Black residents of Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ are suing just to be ‘poisoned a little less’

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For 60 years, the mostly Black residents living along an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans have endured the worst kinds of pollution.

The deadly kind.

They watched as over 150 multibillion-dollar petrochemical plants and refineries were permitted and built yards from their homes. Complaints to local, state and federal officials were mostly ignored — all while the long-suffering residents developed serious medical problems and died from various types of cancer.

Even the United Nations has called for changes in the area.

Today, the region, known as “Cancer Alley,” sits directly at the center of a nation tussling with its environmental morality. The current administration, alongside states and other regions, has already taken the first tentative steps toward a greener and environmentally moral future, where it hopes the ills of the past are righted and the voices of those hushed by the vast wealth of fossil fuel companies are heard.

But that future hasn’t arrived everywhere and may not for years to come. Residents in Cancer Alley have decided the only way to enact change in a place whose leaders continue to embrace the past was to file their own federal lawsuit.

A coalition of environmental groups led by Black women, many of whom trace their roots back to slavery in that 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River, filed their lawsuit at the end of last month, accusing local leaders of civil rights and religious liberty abuses.

The lawsuit accuses local government officials of continually approving the construction of petrochemical plants in two majority-Black districts and calls for a moratorium on the construction of new plants and the extension of existing facilities in St. James Parish.

The environmental justice group Inclusive Louisiana is also part of the lawsuit. Its three co-founders, Gail LeBoeuf, Barbara Washington and Myrtle Felton sat down with Reckon to discuss the case.


After all these decades of pollution and environmental injustice, why did you wait until now to file this lawsuit?

Gail LeBoeuf:

It’s been something that’s been building for over 60 years. What has happened is that St. James Parish ended up being a perfect parish in which you can actually show environmental racism occurring. It’s happening in one predominantly Black area of the parish. And even though that area runs for 20 miles downriver towards New Orleans on both sides, it’s still an example of racial discrimination. In places where predominantly white people live, they don’t have the same problems as us.

Did you do this all alone and what’s the basis of the lawsuit?

We filed the lawsuit with help from the Center for Constitutional Rights out of New York. We believe what’s happening violates the 13th and 14th Amendment. We became so disheartened because why would our elected officials keep putting these plants in this area when they know people live there? Planners and industry folks have maps showing that nobody lives in the areas where plants are and where they want to build new ones. These councilmen allowed the plans and voted to let them build. The plants cover about 258 square miles; you can’t escape them. And we have a high cancer rate throughout our parish. Just look at the tumor registry. It’s very high here.

Barbara and Myrtle can tell you more about how they live between these plants.

What’s it like to live in the shadow of these huge industrial chemical plants?

Barbara Washington:

Well, it’s not a good feeling. I mean, every day, you’re faced with something that’s happening to your health. We’ve seen so many of our loved ones and our friends die from cancer. We experience chronic chills, respiratory problems, itching and burning eyes. That all comes from the chemicals we know are being admitted into the environment. Down our street and the next street over, so many people have died from cancer. And we have many people who are still living with cancer. In October, we found that many people in the area have breast cancer. We didn’t know that before. And then we also learned from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic that the chemicals emitted are hydrogen sulfide, sulfuric acid, benzene and others. They are all dangerous carcinogens. Then they tell us these plants are good for the economy, but who will be working if we all die out? To the east of me, I have a steel plant, a fertilizer plant and a petrochemical plant. And then there’s a galvanizing plant. To the west of me, there’s a petrochemical plant, a coal plant and another fertilizer plant.

Gail LeBoeuf:

Barbara and Myrtle live in what we call the sandwich. That’s neighborhoods squeezed on both sides by chemical plants.

You mentioned how you’d lost friends and family in recent years. How can you look councilmembers, past and present, in the eyes knowing they are the ones who allowed these plants to be built, knowing they were potentially the cause of cancer and environmental pollution?

Gail LeBoeuf:

We are only 20,000 people, so we see these people all the time, just in the streets.

And what do you say to them?

Myrtle Felton:

Nothing. We save it for the council meetings.

Barbara Washington:

We attend the council meetings twice a month and let them know how we feel about what’s happening. We have a lawsuit because they have not listened to us. When we talk to them about pollution, it becomes a blame game. They say we have to go to EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Everybody kicks the can down the road, and nothing ever happens except new plants and more pollution. Currently, we have a civil lawsuit in federal court. That covers environmental justice and religious liberties.

What’s in it for these council members if they live here too? Do you think they are being paid off? Who else is involved?

Barbara Washington:

It creates revenue for the Parish, but only some see that money. The Sheriff’s department gets revenue from us; the school board gets revenue from us. They’ve also lost so much revenue because of the big tax breaks.

Myrtle Felton:

The plants give to the community but don’t give to this part of the community as they should. We, Black folks, are the ones really experiencing all of the pollution. Our health, personal property and every part of our lives are dominated by pollution.

Gail LeBoeuf:

You have to understand that it’s not just our local elected officials; they’re following the protocol of our state elected officials, all the way up to our congressional leaders in Washington D.C. This isn’t all just happenstance. It’s by design and everyone but us is benefiting in some way.

