United Nations experts condemn pollution of Cancer Alley as environmental racism

Group calls on feds to deliver environmental justice in U.S., starting with St. James Parish

By: - March 5, 2021 4:21 pm
United Nations condemns Cancer Alley pollution

The EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment mapping tool shows dark shades of gray — indicating levels of cancer risk — over the region of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley. (Image via EPA, https://gispub.epa.gov/NATA/)

A group of United Nations Human Rights experts has raised “serious concerns” about the continued industrialization of the region of Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley,” calling the permitted development of petrochemical facilities and ongoing pollution of St. James Parish a form of environmental racism against the mostly-Black community.

The group of 14 U.N. Human Rights experts strongly condemned companies that are currently polluting the communities or planning expansions along the 85-mile corridor that hugs the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. They also condemned the governments and agencies granting permits to those companies. The group, in a statement Tuesday, called on the federal government to deliver environmental justice to communities across the United States, starting with St. James Parish.

Anne Rolfes, an environmentalist with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, welcomed the U.N.’s recognition of the pollution issue in South Louisiana and said she hopes state officials will take it as a cue to act.

“It’s easy to get used to atrocities that are happening in your own backyard, but when you step back and look at the situation in St. James Parish and along Cancer Alley, it does rise to the level of human rights abuse and humanitarian tragedy,” Rolfes said. “The United Nations Report is crucial recognition of what’s happening in St. James Parish. The state and the local parish council are cramming all of the pollution into the two highest majority Black districts. The United Nations has recognized that that is environmental racism. We are relieved and grateful that the United Nations has taken a stand, and we would like our state officials to follow.”

There are more than 150 petrochemical facilities in the area known as Cancer Alley, and many have been found to have released toxic pollutants into the surrounding air and water. 

This, according to recent studies, is likely contributing to the spikes in cancer rates and COVID-19 deaths among the residents, though studies have yet to prove a clear scientific link of causation. Still, the Environmental Protection Agency has expressed serious concern after concluding that concentrations of cancer-causing pollution coming from the plants along the corridor are among the highest in the country. The region is starkly contrasted from the rest of the state on the EPA’s air toxin mapping tool, which uses gray shades of increasing darkness to indicate a given area’s cancer risk.

Some communities in Cancer Alley, such as the mostly-Black town of St. Gabriel in Iberville Parish, have little to show for hosting chemical plants and giving tax breaks to the multimillion-dollar corporations that own them. St. Gabriel’s poverty rate far exceeds the state’s average as facilities there employ mostly out-of-town workers, according to a ProPublica report.

“This form of environmental racism poses serious and disproportionate threats to the enjoyment of several human rights of its largely African American residents, including the right to equality and non-discrimination, the right to life, the right to health, the right to an adequate standard of living and cultural rights,” the U.N. experts said in Tuesday’s press release.

Federal environmental regulators have failed to protect Cancer Alley’s residents, the experts said. 

In 2018, St. James Parish Council approved the Formosa Plastics “Sunshine Project,” which proposes to be one of the largest plastics facilities in the world. The Parish Council also approved plans to build methanol complexes by YCI Methanol One and South Louisiana Methanol. Formosa Plastics’ petrochemical complex alone will more than double the cancer risks in St. James Parish, affecting a disproportionate number of African American residents, they said. 

St. James Parish Council Chairman Alvin St. Pierre would not comment when reached by phone Friday.

According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Toxic Assessment map, the cancer risks in predominantly African American districts in St. James Parish could be at 104 and 105 cases per million, while other districts with predominantly white populations, could have a cancer risk ranging from 60 to 75 per million.

The construction of the new petrochemical complexes will exacerbate the environmental pollution and the disproportionate adverse effect on the rights to life, to an adequate standard of living and to the health of African American communities. The combined emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent per year in a single parish could exceed those of 113 countries, the U.N. experts said.

They also expressed concern with possible violations of the cultural rights of the Black communities in the area, where at least four ancestral burial grounds of enslaved Africans are at risk of destruction by the construction of the Formosa facility.

“The African American descendants of the enslaved people who once worked the land are today the primary victims of deadly environmental pollution that these petrochemical plants in their neighborhoods have caused,” the U.N. group said. “We call on the United States and St. James Parish to recognize and pay reparations for the centuries of harm to Afro-descendants rooted in slavery and colonialism.”

The experts, known as special rapporteurs, work under the United Nations Human Rights Council’s “Special Procedures,” the largest body of independent experts in the U.N. Human Rights system. Special Procedures is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. The experts work as volunteers and are independent of any government or organization.

Christina Stephens, spokesperson for Gov. John Bel Edwards, responded to the Illuminator’s request for comment, saying, “The governor hasn’t reviewed the U.N. report, but great care is taken in the site selection process to identify locations that safeguard communities and their residents. State and federal regulators require an extensive environmental permitting process before construction can begin. Through those permits, industry is required to protect human health and the environment.”

Greg Bowser, president of industrial lobby group Louisiana Chemical Association, released the following statement on Friday:

“Louisiana faces many health challenges as a state, including higher cancer incidence compared to the rest of the country. But it isn’t related to industrial activity. In fact, according to the Louisiana Tumor Registry – a statewide registry of cancer incidences administered by LSU’s School of Public Health – rates of cancer in the Industrial Corridor on the whole are even with or below those in the rest of the state. The science is clear: the Cancer Alley moniker is unwarranted.  

“We whole-heartedly disagree with the statement put forth by the U.N. Human Rights experts. We have seen no science or evidence of a preconceived decision by manufacturers to place chemical plants in areas based on the racial demographics of the region. We do not know if this group found evidence of such actions, and if they did, the statement they released does not share that information with the general public.  

“As our industry has told state and federal officials, including President (Joe) Biden, it’s past time to stop talking about a fictional ‘Cancer Alley’ and instead work to address the real challenges we face as a state. We want all Louisiana communities to be healthy and prosperous. Anything we can do to achieve that together is a win for everyone.” 

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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