Studies Find Louisiana Government Helped Create Cancer Alley
Two studies by researchers from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic have confirmed that “Cancer Alley,” a 184-mile region in Louisiana along the Mississippi River with a high number of petrochemical plants as well as high cancer rates for residents, is not only real, but that government officials helped create it.
The studies confirm what many locals and scientists have long suspected, that the industrial pollution rampant in this region is harmful to human health. Yet officials have said that cancer rates in the region along the Mississippi River are not higher than averages across Louisiana.
“LDEQ does not use the term cancer alley,” Greg Langley, spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), said, as reported by Inside Climate News. “That term implies that there is a large geographic area that has higher cancer incidence than the state average. We have not seen higher cancer incidence over large areas of the industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.”
But two recent studies, led by Kimberly Terrell, a research scientist and director of community engagement at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, and Gianna St. Julien, law clinic research coordinator, show evidence that “Cancer Alley” exists, as a region where cancer rates are higher. The studies also found that the way state regulators have implemented industrial permitting has led to discrimination and disparities in industrial pollution, with the biggest burden falling on communities of color in the state.
One of the studies, published in January 2023, found that more than half of industrial facilities in Louisiana were clustered in the area known as “Cancer Alley,” and communities of color faced 7 to 21 times more emissions than predominantly white communities. Chemical manufacturing was the largest contributor of the emissions.
Another study from Terrell and St. Julien published in 2022 found higher estimated cancer risk from air pollution associated with higher cancer rates related to poverty and race. Terrell also shared in The Advocate that the research found 850 cancer cases for predominantly Black and or low-income communities in Louisiana that were related to toxic air pollution over the past 10 years.
“Our analysis provides evidence of a statewide link between cancer rates and carcinogenic air pollution in marginalized communities and suggests that toxic air pollution is a contributing factor to Louisiana’s cancer burden,” the authors said in the 2022 study. “These findings are consistent with the firsthand knowledge of Louisiana residents from predominantly Black, impoverished, and industrialized neighborhoods who have long maintained that their communities are overburdened with cancer.”
Following up on three filed complaints, the EPA shared that actions by LDEQ and the Louisiana Department of Health contributed to “disparate adverse impacts on Black residents of St. John the Baptist Parish, St. James Parish, and the Industrial Corridor.” The EPA also noted that LDEQ’s air permitting program was implemented in a way that continued to expose residents, including children, to “average annual concentrations of chloroprene in ambient air at levels associated with increased lifetime cancer risk.”
While Terrell noted in an interview with Inside Climate News that first-hand accounts from the communities should have been enough for officials to make policy changes, the authors say that the studies will help provide more data as a tool for decision-makers to better protect communities in the “Cancer Alley” area.
“We’re already heavily industrialized, but there are more facilities that are trying to make their way into Louisiana,” St. Julien said. “Ultimately, it comes down to protecting the health of people living within the state that are currently being overburdened and don’t exactly have access to resources to protect their health.”