In the "Cancer Belt," Louisiana Black Communities
Fight Industrial Polluters
By Ron Nixon
Special to SeeingBlack.com
A string of lights illuminate the night sky over the rural, 100-mile
stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana. During the
day, these lights give way to clouds of smoke that rise from the
giant mechanical structures that dot the area's landscape. The structures
belong to 138 companies that comprise a virtually who's who of the
petrochemical industry: Texaco, Borden, Occidental Chemical, Kaiser
Aluminum, Chevron, IMC-Agrico, Dow, Dupont to name a few.
State and local officials call this progress. The petrochemical
industry, they say, contributes billions of dollars and jobs to
the state and local economies. Residents who live in the areas nearby
the industry call it another name: "Cancer Alley." For them, the
area's industry has yielded few jobs, destroyed the natural environment
and brought a host of illnesses they attribute to emissions from
the plants. Residents say the area is but one more example of what
they call environmental racismthe targeting of communities
of color for undesirable facilities.
A number of studies suggest that such claims are not unfounded.
Nationally, a 1987 study by the United Church of Christ's Commission
on Racial Justice found Blacks were four times were more likely
to live in areas with toxic and hazardous waste sites than Whites.
A 1992 investigation by the National Law Journal found that
when government does enforce environmental regulation and fine companies,
fines are much higher in White communities than in Black ones. In
Louisiana, reports by the US Commission on Civil Rights and an unreleased
report by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region Six,
have raised concerns about the location of chemical plants and their
possible impact on the health of their neighbors, who are primarily
people of color.
These reports, and a host of activities by environmental justice
groups nationwide, prompted President Clinton in 1993 to sign an
executive order directing federal agencies to examine policies for
disproportionate impact on people of color. As part of these efforts,
the Clinton Administration set up the Office of Environmental Justice
at the EPA. Locally, the state of Louisiana passed it's own piece
of legislation on environmental racism. Yet, here in the chemical
corridor, such legislation means little. In Louisiana, the chemical
industry is king. What these companies want, they usually get.
Yet, there is one small town where residents hope to break this
Convent is a small, sleepy town that lies at the center of Cancer
Alley. The town is divided by the Mississippi River. A number of
modest homes, small churches and a few stores exist alongside run-down
mobile homes and other dilapidated structures where people continue
Like the rest of Cancer Alley, Convent has its share of industry.
Along River Road, the narrow two-lane highway that runs in and out
of town, IMC-Agrico towers over the humble surroundings. A nauseating
smell emanates from the plant at all times. A giant grain elevator
owned by the Japanese company, protrudes into the heavens spewing
dust on the earth below. Some say the dust destroys the paint on
their homes and cars. Along the river, ships and barges transporting
products and raw materials for these industries flow back and forth.
According to the EPA's latest toxic release inventory, over 23
million pounds of toxins were released over Convent. The majority
of these releases were in two zip codes, both majority Black. It's
here that Shintech, a Japanese company, hoped to build the nation's
largest Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) production plant. If built, the
plant would have added 600,000 pounds of air pollution. The company
hopes to start building on 2,400 acres of land from three former
sugar cane plantations -- plantations where Blacks once toiled as
slaves. The symbolism is not lost on Jerome Ringo, a former petrochemical
worker who's helping to organize local citizens here to stop the
building of the plant. "The descendants of the people who worked
the sugar cane plantations still live here," Ringo said. "Just like
on the plantations they're locked in. The people can't leave and
the industries won't leave."
Clifford Roberts, 71, was born and raised in Convent. Except for
a stint in the Marine Corps and a few jobs elsewhere, he has spent
most of his life here. He had hoped to retire and live peacefully
in the house he bought more than 30 years ago but the encroachment
of the petrochemical and other industries has him fighting. Roberts
and his wife Gloria, a retired school teacher, have been working
to organize local people to stop the siting of Shintech. As part
of a group of black and white residents calling themselves St. James
Citizens for Jobs and the Environment, Roberts and others have gathered
more than 1,000 signatures on petitions and got more than 300 people
to the initial public hearing on Shintech's local permits.
