From Sun Jun 24 18:27:02 2001
From: Juanita Marie Holland <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Touring Cancer Alley
Precedence: bulk
Date: Sun, 24 Jun 2001 18:11:32 -0400 (EDT)

Touring Cancer Alley

By Juanita Marie Holland, Ph.D. <>,, 21 June 2001

We live in a toxic prison, declared Vera Brooks, a community leader in Ella, a small black community near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Ella was the first stop on a Celebrity Tour organized by the environmental organization Greenpeace on July 9, 2001. Attendees included writer Alice Walker, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, actor Mike Farrell, poet and publisher Haki R. Madhubuti and representatives of Congressman John Conyers’ and Congresswoman Julia Carson’s offices (Alfre Woodard, Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran, who had originally committed to attending the Tour, were unable to come because of scheduling conflicts).

Snaking along an 80-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the tour traveled Cancer Alley, so-called for its dense cluster of petrochemical plants, oil refineries and other toxic industries. At the southwestern end of the state, the cities and towns of Calcasieu Parish, some of them founded by freed slaves in the 19th century, sit next to more than 53 industrial factories; more than 40 of the plants are clustered in a ten-mile radius. Recent tests have shown that residents of Mossville, a small town near Lake Charles, have dioxin levels in their blood three times the national average.

The communities these plants loom over, most of them made up of poorer African American families, have complained for years of the contamination of their land, water and air, and the attendant cancers and other life-threatening illnesses that have been so prevalent since the chemical factories moved in. Their environment, with its intense concentration of vinyl chloride plants—the chief producers of dioxins—has earned the title Global Toxic Hotspot, while the state of Louisiana as a whole has been labeled a polluter’s paradise by Greenpeace.

But this pollution isn’t evenly distributed. The more African Americans and Latinos live in a community, the more likely it is to have commercial hazardous waste facilities and chemical plants. In 1993 the Louisiana Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights stated that black communities in Louisiana are disproportionately affected by the state government’s system for issuing permits.

The tour brought national activists and celebrities together with local groups who have been working along with Greenpeace to fight the poisoning of their communities, including Dr. Beverly Wright, Director of the Deep South Center on Environmental Justice; Dorothy Felix, Vice President of Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN); and Marylee Orr, Director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN).

In Ella, Myrtle Grove, Norco and New Sarpy, delegates stopped to listen to the imperiled and angry residents of these small country towns. They watched children on playgrounds framed by factory smoke, and listened to tales of toxic contamination, abandoned towns, cancer, respiratory illness and genetic defects. They heard condemnations of a corrupt government that serves the chemical industry rather than the people.

As you know, some of you, I am also a Southerner, and we have very deep connections to the land, Alice Walker said to the congregation after an emotional church meeting in Myrtle Grove. We belong here, this is our home, she said. How dare they pollute it?

Moments like this, Congresswoman Maxine Waters said, are when I’m most ashamed of my government. There are a lot of issues that we are dealing with, but none are more important than saving the land, saving the water, keeping the soil and the air from being contaminated. Thank you for refocusing me. Thank you for saying to me, ’Stop, look and listen, and take that anger to Washington and do something about it.’

At their first stop, less than two miles from the Georgia Gulf chemical plant, the town of Ella’s water supply is contaminated by vinyl chloride and arsenic. Ella, also known as Ella Plantation, derives its name from the slaveholding plantation that once occupied the site. As the celebrity delegation listened, Brooks described Ella’s deterioration, how death and illness had cut their community by two-thirds, how toxic contamination made it almost impossible to keep animals or harvest a vegetable garden. We’re in an awful place here, she said, and we’re just like dogs waiting to be gassed. We have nowhere to go, and we need your help. We can’t move, but if we all help each other, we can move [Georgia Gulf, one of the petrochemical companies] out of here.

If the companies don’t move, sometimes the townspeople have to, as a matter of survival. As the bus drove past the former sites of Reveilletown and Morrisonville, tour participants heard former residents talk about the deaths of their communities. The people literally started dying out when the plant came around us, said Linda Turner. In 1987, the residents of Reveilletown sued Georgia Gulf, claiming serious health problems and property damage from the company’s vinyl manufacturing. In a settlement sealed by the court, Georgia Gulf relocated the families and bulldozed every building in the town. Soon after, residents of nearby Morrisonville threatened action against Dow Chemical for creating similarly toxic conditions in their town. To avoid a potentially massive liability, Dow relocated residents to a new subdivision. Now nothing remains of Morrisonville but the cemetery where the town’s people had been buried for more than 100 years. When residents moved into Morrisonville Acres, the new community built for them, many died of illnesses before they could enjoy their new homes.

In the towns of Norco and New Sarpy, residents live only a few feet from the Shell Chemical, Orion and Motiva chemical plants. Just one day before the tour arrived, lighting struck a nearby gas storage tank, sparking a fire that burned all night. Residents of Cancer Alley have complained for years of the frequency of such dangerous events.

Tour attendees gathered on the children’s playground, just yards away from the immense chemical complex: a metal maze of girders, catwalks and smokestacks that belched clouds of thick dark smoke and flared with the burnoff of chemical wastes. They listened as residents spoke of their struggles negotiating with the chemical companies for funding to help them relocate. Local children stood holding signs reading Give Us a Safe Playground, Too Many Explosions, Shell is Choking Us, Relocation NOW and Life, Not Early Death.

The struggle has gone on a long time, said Margie Richard, president of Concerned Citizens of Norco. Our constitution says equality and justice for all, but we know that it doesn’t operate that way. We’re going to press on to see that. Live up to what you say on paper, America. Live up to what you say at the table, White House. Live up to what you say. The greed for money and the greed for power have been killing us too long. But we stand strong, for the gneration you see here, and those behind.

The tour ended with a National Town Hall Meeting on Chemical Hazards, Human Health and Environmental Justice at New Orleans’ Southern University. A former student described the 1997 barge explosion that sent clouds of the chemical benzene across the campus and into the classrooms. The audience grew silent as she listed the illnesses that have plagued her ever since.

Then the scientists weighed in. Dr. Mary Elizabeth Harmon of Greenpeace’s Toxic Campaign; Dr. Peter Orris from Cook County Hospital in Chicago; Dr. Paul Temple; former Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality; and Dr. Bob Bullard, a professor at Clark Atlanta University. Emelda West, a 75-year-old Convent resident who became an environmental activist after her 30-year-old daughter died of breast cancer, described Dr. Bullard as the godfather of the environmental justice movement.

While participants and activists applauded the interracial quality of the struggle against environmental racism, they also noted the troubling fact that the majority of vinyl and other polluting facilities in Louisiana are located in poor communities, most often communities of color. These African Americans, whose ancestors suffered the horrors of slavery, now find themselves once again disenfranchised and oppressed—prey to the commercial interests of large, powerful industries who are willing to risk the health and futures of communities of color and other citizens whose political voices were not loud enough to be heard over the din of industrial greed.