Cancer Alley in Louisiana: What Is It, and How Can Legislation Address Environmental Injustice?

Mississippi River Petrochemical Industry, near Norco, Louisiana
"Mississippi River Petrochemical Industry, near Norco, Louisiana" by Ken Lund is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


This article was commissioned in partnership with Teen Vogue, where it was originally published.

Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch of land littered with nearly 150 petrochemical plants, isn’t news to Louisiana residents. But it was news to me.

I’m 17 years old and my family moved away from Jackson, Mississippi, a little over a year ago. In Mississippi, boil-water advisories happened all too often, so moving to a relatively boil-free New Orleans felt like paradise.

Naively, I believed water was only ever polluted through the use of dated pipes, so I was taken aback upon being introduced to the chemical waste that pollutes Louisiana’s bodies of water in St. James Parish. I was even more alarmed when I learned that these issues have been festering since the plants first arrived in the 1960s, with little intervention by the local Louisiana government.

Kim Terrell, PhD, a research scientist at Tulane’s Environmental Law Clinic, says there were nationwide regulation improvements to Cancer Alley in the 1990s and early 2000s. “The problem is that those limits, those air quality standards that Louisiana has, have not been updated,” Dr. Terrell points out. “They’re super out of date and don’t reflect the best available science.”

“Even if there are fewer pounds of pollution coming out of the stacks,” Dr. Terrell continues, “in some cases the pollution is more toxic than it used to be.” 

On June 30, a Supreme Court ruling limited the EPA’s power to control emissions, including from power plants, hindering the agency’s ability to regulate carbon pollution and fight climate change. (This ruling was overshadowed by the the Court overturning Roe v. Wade, yet another decision with harmful health impacts on lower-income minorities.)

That month, I took a tour of Cancer Alley with Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva as part of his advocacy work for the Environmental Justice for All Act. The act is intended to inhibit intentional pollution based on race, color, or national origin, fund programs for parks and recreational activities in urban areas, and establish requirements for hazard labeling on products that have potentially harmful ingredients.

Before beginning the tour, policy makers and local leaders vocalized their frustration with the government for what they perceived as a lack of enforcement over the plants. Rep. Grijalva presented his Act as a possible solution. 

“I used to be able to grow my flowers,” says Myrtle Felton, a resident of the town of Covenant and cofounder of Inclusive Louisiana, an environmental advocacy nonprofit dedicated to protecting southern Louisiana parishes from industrial pollution. “My yard was beautiful with flowers. Now it’s to the point where it’s hard to raise them.”

Felton noticed changes after an influx of heavy-duty industry companies arrived in her neighborhood. She and many others witnessed rapid discoloration on their roofs and metal erosion. Says Dr. Terrell, “We know that two of the plants that she’s sandwiched between release large amounts of acidic pollution.” 

Dr. Terrell also says that Felton is likely observing the corrosion of the metal on her property due to the plants’ release of pollutants like sulfuric acid mist and hydrogen fluoride. “It’s kind of like when people smoke cigarettes and they develop lung cancer,” Dr. Terrell explains. “You really can’t tell a person, ‘This is where your cancer came from,’ but we can say with certainty that you increased your risk by smoking.”

And, Felton recounts, “people in the community started dying. So right then and there, I knew something was not right.” In 2019, Felton lost five family members in three months, four of them to cancer.

During our travels through the area, I heard from other residents too. From the bus, I could vividly see dozens of active and abandoned chemical plants as we traveled two hours up and down the Mississippi River. The plants’ output filled the surrounding air, land, and water with a foul stench that announced their presence long before the physical buildings became visible. I saw plants positioned right next to homes, water sources, and highways, thus presenting biohazards in nearby communities.

“There are some pollutants that you can smell,” says Dr. Terrell. “Hydrogen sulfide is probably the most common. So any pollutant that has sulfur in it is going to smell kind of stinky and rotten.”

Due to a lack of adequate federal regulation, contamination continues in Cancer Alley. This history of placing polluting industries within communities of color is known as environmental racism. Environmental racism works in conjunction with redlining, a form of residential segregation that began in the 1930s and restricted where Black Americans were encouraged to buy homes or were offered properties via lending. Even though redlining was technically rendered illegal by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, air quality can still be assessed using former redlining maps. 

In an article on modern redlining, The Washington Post presented an analysis that was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters on the amount of air pollution in neighborhoods across the United States in 2010: In 80% of cities analyzed, those neighborhoods rated “D” on government mortgage maps from the 1930s had higher nitrogen dioxide levels overall. This means that the majority-minority neighborhoods the government excluded from home ownership and lending programs experienced higher pollution rates than in surrounding areas. “It’s really devastating when [these petrochemical plants are] only doing it to the minority, Black communities,” Felton states. “It’s only by design.”

Dr. Terrell notes that Title Six of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the segment that outlaws discrimination based on race, color, or national origin — protects against discriminatory outcomes, but not discriminatory design: “Legally, it doesn’t matter whether the discrimination is intentional or not, in terms of protections against it.”

Last summer, Felton and other members of Inclusive Louisiana visited the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to raise awareness about the corporations that are polluting their neighborhood. “We had to leave the country for someone to do something,” Felton says. 

In the group’s time abroad, Inclusive Louisiana worked to combat the arrival of another petrochemical plant in its parish, and argued for further restrictions on all local plant emissions. Since then the United Nations has urged corporations to stop building new plants in the area, saying “the development of petrochemical complexes is a form of environmental racism.”  

Still, the Supreme Court’s EPA ruling from last summer will likely increase environmental-health disparities in various communities, particularly along race and class lines. African Americans are already around 75% more likely than white people to live closer to facilities that produce emissions and various pollutants that impact day-to-day life, according to a 2020 Princeton Student Climate Initiative report.

This cluster of plants sits upriver from New Orleans, meaning that even if you live farther down the Mississippi, the pollution can travel downstream and end up in local bodies of water. “I want to live,” Felton says. “I want to live as long as God says for me to live, without being poisoned by pollution.”

When I got back on the bus, I felt a scratchiness in the back of my throat, and swore I could smell the chemical stench on my shirt. I heard a cough echo from a seat in front of me as the bus headed back to the city.