Cancer Alley

An aerial shot of the chemical plants and factories that line the roads and suburbs of the area known as "Cancer Alley" was taken on October 15, 2013.

(Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

'Death Sentence': Reports Call for End to Big Oil's US Sacrifice Zones

"People's lives and the environment are being devastated at the hands of big business," one human rights researcher said.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both published reports on Thursday detailing how the fossil fuel industry has harmed the health and environment of communities in Texas and Louisiana, and how state and federal regulators have failed to protect them.

The Amnesty report, The Cost of Doing Business? The Petrochemical Industry's Toxic Pollution in the USA, focused on the Houston Ship Channel, which has some of the worst air pollution measurements in the U.S. The HRW report, "We're Dying Here": The Fight for Life in a Louisiana Fossil Fuel Sacrifice Zone, looked at the state's Cancer Alley, an 85-mile zone along the Mississippi that reportedly has the highest concentration of fossil fuel and petrochemical plants in the Western Hemisphere.

"We're dying from inhaling the industries' pollution," 71-year-old Sharon Lavigne, who lives in the town of Welcome in Louisiana's St. James Parish and started the environmental justice group RISE St. James, told HRW. "I feel like it's a death sentence. Like we are getting cremated, but not getting burnt."

'Death Row'

In its report, HRW noted that Lavigne and other Cancer Alley residents put up yard signs reading, "We live on death row."

Cancer Alley—which extends from Baton Rouge to New Orleans—has around 200 petrochemical and fossil fuel plants. HRW observed many near to homes, schools, senior centers, playgrounds, and workplaces that would regularly release flares, smoke, or foul smells.

HRW interviewed 70 people between September 2022 and January 2024, including 37 residents as well as regulatory officials, health experts, and nonprofit workers. It spoke to people who had been diagnosed with cancers and various respiratory ailments. One census tract, in St. John Parish, has a cancer risk from air pollution that is more than seven times the national average, the highest in the nation.

"What's happening in Louisiana's Cancer Alley is indeed like a sacrifice, a daily human sacrifice on the altar of our global fossil fuel cult."

"People are getting cancer diagnoses as a result of industry being so close to our homes," 31-year-old Kaitlyn Joshua, who lives in Ascension Parish, told HRW.

The report also reveals new research on reproductive health that is currently under review for publication in Environmental Research Health. Scientists from Tulane University found that there were rates of low birth weight and preterm birth as much as triple the national average, and that the highest rates were found in areas with the highest pollution levels.

The ongoing public health crisis disproportionately impacts Black and low-income communities. For example, nearly 90% of the residents in Welcome are Black as well as 60% of the residents of St. John, compared to 33% of the state population and 13.6% of the national population.

The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment listed Cancer Alley in 2022 as one of the most toxic places on Earth, termed "sacrifice zones."

"What's happening in Louisiana's Cancer Alley is indeed like a sacrifice," HRW European media and editorial director Andrew Stroehlein wrote in his daily brief Thursday, "a daily human sacrifice on the altar of our global fossil fuel cult."

'Environmental Racism'

The Houston Ship Channel in southeast Texas is another "sacrifice zone" where the fossil fuel industry disproportionately harms the health of low-income communities of color, according to Amnesty.

"People's lives and the environment are being devastated at the hands of big business," Alysha Khambay, Amnesty International's researcher on business and human rights, said in a statement. "Affected communities are predominantly Latinx/Hispanic and Black, low income, often lack access to healthcare they need, and face almost insurmountable barriers to justice. It is environmental racism."

"The doctor can't tell you, 'You got this cancer because you live next to this plant.' But there's no way living right next to them is good. It isn't."

The report focused on four plants owned by major oil and gas companies: ExxonMobil's Baytown Complex, LyondellBasell's Channelview Complex, Shell's Deer Park Chemicals, and Intercontinental Terminals Company's (ITC) Deer Park. Amnesty International interviewed dozens of people and looked at documents, data, and videos and images of the plants between January and December of 2023. It found that the four plants had often released more air pollution than their permits allowed over the past two decades, and three of them had experienced a fire or explosion in the last five years.

As in Louisiana, the plants harm residents' health. They release carcinogenic chemicals including the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) benzene, toluene, 1-3 butadiene, and ethylene oxide. One study found higher rates of childhood leukemia in parts of Houston with higher levels of benzene and 1,3-butadiene. Life expectancy is as much as 20 years lower in some polluted areas when compared to majority white communities 15 miles away.

"My mom, she recently had uterine cancer," one resident told Amnesty. "A lot of people have cancer, breathing difficulties… The doctor can't tell you, 'You got this cancer because you live next to this plant.' But there's no way living right next to them is good. It isn't."

