Title Toxic Gumbo
Source Southern Exposure, Summer Fall 1998
Author Ron Nixon
Faculty Evaluator James Carr Ph.D.
Student Evaluators Lisa Desmond, Colleen Kelly, Monte Williams
Mainstream (partial) Coverage The Nation magazine, in the November 8, 1999 edition, published an article by Barbara Koeppel entitled ‘Cancer Alley, Louisiana. While outside of Project Censored annual awards cycle for 1999, the piece fully supported the story and added numerous details. PBS News, 9/27/98; CNN Cable, 9/13/97
Contained within the boundaries of a 100 mile stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans are seven oil refineries and 175 heavy industrial plants. Locally named “Cancer Alley,” the EPA reports that the majority of the 23 million pounds of toxic waste released into the air are in two zip code areas, primarily inhabited by Blacks. A 1992 National Law Journal investigation found that even when the government enforces the environmental regulations against companies in violation, the fines levied in these areas are significantly lower than those levied in White communities. Prompted by an increase in the public awareness, President Clinton signed an executive order in 1993 to open an investigation into the impact of the petrochemical industry’s practices in these communities of color. Despite the rhetoric, little has changed among the targeted communities. On the contrary, the State of Louisiana has run full page promotional ads in the Wall Street Journal promising significant incentives for large corporate industries to relocate in the State and touting the States passage of tort reform legislation that limits the liability of companies who lose negligence suits and restricts the ability of citizens to file claims against “these protected companies.”
The story of Cancer Alley grabbed the attention of both the local and national media. The most extensive coverage was understandably on the local or regional level in Louisiana and the Southeastern United States. The New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a commendable series of articles on Cancer Alley and the underlying issue of environmental racism. They concluded that “economic and environmental decisions made over decades had exposed poor and minority communities around the country to more pollution and environmental hazards than the population as a whole.” It also looked closely at the political fallout wrought by the Shintech controversy as well as medical studies, which focused on the health of the people living in the petrochemical corridor.
The Shintech controversy itself, on the other hand, has had national media attention. CBS’s 60 Minutes II focused on the plight of a Tulane law professor and his students who dared to oppose the building of the PVC processing plant. They talked about Cancer Alley, which provided the photographic backdrop for much of the piece. But it was NBC’s Nightly News that brought the issue to the forefront of mainstream media. Reporters conducted interviews with local citizens, provided first-hand accounts of life in the shadow of industry, and explored the health problems the people of Cancer Alley faced on a daily basis.
There is conflicting medical research on Louisiana’s petrochemical corridor. Industry leaders and state officials insist Cancer Alley is a myth. They point to statistics collected by the Louisiana Tumor Registry, part of the Louisiana State University Medical Center, which show no elevated cancer rates in the parishes of the region. The Registry’s findings have been challenged, however, by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), an umbrella organization representing more than 70 environmental groups around the state, and by Attorney General Richard Ieyoub. LEAN has been critical of the Tumor Registry for years, charging that its studies are not aimed at answering key questions about the connection between cancer rates and the state’s chemical industry. Attorney General Ieyoub expressed concern that the Louisiana Tumor Registry moves too slowly to pin down any cancer patterns that might affect children.
Environmental racism became an increasingly hot topic in the alternative media and minority newspapers. Larger, regional newspapers have also covered the issue when it relates to their own cities and towns. For instance, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution ran a story on a predominately Black neighborhood in southeastern Atlanta, where citizens are exposed to more toxic emissions than any other Atlanta community.
However, examples of environmental racism aren’t confined to the South. On the West Coast, the Navy let a fire at a toxic landfill located near the minority neighborhood of San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point smolder unchecked for almost three weeks before alerting the public. Across the bay, people in the predominately Black community of Richmond have a disproportionately high ratio of cancers they blame on emissions from the nearby Chevron oil refinery. Residents and community activists there have been trying for years to solicit funds for necessary health and contaminate screening. And in Odessa, Texas, the mostly poor, minority residents live in an almost constant carcinogenic chemical soup emitted by Huntsman Polymers. A proposed $1 million settlement for Odessa’s 6,000 residents seems a paltry compensation, and residents are determined to bring their plight to the attention of the Texas governor.
Sources: New Orleans Magazine, January 2000, “Cancer tally,” by Christine L. Manalla; The Times-Picayune; March 18, May 22, May 24, & June 20, 2000; 60 Minutes II, March 27, 2000, “Buying Judges?”; NBC Nightly News, May 26, 2000, “Health Problems in Mossville, Louisiana, Possibly Caused by Petrochemical Plants,” by Fred Francis; The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, August 26, 2000; The San Francisco Chronicle, September 11-19, 2000; Terrain, Fall 2000, “Illnesses Raise Tempers Downwind of Chevron’s Richmond Refinery”; The Texas Observer, September 22, 2000, “Hunstman’s Odessa Syndrome,” by Greg Harman.