Not an easy task in an area where a significant part of the population
is impoverished and nearly 47 percent are without a high school
education. Organizing is made harder by the fact that people are
desperate for jobs, any jobs. After the initial public hearing,
Roberts says the numbers of people willing to attend meetings have
dropped. "Most people are afraid to come forward," he said. "Many
are looking for jobs or they might have a relative who works for
the parish and they're scared that person will be fired if they
Pat Melancon, president of the St. James Citizens for Jobs and
the Environment says people are simply overwhelmed. "Whatever we
do, Shintech and its people match everything we do," she says. "
If we take out an ad in the local papers, they take out a full page
ad. People tend to get discouraged when faced with these kinds of
Melancon points to the initial public hearing for Shintech's local
permits as an example. At that hearing she says the state and local
officials stacked the deck. Most of the people who were called to
testify early were representatives of Shintech flown in for the
occasion, local officials who support the company and representatives
from the state chemical industry " who simply overwhelmed people
with technical jargon." The first citizens who opposed the plant
didn't get to speak until 11:00 pm, she said. "Most people had gone
home by then. They couldn't afford to stay."
Like most people here, what worries Roberts and Malancon most,
is the health impact of Shintech locating in Convent. The company's
property abuts two small Black neighborhoods on both sides. Three
schools, where the majority of students are Black, and a public
housing facility are nearest to the plant's property. While state
and local officials have denied chemical exposure as a cause of
illness, nearly everyone in these communities can name someone who
has or has died of cancerconditions they blame on toxic chemicals.
They fear that the Shintech plant will add to health problems that
people in Convent already have. "A lot of people have cancer and
illness like influenza," said Robert who recently lost a brother
to colon cancer. "We know it's the chemicals that are causing this
illness no matter what they say."
Of particular concern is the production of Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
at the proposed Shintech facility. PVC is commonly used in a number
of products including pipes, wire and cable coating, credits and
packaging materials. It's a product necessary in every day life,
PVC manufacturers like to boast. But the production of PVC can be
dangerous. The main ingredient in PVC is vinyl chloride, a colorless
vapor with a mild, sweet order. According to the Agency for Toxic
Substances and Disease Registry, data shows that vinyl chloride
can cause cancer and a host of other medical problems. Not an enticing
prospect for the numerous people here who say they already suffer
from a variety of cancers. More recent studies indicate that PVC
might also cause illness other than cancer. Many scientist now suspect
that vinyl chloride may cause reproductive problems such as low
sperm counts and infertility. "They're just adding stuff on top
of other chemicals," says Elmenda West, an elderly Black woman who
lives just down the road from where the Shintech plant would be
located. "Shintech needs to go home. We don't need any more chemical
plants here. We've got enough."
David Wise, a project manager for Shintech, is quick to point out
that the company was asked to come to Convent. The company, he says,
has established a good relationship with local citizens. He blames
much of the opposition on environmental groups and people who live
miles from where the plant would be built. It's hard to confirm
the existence of broad support for the plant among residents here
where more than 1,000 signed petitions opposing the plant. There
is little doubt, however, that the company has support where it
counts: local and state elected officials, a high-powered PR firm,
and a medical report downplaying environmental causes of cancer.
- The parish president of St. James, Dale Hymal, has been solidly
behind plans to build the plantsome say to the point of
lobbying for the company while ignoring residents' concerns. On
April 9, 1996, before Shintech had even submitted its formal application
for permits, Hymal wrote the company offering the commitment and
support of his office to secure a new plant site.
- The parish director of operations, Jody Chenier, sent a secret
fax listing members of the local coastal zoning committee and
planning committee to Shintech attorneys. The purpose of this
fax was unknown but the committees' membership was shown broken
down by race and occupation. Background comments on each member
were included. For one Black member on the coastal zone committee
Chenier wrote, " Very quiet, non-controversial."
- A few weeks later, about 400 people received an unsigned letter
directing them to write the Department of Economic Development
supporting Shintech. The letter portrayed opposition to the plant
as a "negative few" and from "radical national environmental"
groups. The writer suggested residents who received it "copy this
letter and share it with friends." The letter was eventually traced
back to the Parish president's office through the letters' postage
meter stamp. The 400 people who received the letter were people
on a job waiting list.
"The history of this letter is very disturbing," said Mary Lee
Orr of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN). LEAN,
a state-wide group has filed an ethics complaint against the Parish
president's office with the State Ethics Commission on behalf
of the St. James citizens. "It is hard to believe that taxpayers
money can be used to support a particular position in the permitting
process. How can a parish president's office use taxpayer's money
to directly tell citizens to write letters of support for Shintech
to the assistant secretary of DEA while [the] local, state and
federal permitting process were ongoing?"