Respiratory illnesses are another major health issue, with 15 of 29 interviewees saying either they or a close relative had been diagnosed with one or experienced chronic symptoms like a persistent cough.

"It pretty much affects me and my family every single day," Channelview-area resident Alondra Torres told Amnesty. "There's always smells in the air, every time you step outside for a little while."

'Reluctant Regulators'

Both reports detailed how government agencies had failed to protect people living near polluting plants.

"The failure of state and federal authorities to properly regulate the industry has dire consequences for residents of Cancer Alley," Antonia Juhasz, HRW senior researcher on fossil fuels, said in a statement.

Resident Brenda Bryant told HRW that making a complaint to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) was like "going up against a brick wall."

"The current system is stacked in favor of the companies and against the people they harm."

A 2021 state audit found that the department did not thoroughly examine facilities' emissions reports, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Inspector General found in 2011 that LDEQ had the lowest level of enforcement in its region for the Clean Air Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and Clean Water Act.

"DEQ has been actively hostile to communities in Cancer Alley for a long, long time," law professor and University for Human Rights co-founder Ruhan Nagra told HRW.

Louisiana state Sen. Cleo Fields (D-14) said LDEQ was "like partners" with the fossil fuel industry.

"My experience of the last 20 years is that state officials consistently cover for the petroleum industry and the polluters," Louisiana Bucket Brigade director Anne Rolfes told HRW.

Yet the U.S. EPA has not adequately fulfilled its mandate to make sure federal laws are enforced, though HRW noted the agency was hampered by underfunding and hostile court rulings. While the Biden administration has made more of an emphasis on environmental justice, its EPA dropped an investigation into whether or not LDEQ and the Louisiana Department of Health had violated Title VI of the US Civil Rights Act by disproportionately exposing Black residents to pollution.

In an example of the difficulties facing Cancer Alley residents, a Louisiana appeals court on Friday upheld air permits for a proposed Formosa Plastics plant in the area, which would be the largest of its kind in the U.S., as The Guardian reported. Then, on Tuesday, a federal judge in Louisiana blocked the EPA from enforcing Title VI requirements going forward.

In Texas, meanwhile, Amnesty found that, in the past few years, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) penalized less than 3% of incidents in which a plant had exceeded its permitted level of pollution and that the fines it does issue are under the maximum amount and usually not high enough to dissuade the companies from reoffending.

"A company gets fined less than one person who's affected by it would spend on medical bills… it's very unfair," resident Carolyn Stone told Amnesty.

A 2022-23 review of the agency said its commissioners were "reluctant regulators" who largely allowed the industry to monitor itself.

"There is no effective regulatory deterrent to prevent these firms harming people, which they are doing with near impunity," Khambay said in a statement. "The current system is stacked in favor of the companies and against the people they harm. The human rights abuses related to the petrochemicals industry worldwide are often staggeringly harmful. This must and can change."

'The End of Fossil Fuels'

Both reports point out that the pollutants harming the residents of Cancer Alley and the Houston Ship Channel are also helping to destabilize the global climate and expose people around the world to extreme weather and other impacts. Around 150 plants in Cancer Alley were responsible for 66% of Louisiana's 2020 greenhouse gas emissions and released the equivalent of what 140 coal plants would release in a year between 2016 and 2021.

Petrochemical plants also produce plastics, a major environmental pollutant and health hazard. Yet their production is set to double by 2040, Amnesty said.

"It's long past time for governments to uphold their human rights obligations and for these sacrifices to end."

Both HRW and Amnesty said that regulators should stop approving new fossil fuel facilities in polluted areas and instead focus on a just transition to cleaner industries. HRW called for a Federal Fossil Fuel and Petrochemical Remediation and Relocation Plan, whereby companies in Louisiana would work with communities to provide jobs, decommission plants, remediate polluted areas, and offer to pay the moving expenses of residents who wished to relocate. Amnesty pointed out that renewable energy has the potential to employ more than 1.1 million people in Texas in the next quarter-century.

"I would like to see the end of fossil fuels," Lavigne told HRW. "If that's going to make me live a longer life, breathe clean air, drink clean water, they should shut them down."

HRW also said that Louisiana regulators should stop issuing permits in communities with high levels of pollution and that the EPA should use its Clean Air Act authority to shut down facilities until they can operate without breaking the law. In Texas, Amnesty said that local agencies should increase monitoring and enforcement, and also that the EPA should step in more frequently to enforce federal standards.

"It's long past time for governments to uphold their human rights obligations and for these sacrifices to end," Juhasz said in a statement.

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