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Wed Oct 30, 2019, 07:07 PM

Louisiana's 'Cancer Alley' Is Getting Even More Toxic -- But Residents Are Fighting Back

Sharon Lavigne knows some 30 people who have died in and around her tiny parish of St. James, Louisiana, in just the past five years. She buried two close friends this past weekend — one died of cancer, the other heart disease. Two of her brothers have cancer, and her boyfriend of 17 years died of COPD, a respiratory disease linked to air pollution and chemical fumes, in 2013. He was “vibrant and healthy,” she says, until a pipeline company expanded its operations next to his home, adding millions more gallons of crude oil storage tanks. “It was the pollution that killed him,” Lavigne says.

This is life in “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch along the banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where industry leaders like ExxonMobil, Koch, and Shell operate about 150 fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities. Seven of the 10 census tracts with the highest cancer risk in the nation are found here. The exceptionally elevated toxic air emissions released by the industry are linked to a host of ailments, from cancer to cardiovascular and respiratory disease to reproductive and developmental disorders. And in St. James, toxic facilities are increasingly concentrated in areas with the highest percentage of black and poor residents.

It is the frontline of environmental racism. And it is poised to get worse.

Five generations of Lavigne’s family have lived in St. James, including most of her six children and 12 grandchildren. Not far from her home stands a historical marker heralding the 1872 founding of the Settlement of Freetown by former slaves, who began cultivating the land with sugarcane farms. Lavigne still lives on the original 40 acres purchased by her grandfather. The first petrochemical plant opened down the road when she was a student at St. James High. There are now 12 petrochemical plants within a 10-mile radius of her home. The air still fills with the sweet syrupy scent of candy when the sugarcane is harvested in the area, but now it’s often overwhelmed by acrid smells that irritate the eyes, sinuses, and skin.


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