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There’s Something in the Air: Environmental Racism in Louisiana

Posted on 01. Nov, 2019 by

Louisiana’s investments in the oil and gas industry have resulted in an exponential increase in public health issues throughout the state. The industry’s continued dominance in Louisiana is directly responsible for the creation of “Cancer Alley,” the stretch of industrial plants located along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that has caused an unprecedented number of cancer diagnoses in the surrounding communities. While cancer does not discriminate by race, ethnicity, or income level, Louisiana’s excessive number of petrochemical facilities in African-American and working-class communities disproportionately affects those groups. These plants are not only poisoning the environment, but also people’s homes.

The oil and gas industry’s increased presence in Louisiana has accelerated the degradation of the environment throughout the state. Despite the serious public health implications that these facilities are having on their surrounding communities, Louisiana legislators continue to entertain oil and gas lobbyists. According to Dr. Robert Bullard, “what we have is energy apartheid, where poor communities and poor communities of color are still getting the dirtiest of the dirty energy.” As a result, Louisiana currently ranks second-worst among U.S. states when examining a wide range of environmental indicators and has the fifth highest cancer mortality in the country.  

There are over 150 different chemical plants located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. These factories are only required to be 500-feet from neighborhood homes, so residents are directly exposed to cancer causing toxins. Children in many parishes along “Cancer Alley” are even required to bring respirators to school in order to breathe properly.While the Louisiana Tumor Registry refuses to release the cancer rates of the towns along “Cancer Alley,” residents have done independent studies amongst themselves, which estimate that one in five people in their communities will die from cancer. The areas that are most affected by pollutants have predominantly African-American residents, whose unprecedented number of cancer diagnoses continues to grow. One’s home is supposed to be a place of comfort and safety, yet in these neighborhoods, home is a place associated with toxins and disease.

Since industrial plants release an abundance of toxins into the air, people living within these communities have higher than average dioxin levels in their blood. Increased dioxin levels have led to higher rates of infant mortality, respiratory problems, cancerous tumors, and a myriad of other health problems amongst these communities. The effects of the oil and gas industries on the environment are undeniable in St. James Parish. This is a majority African-American and working-class community has been continually chosen as the location of new petrochemical facilities. According to Eve Butler, a resident of this district, “in 2016, I was caught in the rain, and my face peeled from the chemicals. It was like a really bad sunburn.” Eve was diagnosed with breast cancer a year later and is currently too sick to return to work. Despite the evidence of acid rain and frequent cancer diagnoses, St. James Parish has been approved for a new methanol production facility in 2020.

Due to the influx of petrochemical facilities in St. James Parish, many residents have to move to find safer homes. However, property values in St. James Parish have plummeted due to its deteriorating environmental conditions. Houses that are closest to the industrial plants are often worth significantly less than the parish average. In some cases, buy-out offers provided compensation for residents who lived too close to a petrochemical facility. However, according to a St. James Parish resident, “while white residents sold their properties and moved away, black residents did not receive buy-out offers, we were left inhaling the toxic air produced by the invading petrochemical plants.” As a result, many African-American and working-class residents are forced to stay in these toxic homes because they cannot afford to move.This discriminatory policy shows how this environmental issue is also one of housing justice because some residents were not given the same opportunities as others to leave the toxic environment, 

In order to eliminate the environmental racism that takes place throughout the state, it is necessary to hold lawmakers accountable by demanding increased environmental regulations and less petrochemical facilities in Louisiana. Because everyone deserves to be safe and healthy in their home.

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