- Shintech recently contributed $5,000 to the reelection campaign
of Mike Foster, governor of Louisiana. Harris, Deville and Associates,
a Baton Rouge public relations firm hired by the company contributed
another $5,000. The firm also provided more than $2,000 in in-kind
Harris, Deville and Associates have widely distributed a study
by researchers at Louisiana State University that dismisses the
existence of a cancer alley. The cancers that do occur in the area,
according to the study's authors, are attributable to poor diet
and smoking. But [epidemiologists] reviewing the study question
First, they say, the report combined small parishes like St. James
which had the effect of masking any excess cancers that might be
occurring in smaller towns like Convent. "These analyses have little
sensitivity to the research questions about cancer excess which
might be associated with environmental contamination in communities
along the Mississippi," wrote David Richardson, an epidemiologist
at the University of North Carolina School (UNC) of Public Health.
"While the focus might have been on communities along the river,
in these analyses the 'river parishes' are combined with Baton Rouge
which must dominate it statistically."
Dr. Ted Schettler, a Boston physician and author of "Generations
at Risk: How Environmental Toxins May Be Affecting Reproductive
Health in Massachusetts," agrees. "If there were cancer clusters
within these geographical regions common, they would probably be
missed by this coarse analysis." Schettler suggests that to find
excess cancers it might be more useful to use smaller units of analysislike
census tracts. Another problem, says Steve Wing, an epidemiologist
at UNC is that the study focuses only on cancer. Exposure to PVC,
Wing says, has been shown to cause other types of disease. While
it is difficult to prove a direct link between chemical releases
and cancers, other researchers have shown that the chemical corridor
does have higher rates of cancers. Furthermore, these studies show
that not all cancers can be attributed to smoking or lifestyle.
Dr. Marise Gottlieb of the Tulane University Medical School showed
that those who get their water from the Mississippi River have as
much as a 2.1 times greater chance of contracting rectal cancer
as those who do not get their water from the river. Cancer rates
were highest in or downstream from the Chemical Corridor. Further
research by Gottlieb showed that residents who live within one mile
of the petrochemical facilities have 4.5 times greater chance of
getting lung cancer than those who live further away. Findings by
Dr. Pelayo Corryea support Gottlieb's conclusions. Dr. Corryea found
that persons living within two miles of a chemical plant had a 60
percent higher lung cancer risk than those who do not. Corryea's
findings were adjusted for smoking habits.
Jobs. That how state and local officials explain their support
for the Shintech facility. The plant is supposed to provide 165
permanent jobs to local residents. Plus, a Shintech spokesman says,
company data shows the plant will provide millions of dollars in
revenue to the local economy. But Shintech is receiving more than
it will give says Dan Mills, research director of the Louisiana
Citizens for Tax Justice. Mills points out, like most industries
that seek to locate in Louisiana, Shintech got the standard industrial
package: A 10- year property tax exemption which saves the company
$94.5 million over the next ten years. The state has also designated
the area where the plant plans to build as an enterprise zone.
Enterprise zones (EZ) are created in economically depressed areas
to help alleviate poverty. The zone provides for the rebate of sales
and use taxes during construction. Shintech's rebate added up to
$35 million. Shintech would get a corporate income tax credit of
$2,500 for each new job created. For the 165 jobs they will create
the company will get $412,500. The total savings to the plant, $129.9
million. Over the same period, St. James Parish as a whole will
get $18 million in public moniesand the Black communities
nearest the plant, more pollution.
In an area where nearly half of residents are without a high school
education, it's doubtful that the plant's would-be neighbors will
benefit from Shintech's much-touted, $40,000-a-year jobs. As Pat
Malancon points out, industrial packages haven't brought much in
the way of economic development to the town:
"In my life, I've seen five petrochemical companies come into
Convent. I have seen [local] business close down and the area become
more depressed as these industries have come in. We haven't seen
any economic development. We've seen the opposite."
A study by Paul Templet, former head of the Department of Environmental
Quality, confirms this. The study found that for all the incentives
given to industry, the companies provide more pollution than jobs.
