In a sealed 1987 settlement, about 30 Louisiana households on the banks of the Mississippi were relocated. Revilletown, the city they constituted, was levelled and a vinyl-resin plant owned by Georgia Gulf Corporation was rapidly built on the site.
“They gave us 30 days to get out and then bulldozed the community,” said Janice Dickerson, a former Revilletown resident who now lives in Brusly, Louisiana, according to The Louisiana Weekly.
The predominantly black Revilletown community – now spread out across the Southeast – is held together by a historic cemetery in the grounds of the plant. The cemetery, founded by ex-slaves in 1874, is still used to bury former Revilletown residents’ loved ones.
But the image of a cemetery on the grounds of a chemical plant built on land evacuated of its black residents is potent. Revilletown cemetery today represents a percipient intersection of the environmental and race issues that America faces. It is no coincidence that the banks of the Mississippi between Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and New Orleans – a tract of land predominantly settled by black families and where Revilletown used to stand – is known as “Cancer Alley.”
Hazel Schexnayder, a resident of St. Gabriel, Louisiana – on the other side of the Mississippi from Revilletown cemetery – told ProPublica that she has had enough of the chemical plants in her neighbourhood.
“We were inundated with plants,” Schexnayder said. “I bet you money there are 20 plants right now just around St. Gabriel.”
She is way off. According to ProPublica, there are now 30 large petrochemical plants within 10 miles of her house, most of them outside the city limits. Thirteen are within a 3-mile radius of her home.
Cancer Alley’s name is inspired, however, by the fatal effects of those chemical plants. The 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi corridor has seen disproportionately high rates of respiratory diseases and cancer. In Reserve, Louisiana – an unincorporated community in Cancer Alley – a person’s lifetime risk of getting cancer is a record 50 times the U.S. average. As per the 2018 U.S. census, the community is predominantly black.
“Almost every household has somebody that died with cancer or that’s battling cancer,” said Mary Hampton, a resident of Reserve, according to The Guardian. “It’s the worst thing you’d ever want to see: a loved one, laying in that bed, pining away, dying. Just to sit and look at them, and know you can’t do anything about it.”
The Pontchartrain Works facility, a few blocks away from Hampton’s residence and owned by the Japanese company Denka, has been held responsible by Reserve residents. It is the only plant in the U.S. that emits chloroprene, which the Environmental Protection Agency in a chemical assessment found to demonstrate “clear evidence of carcinogenicity.”
The burgeoning petrochemical industry that has made the air in Louisiana the most toxic in the country, has afforded Cancer Alley yet another monicker – National Sacrifice Zone. And now, according to data collected by The New York Times, the parish in which Reserve is located, has some of the highest rates of Covid-19 deaths in the country.
History can tell us why the health risks posed by industry, as in the rest of the country, are not equally distributed across communities.
The Mississippi corridor now called Cancer Alley used to consist of sugar plantations. When slavery was abolished, many free black people stayed in the area and established black communities, like Revilletown. Others continued to be exploited through a system called sharecropping, which essentially tied black workers to the land.
In the 1940s, however, a new industry – petrochemicals – took off in Louisiana. Petrochemical plants were invited into this Mississippi corridor without permission of the people who lived there. As sugar plantations began to be replaced by these new plants, most of the jobs went to white people, while black people were pushed into debt and poverty.
In many cases, companies would buy off entire communities, as the Georgia Gulf Corporation did in Revilletown, displacing black people from towns their newly freed ancestors founded. Of course, they were never allowed to legally prevent their own displacement, as discriminatory laws restricted black people from having any representation in local governing bodies.
In the United States
The link between poverty, disease and racial discrimination that the Revilletown cemetery represents can be found across the United States. The most recent manifestation of this link is the Covid-19 pandemic itself.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black people are more than four times as likely to be hospitalized for contracting the novel coronavirus than white people, and twice as likely to die of the virus. In Louisiana, these figures are even more skewed. According to Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, more than 70% of the people who have died are black, while making up only 32% of the state’s population.
President Donald Trump has recently rolled back restrictions on the petrochemical industry in a move that will only exacerbate death and disease in Cancer Alley. The alley and the people who live in it are glaring reminders of the very real, very human costs of ignoring the environment, and how those costs are being paid by America’s most vulnerable populations.
It often feels like the systemic problems we face as a society are too large, too abstract to address at an individual level. But we know that every effort, no matter how small or large, counts. You could start by taking steps to still live your life, but with less plastic waste. Download NOUR ZERO’s Zero Waste Guide to help manage your plastic consumption, and leave a comment below if you have any experience or knowledge of life in Cancer Alley.