In 1959, the Dow Chemical Company moved into Plaquemine, Louisiana, and began making vinyl chloride, a colorless cancer-causing gas used to produce a variety of plastic products. Twenty years later, after years of chemical-related poisoning, vinyl chloride was found in the wells of nearby Morrisonville.
The predominantly Black River Parishes along the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge are overrun with over 150 plants and refineries. This area was once dubbed Cancer Alley by residents and media because of the clusters of cancer patients in the area. Now residents are calling it Death Alley because of the significant amount of deaths by cancer and other illnesses among the residents who live near the industrial pollution.
“You put poison in the land, water and in the air, the result is sickness and death. The planned killing of any group is genocide,” Pat Bryant, the son of sharecroppers and a resident of New Orleans, said frankly. Bryant started Justice and Beyond in 2012 as a response to social and environmental injustice along the Louisiana parishes.
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After Emancipation, in 1863, many formerly enslaved Americans remained in the South, occupied fertile plots of land, and built themselves small shanties along the curvatures of the serpent-like Mississippi River, not far from the plantations that once enslaved them. These communities represented freedom and prosperity long fought for.
Descendants of enslaved Americans who, against all odds, made lives for themselves along the Mississippi have found themselves next door to refineries, chemical plants, and waste dumps in one of the most heavily polluted areas of the country. Cities like Morrisonville, Diamond, Mossville, Sunrise, and Revilletown, all founded by formerly enslaved Americans, have all been erased by environmental racism. Each town was devastated by the toxins emitted into the air, water, and soil surrounding their communities by multinational petrochemical companies like Shell and Georgia Gulf Corp. that inevitably seeped onto their land, into their homes, and poisoned their bodies. Those who didn’t fall ill and die were eventually bought out or moved.
The town of Morrisonville, founded in the late 1870s after the Civil War, was wiped off the map by the 1980s. “Morrisonville is one of the sad stories that had so much promise at the end of slavery and fell to such tough circumstances during Reconstruction. The people were able to make a living. They built houses. They educated their families when there was no public education for African Americans. And some of them were able to send their kids to college to build a better life,” Bryant told me.
Today, Dow Louisiana, the largest petrochemical company in the state, resides there, and the only thing left of the historic community of Morrisonville is the town cemetery and its more than 100 years of familial ties. The exploitation and genocide of Black Americans may look different in the 21st century, but there is no denying that racism, environmental and otherwise, plays a powerful role in the fates of these predominately Black Louisiana parishes, and much of America.
Every family along the River Parishes has lost droves of loved ones to cancer and other pollution-related ailments. Many have joined or created activist groups opposing large petrochemical companies, but their cries are being dismissed and pushed aside while people are getting sick and dying at alarming rates.
Resident Mary Hampton started Concerned Citizens of St. John as a result of the lack of action from public officials and the deadly effects of chloroprene coming from the Denka plant to the residents of St. John. In 2016, the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment revealed that residents living near the Denka Performance Elastomer plant were 800 times more likely to get cancer. Denka is the sole source of chloroprene in the United States. Since rule-making is such a long and strenuous process, the EPA does not prioritize compounds that are not present in more than one community.
“My father had prostate cancer, my two sisters-in-law died with breast cancer, my son-in-law died from bone cancer, my other brother died of bone cancer. So many members of my immediate family that I have lost,” Hampton said of Denka’s legacy in St. John. Her voice broke as she detailed many of those close to her who passed before their time and the children they left behind. “We just want a safe place to live, that’s all.”
According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, in the Environmental Protection Agency’s “22-year history of processing environmental discrimination complaints, the office has never once made a formal finding of a Title VI (prohibits discrimination on the base of race, color, or national origin) violation.” Latinx Americans are exposed to 63 percent more pollution than they create and Black Americans are exposed to 56 percent, in comparison with white Americans, who are exposed to 17 percent less, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. People of color contribute less to the overall effects of pollution but carry the bulk of the burden.
Stephanie Cooper, a 50-year-old teacher of 29 years, is Vice President of RISE St. James, an activist group fighting to block Formosa Plastics. Cooper’s family has lived in St. James Parish for four generations. Her father, Oliver Cooper Sr., purchased their land when she was just eight years old. During this same time, he challenged the status quo by running for St. James Councilman — a seat that he kept well into his 70s.
Now, Formosa plans to build a massive ethane cracker complex a mile from the local public school which would emit ethylene oxide, a toxic chemical that causes cancers like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and breast cancer.
“We used to enjoy just sitting outside or with the screen door [open] but you can’t do that anymore. The door has to be closed,” Cooper explained. The pollution in the area is so bad that the beautiful garden her family once had is no longer possible and the critters have all but left. “We used to catch butterflies with butterfly nets and catch dragonflies on the fences, but you don’t see too much of that anymore. Now you’d be lucky if you see a pigeon.”
“If Formosa come in, that’s it,” Milton Cayette told me. Cayette’s great-great-grandfather bought 17 acres of land in the late 1800s, which Cayette tends to and lives on to this day. “They said that if anything would happen people would need to be at least a one-mile radius from the center of the plant. They built it 300 feet from my house and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The Taiwanese Formosa Plastics Group was awarded The Black Planet Award in 2009, an award meant for companies creating the most ecological damage on a global level, by Ethecon Foundation. Ethecon cited “a continuing sequence of social and ecological foul play throughout the world.” In fact, one quarter of Taiwan’s greenhouse gas emissions could be tied back to FPG.
Yet, state and local officials offered FPG an estimated $1.5 billion in incentives to bring the chemical complex to St. James Parish, without disclosing any information to residents.