Templet's findings suggest that while Shintech will contribute to
the parish's tax base and provide some jobs, these benefits will
be negated by the added stress on the local infrastructure and the
But many say such tradeoffs aren't unusual for southern states
like Louisiana. While the use of incentives to attract industry
is widespread, no region does it quite like the South. In his study,
"The Selling of the South," James Cobb found that the region's economic
policies mirrors that of most Third World countries. "Foreign investors
appreciate not only the South's cheap labor and low taxes but also
its apparent ability to absorb industries that produce large amounts
of waste and contaminants," Cobb wrote.
According to the Green Index, an annual report that rates
states on their environmental health conditions, 9 of the17 states
with the highest per capita amount of toxic pollution, 9 of the
12 states producing the most hazardous waste, and 108 of the 179
facilities that pose the greatest risk of cancer are in the South.
"In the South, everything is for sale," says Bob Hall, the report's
author. For Hall and other critics of the South's industrial policies,
"everything" includes cheap land, cheap resources and cheap, cheap
livesespecially Black lives. A recent Louisiana state ad in
the Wall Street Journal seems to bolster this argument. The
ad features the headline, "What has Louisiana done for business
lately?" over a man in a suit bent over backwards. Advertising copy
below touts the state passage of tort reform legislation, low taxes
and low wages along with current governor Mike Foster's background
as a businessman.
Willie Fontenot, who runs the Citizens Access Unit at the State
Attorney General's Office, says that many members of state and local
government see helping industry as an important part of their job.
"Most elected officials don't see a conflict between community concerns
and business," says Fontenot.
Many residents see the battle to change that view as part of their
people's historical struggle for human dignity and a better quality
of life. It was more than a century ago, emancipated slaves came
to the coast of the Mississippi River to escape the harsh reality
of slavery. Here they built homes, schools and houses of worship.
It is here, too, they hoped to secure economic and social independence
from their former masters. Today, residents say, they are fighting
to secure emancipation of another kind.
The experiences of black communities in Convent are not unique.
It is one of many areas in the Gulf Region fighting the expansion
of plants like Shintech which have spread like cancer along the
Mississippi River. There have been more than 14 expansions of PVC
plants in the past few years. Most take place in low income, national
minority communities in the South. Many of these companies have
polluted the air and fouled the water while promising economic benefits
that never materialize. In addition, these companies use their enormous
economic and political clout to buy science, politicians and public
relations firms to counter activities of communities and groups
struggling for the most basic of rightsclean air and clean
The EPA Region 6 Office in Dallas, Texas decided to delay the
issuance of Shintech's air permit until the Louisiania DEQ address
the environmental justice concerns raised in a citizens' petition.
"We brought to EPA's attention the discriminatory impact of locating
Shintech's polyvinyl chloride (PVC) complex in the predominantly
African American poor community of Convent," said Monique Harden,
Greenpeace Toxic Campaigner who coauthored the petition with the
Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic.
The petition also challenges the air permit because it failed
to meet the Clean Air Act standards for minimizing accidental chemical
releases. In a letter to the DEQ, the EPA wrote, "The petitioners
raised concerns that merit your attention prior to permit issuance."
EPA also plans to visit Convent to meet with residents and look
at health and environmental problems. Citizens welcome this scrutiny.
Gloria Roberts, a local resident said, "The EPA realizes that environmental
justice is important to protecting the health and environment of
For the communities, it's about survival. In the end, Convent could
go the way of their neighbors down the Mississippi Rivertowns
like Sunrise, Reveilletown, Morrisonville which no longer exist.
Contaminated and bought out by Dow, Georgia Gulf, Placid Oil and
other companies, these communities were once safe havens for ex-slaves.
Now they are toxic ghost towns. Years ago, Louisiana officials struck
a Faustian deal with the chemical industry. Today, black residents
are paying the price with their health, their communitiestheir
very history. A former resident of Morrisville summed up the experience:
"They moved outwards slowly
They weren't always this close.
But before you realize it, they were building right outside your
Suddenly, every blade of grass is important to me. My
husband planted those pine trees in the yard. You have to live another
lifetime to get all this back."
Due to extensive community opposition, Shintech was forced to pull
out of Convent completely. The company decided to scale down its
plans and build a smaller plant in Plaquemine, Louisiana just south
of Baton Rouge.
For more information on the Shintech campaign, please contact
Damu Smith at Greenpeace at email@example.com.
-- April 9, 2001
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