Investigation of Louisiana’s Environmental Injustices in Cancer Alley Abruptly Ended by EPA

Header image: Exxon Mobil Refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, seen from the top of the Louisiana State Capitol. By WClarke (Wikimedia Commons)

An investigation of Louisiana State departments’ roles in perpetuating environmental injustices in a highly industrialized area along the lower Mississippi River, dubbed “Cancer Alley,” has been abruptly closed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

For those living on the frontlines of dangerous and deadly plastics, fossil fuel, and other industrial facilities and infrastructure, the move has been seen as a setback to their efforts to address systemic racism in the region and elsewhere in the state. The end of the investigation, which was sparked by official complaints filed on behalf of impacted communities, could also undermine the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing environmental injustices across the country.

We are very disheartened that EPA has decided to halt its investigation without making findings or addressing our concerns. EPA agreed that what’s happening to us is unfair. We thought the Administration would protect us, but no one wants to stand up to these companies. We are suffering, we are dying, and this makes us feel like our lives don’t matter. That’s a hard thing to deal with.

— Mary Hampton, President of Concerned Citizens of St. John, as told to Earthjustice

I feel like we were put on the back burner.

– Sharon Lavigne, environmental justice leader and Founder of RISE St. James, as told to The Washington Post

Louisiana Continues to Prioritize Profits Over People

Shell Norco Manufacturing Complex in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. By Erica Cirino

In October 2022, the EPA launched its investigation and sent a letter to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Louisiana Department of Public Health calling for research on the health impacts faced by local residents from Denka Performance Elastomer’s neoprene factory in St. John the Baptist Parish and Formosa Plastics’ proposed facility in St. James Parish after finding evidence of racial discrimination.

The EPA’s short-lived investigation had marked a rare show of attention to the need to enforce against “disparate impact” of the disproportionate placement of hazardous industries and pollution in underserved communities. This progress was undermined when it closed its investigation after being sued by the state of Louisiana in a federal lawsuit filed in May by the state’s Attorney General Jeff Landry (R). The lawsuit alleges the EPA has violated aspects of the Constitution, Clean Air Act, and Civil rights Act of 1964, and effectively challenges the agency’s structure and authority, particularly in relation to its ability to regulate businesses and industries that drive major environmental injustices.

In closing its investigation into Louisiana’s role in perpetuating environmental social injustices, the EPA has taken a serious step backward, particularly in light of the Biden administration’s promises to address such discrimination. Frontline communities have for too long been fighting for their lives as industrial developments have colonized and polluted their neighborhoods, and this investigation could have made a positive impact on the lives of those harmed by environmental injustices. We have just witnessed the EPA cave to the pressures of profit-hungry, industry-friendly politics and unjust status quo systems.

– Erica Cirino, PPC Communications Manager and author of Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis

Meanwhile, Louisiana’s legal challenges to the EPA come after two Supreme Court rulings in the last year that curb the federal agency’s abilities to regulate protected wetlands and greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. And Louisiana’s oil-and-gas friendly regulatory environment has led to fast-tracking permitting and operation of dangerous facilities—further imperiling federal efforts to address environmental injustices.

Threat of Environmental Injustice Grows

A glimpse of the petrochemical landscape along the Mississippi River in Southeastern Louisiana. By Erica Cirino

In Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch of land along both banks of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Black communities are among the most likely to face the worst health impacts and other dangers, such as fires and explosions, that come along with the unjust placement of industrial facilities. The EPA had pointed out this disparity, and evidence of racial discrimination, in its letter to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Louisiana Department of Public Health.

Those affected by environmental injustice point out its roots in the region’s longstanding systemic racism, which stems from the days of plantation slavery and continues as industries exploit Black communities today. In the grimly named Cancer Alley, where industrial pollution of air, water, soils, and human bodies is extremely high, cancers are indeed extremely common. Residents also face asthma, autoimmune diseases, headaches, rapid heartbeat, respiratory diseases, and many other serious ailments that diminish both lifespan and quality of life. 

In 2021, the United Nations human rights experts declared that “federal environmental regulations have failed to protect people residing in ‘Cancer Alley’” and called for action to end the systemic racism which drives continued harm in the region. In addition to Black communities, low-income, rural, Indigenous, and People of Color communities across the U.S. are also most likely to face environmental injustices that threaten their health, lives, and overall well-being.

Take Action

Despite this major setback on what could have been a significant step forward, frontline communities in Louisiana—and across the U.S.—will continue to advocate and act for their protection.

Together let’s move forward to a world free of pollution and injustice. You can help frontline communities by taking action to tell President Biden and officials to stop approvals for new and expanded petrochemical facilities. Additionally, you can demand that JPMorgan Chase—a major funder for plastic and petrochemical projects—denounces, divests, and defunds Formosa Plastics’ proposed plastics and petrochemical mega-factory in St. James Parish, Louisiana.