How can you take an 85-mile stretch of chemical plants from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, to Lake Charles and almost to our border with Texas without this being by design? The plants all have what you call a sweetheart deal. The property tax is 99.99 percent exempt. There’s so much money being made by the top 1 percent.

Governor John Bel Edwards did an executive order, making it 80 percent exempt. But they’re still giving away the 99.99 percent deal because Shell just shut down a little over two years ago, then opened back up a few months ago and got the better rate. These games get played with tax dollars, yet the parish always says it needs revenue.

We generate billions of dollars in revenue that I don’t see in my Parish and Barbara and Myrtle don’t see in theirs. Period.

In the white area of St. James Parish, plans for a solar plant are on hold because it needs to be studied for one year. One hundred fifty chemical plants and all these cancer deaths, and now they gotta study a solar plant?

Barbara Washington:

The parish president admitted that in the last ten years, it lost $4 million by giving a tax break to steel company Nucor. Somebody’s getting their fair share and we’re left without anything.

People often talk about the benefits of capitalism. How it can bring wealth, how it can bring education, how it can bring jobs and other significant benefits. But other Western countries also have capitalism but don’t have this level of environmental injustice.

What is it about the United States that it so often seems to punish people who are still living through the traumas of the past, like slavery?

Barbara Washington:

It’s in the bones. There’s no empathy and there’s so much greed. That’s why the lawsuit mentions the colonial days. That’s when this all started and why we’re still here. It’s a new form of slavery. The chemical plants are on the old plantations — where our ancestors fought hard to create something for themselves. We didn’t get our 40 acres and a mule. We got pollution.

Gail LeBoeuf:

We are a country of laws. But the laws do not address the needs of the people. That’s what has happened here. And it’s that same old playbook, divide and conquer. Look what happened to the Native Indians. They were forcibly moved to reservations, left to die and fight for their culture and ancient burial sites that industrialists didn’t care about. The laws that got made tell people they can’t have things. It’s the same here in St. James Parish. They tell us we can’t have a decent life. They tell us y’all gotta sacrifice your life for the people over here to have a decent life.

But I also don’t see why capitalism can’t work for everybody. Even that is broken now because too many people want more and more. And because of that, we don’t have equal justice. It’s divisive.

What has always struck me is how folks in Cancer Alley have dealt with these issues peacefully. In other parts of the country and the world, some people have given up being peaceful and have resorted to more aggressive means. You’ve asked for clean air, clean water and less pollution. How have you restrained yourselves, given everything that’s happened to you?

Gail LeBoeuf:

We have to try to change those laws because our politicians won’t do it. They’re the ones who have been making up these self-serving laws — the same thing in our parish. Self-serving people think there is a need for all these plants to go up in one area versus another area. And our job is to make it known that this is different from how the law is supposed to work. Democracy is not supposed to work with the rich feeding off the poor.

Do you know what I love? When I saw the other countries marching for the murder of George Floyd in broad daylight. They are unafraid. It’s because every part of the world has its own sense of ills. Some clearly have a better sense than others because there is almost no sense of ills here.

Barbara Washington:

We remain peaceful through our faith in God. We’re out here protesting peacefully because we know we are supposed to be our sisters and brother’s keeper. I often quote Rick Warren in times like these. He said that God intended for us to love people and use money. But instead, they use people and love money. Because the people who allow and build these plants love money, they will do anything to keep it.

We love people, so we stay peaceful.

There are over 150 chemical plants and refineries with billions of dollars invested in the area. What are your realistic expectations knowing there’s very little chance these companies can be moved?

Gail LeBoeuf:

How about just safe levels of pollution? We’re also going into an age where you can’t afford to live off fossil fuel anymore. These companies will have to change eventually. In the meantime, we ask that they poison us a little less. That’s not a lot to ask for.

Barbara Washington:

Right. We are not asking for much. How are we supposed to live without clean air and water? All we are asking is to have the same advantages and opportunities that the other areas in our parish have. We have no store here, no gas station. You can’t buy [a] pair of shoes in St. James Parish. There’s a beautification program going on, but it’s not for this part of St. James Parish. We are also asking them for a moratorium on these plants.

The lawsuit also mentions religious liberty violations. Can you explain that?

Barbara Washington:

It’s about the legacy of the black churches we have. The Black churches have no buffer zones from the chemical plants. As a matter of fact, Nucor Steel sits right across the street from the church that’s close to me. People cannot go to some gravesites to visit their relatives because the plant owns the land where the cemetery is. And we can’t just go into the plant area. Our ancestors worked their fingers to the bones to help make this country what it is, yet they’re still desecrated. It’s not right.

What victories have the people had against these companies?

Gail LeBoeuf:

We delayed the Bayou pipeline. The Formosa plant was another one that was delayed after they found a historically Black cemetery in the area.

All of these wins came through the legal process.

Barbara Washington:

There are a lot of different groups in this. But one win for one is a win for all of us. So collectively, the fight that goes on in Mossville, the fight that goes on in Lake Charles, the fight goes on in New Orleans and against Jenko down in Reserve. All that gives us hope because we feel stronger when we are together.

What happens if you win?

Gail Le Boeuf:

St. James Parish is the poster child of environmental pollution and injustice. If we win this case, it could help people everywhere see what’s possible.

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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