cluster of industrial plants in the Northeast U.S. or as a description for a cluster of industrial plants in New Jersey. 

A 1976 story that ran in The States-Item uses “cancer alley” to describe an area stretching from Boston to Richmond. In a 1983 Times-Picayune story about a bill that would give workers and nearby residents the right to know the chemicals being processed at those plants, the reporter interviewed a New Jersey lawmaker who had introduced a “right to know” law there. He said what had long been called “chemical alley” in New Jersey could be better described as “cancer alley.”

Somehow, the term caught on in Louisiana, but it’s first appearance in a Louisiana newspaper seems to have come in 1987 in The Times-Picayune. It was not used to describe a place between New Orleans and the state capital, nor was it used to describe a large geographic area. It was used to describe a particular street in a community downriver from New Orleans.

From that article: “One man who lives on Jacob Street near Murphy (Oil Corp.) dubbed the street ‘Cancer Alley.”  That article quoted Frank Delgado saying:, “I know at least 12 people who died of cancer on my street. I know of five people who have cancer now.”

That same year, the NFL players union called for tests to be conducted at Giants Stadium in New Jersey after four New York Giants players had been diagnosed with cancer during an eight-year span.

Photo courtesy of Ted Quant

Only later did “Cancer Alley” become a term to describe that stretch of chemical plants and refineries in the River Parishes. In 1988 The Advocate reported that activists from Greenpeace criticized the Louisiana legislature for kowtowing to lobbyists by hanging a 25-foot banner at One American Place in Baton Rouge depicting a check. The check was addressed to the Louisiana legislature from “Cancer Alley, LA.”

“The Great Louisiana Toxics March” from Baton Rouge to New Orleans took place in November 1988.  Pat Bryant, executive director of the Louisiana Toxics Project, was quoted then as saying, “This action today will represent the coming together of a number of constituents in what is known as Cancer Alley.,‘”

Bryant, a leader of the New Orleans-based civil rights coalition Justice and Beyond, said he and others began using “Cancer Alley”  because “we were seeing the destruction of these communities with these chemicals.”

“People had to move because they were being wiped out by different diseases,” he said. “The most prevalent of which seemed to be cancer.”

Bryant said he agrees with Biden putting a focus on “Cancer Alley” and that Cassidy’s objection amounts to “a bowing down” to chemical plants.

At the same time, many activists fighting environmental pollution in the River Parishes have adopted a new term.  Bryant helped organize an environmental justice march from New Orleans to Baton Rouge in July 2019, and the people participating called themselves “Coalition Against Death Alley.”

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JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is a former Louisiana Illuminator reporter. Prior to working with the Illuminator, Canicosa worked for Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon. Canicosa earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.