Commentary

You only have to smell ‘Cancer Alley’ to know how toxic it is

Anecdotal and statistical evidence justify the chemical corridor’s nickname

February 10, 2021 7:00 am

The Coalition Against Death Alley held a 5-day march from Reserve to Baton Rouge that began May 30, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Ted Quant)

Driving to work from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and back everyday was no easy task. The rush-hour traffic was brutal both ways. To save time and my nerves, I often avoided Baton Rouge traffic by traveling on Louisiana Highway 30.

That’s when I came face-to-face with “Cancer Alley,” or, as activists now call it: “Death Alley.”

You smell Cancer/Death Alley long before you are in it. The odor changes depending on what the 150 chemical plants or refineries are releasing into air that day. It could smell like rotten eggs, burning chemicals or something even more pungent. Regardless of what I smelled, I knew it was toxic.

I don’t have a medical degree. I am not a chemical engineer. I don’t work for the Environmental Protection Agency.  However, it doesn’t take a genius to know that the chemicals released by these plants are not good for any of us. For those living in communities along the 85-mile stretch from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, they are deadly. In fact, these residents, who are mostly Black Americans, are more than 50 times as likely to get cancer than the average American.

This news is not new, but apparently U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy – Dr. Bill Cassidy – did not get the memo. Last week, he reprimanded President Joe Biden for mentioning Cancer Alley in a speech after he signed an executive order to combat climate change and pollution. Cassidy said Biden’s remarks were “a slam upon our state.”

Can something be a slam when it’s true? Despite Cassidy’s claim that Louisiana’s higher rates of cancer are caused by lifestyle choices, such as smoking or overeating, there is anecdotal and statistical evidence that says otherwise.

Let’s look at history. In 1987, the primarily African-American and low-income residents on Jacobs Drive in St. Gabriel started tracking the number of cancer cases on their street. They counted 15 cancer victims in a two-block stretch. That’s when Jacobs Drive became known as Cancer Alley. As more incidences of cancer became prevalent in nearby communities, the designation expanded to include the entire petrochemical corridor.

In 2000, Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data showed that Louisiana ranked second in the nation for total onsite toxic releases, third for total releases within the state, and fourth for total on- and offsite releases. Seven of the 10 plants in the state with the largest combined on- and offsite releases are located in Cancer Alley. Four of the 10 plants with the largest onsite releases in the state also are located there.

In 2002, Louisiana had the second-highest death rate from cancer in the United States. While the national average is 206 deaths per 100,000, Louisiana’s rate was 237.3 deaths per 100,000. The same study says that among people of color, incidences of stomach cancer, diabetes and heart disease were significantly higher in our industrial corridor than in the United States as a whole.

U.S. cancer risks from air toxics as estimated by the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment. (Environmental Protection Agency)

In 2014, the EPA’s National Air Toxic Assessment determined that the risk of these residents getting cancer from air pollution was 95 percent higher than most Americans.

In 2020, Cancer Alley became Coronavirus Alley, The Sierra Club said, after residents began to disproportionally die from COVID-19. The environmental organization reported in its national magazine that St. John the Baptist Parish, which is located in Cancer Alley, had the nation’s highest per capita COVID-19 death rate in April.

According to a study by Kimberly Terrell of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, a small increase in long-term exposure to PM 2.5 emissions led to a large increase in COVID-19 death rates. Respiratory illnesses caused by air pollution – chronic cough, bronchitis, chest illnesses and pneumonia – are preexisting conditions that make COVID-19 more deadly.

In a May 4 article published by The Lens, Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, professor and Freeport-McMoran Chair of Environmental Policy at Tulane University, explained that PM 2.5 is a contaminant composed of “very small pieces of dust.” She added that PM 2.5 “is so microscopically fine that we can inhale these particles, and can’t cough them up. Eventually, this buildup compromises the lungs, and then you are at higher risk for any lung disease or infection … be it asthma, COPD or COVID-19.”

Despite these and other findings, our congressional, state and parish officials, regardless of party, continuously dismiss and ignore pollution-associated health hazards in Cancer Alley. Cassidy’s unwarranted “outrage” is just another example of an official valuing these large chemical plants more than our residents’ lives – especially residents who are black, brown or poor.

That’s a slam we can no longer afford to tolerate.

This is Tammy C. Barney’s debut column for the Illuminator. Look for her column 2nd and 4th Wednesdays of every month.

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Tammy C. Barney
Tammy C. Barney

Award-winning columnist Tammy Carter Barney earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans before starting her career at The Daily Comet in Thibodaux. She covered city government and education, wrote a column and was the first Black woman to work as the paper's managing editor. She worked at The Times-Picayune as a bureau chief, assistant city editor, TV editor and columnist and while there earned a MBA from Tulane University. She left The Times-Picayune for The Orlando Sentinel, where she served as an editor and wrote a weekly column for the lifestyle section. Her writing has won her multiple awards, including the prestigious Vernon Jarrett Award for Journalistic Excellence for a series of columns on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In addition to writing, Tammy is passionate about quilting and singing with the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church Praise Team and Contemporary Choir. She also serves as chair of the New Orleans Human Rights Commission. For 17 years, Tammy was married to the late Keith G. Barney. She has one daughter and one granddaughter.

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