Samantha Layden

Land of the free? Environmental racism and its impact on Cancer Alley, Louisiana

In a country whose declaration of independence relies on the equality of man, the United States seems to abandon that sentiment when it comes to the black population of Cancer Alley and their ongoing environmental crisis.  

Identified as a problem in the 1980s, Cancer Alley is an eighty-five-mile stretch of the Louisiana section of the Mississippi River, from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. The river’s waters have been central to attracting petrochemical companies since the 1940s; they make it accessible to not only trade and receive supplies but to dispose of waste in an unseen and cheap way. As of 2003, the area accounted for a quarter of the nation's petrochemical production.[1] What is not coincidental is the proximity of these plants to neighbourhoods where most residents are black.

Environmental racism

This is a prime example of environmental racism, which Robert D. Bullard described as: “environmental policies, practices, or directives that disadvantage individuals, groups, or communities based on race or colour” in the late 1980s, with Cancer Alley, and other areas in mind.[2] This is enforced by the institutions around it. Cancer Alley had, and continues to have a disproportionate number of black citizens compared to the rest of the nation (forty percent of the population living in the Alley are black, compared to twelve percent nationwide), which, considering its original dubbing of “Plantation Country”, is unsurprising.[3] The area is filled with prominent areas of black history, including former eighteenth-century sugar and rice plantations that used slave labour.

These newly established towns, which were once promising areas, have been left ruined, both financially and physically by an onslaught of petrochemical plants, the two largest being proudly owned by two big names when it comes to polluters, Dow Chemical and Shell.[4] Many others have been there since the 1940s, purposely seeking out black communities to move into. A 1987 study by Benjamin Chavis found that race was the most powerful factor for where toxic facilities would be located.[5] Even as high up as the government, places like Cancer Alley were “sacrifice zones”: zones viewed as expendable when it comes to the environment, population, and health.[6] The mindset that these places were of less value followed through into laws, meaning that toxic facilities were more likely to be assigned to areas like Cancer Alley because they were ‘compatible’ with pollution. It shows a tremendous government failure that these practices are, even now, still allowed to carry on freely, as was pointed out by the UN in March this year.[7] The impacts of post-World War II American internalised colonialism are still affecting marginalised communities along the Mississippi River.

The impact of petrochemical companies in Cancer Alley

Over one-hundred-and-fifty oil refineries, plastic plants and chemical facilities sit along Cancer Alley, making it a hub of industrialisation.[8] ExxonMobil begin the line-up in Baton Rouge, the fifth-largest oil refinery in the United States, which in addition to pumping its waste into the Mississippi, exploded on Christmas Eve 1989, wracking the surrounding communities with its shockwaves, and pumping plumes of smoke into the air.[9] On Plaquemine Island, Dow Chemical (one of the largest petrochemical complexes in Louisiana), evicted families from the area in 1957 to create a ‘natural buffer’ around the area[10]. In Gramercy, Noranda Alumina is Louisiana's biggest mercury polluter, yet they were still gifted a million-dollar forgivable loan to create a new pond for their production waste by the Louisiana Economic Development Corporation.[11]

The proximity of these, and many other, complexes put the surrounding population of mostly low-income black Americans at constant risk. On a surface level, residents complain of invasive chemical smells and vegetation in gardens failing, but more seriously, the slow accumulation of several decades of both water and air pollution from the plants has led to breathing issues and elevated cancer rates.[12] The pollution emitted from these facilities impacts several of nearby communities’ health and has been a continual threat to several of their human rights (especially to health) since the ‘40s. In the Alley, there are higher than average rates of those who have suffered and died from cancer, diabetes, and respiratory diseases. The risk of cancer in the corridor is 95% higher than in most of the country.[13]

Since the Civil Rights Movement, communities have been fighting back against this, spreading awareness of the issue through ‘toxic tours’: bus tours that take tourists on a journey of local areas affected by environmental racism and classism from petrochemical industries.[14] These politicised acts of memory have still not been enough, as of 2019, petrochemical plants are still being proposed to be built along the Alley. A nine billion petrochemical complex, one of the largest in the world, is set to be built in St. James Parish by the Formosa Company and would erase nearby wetlands that protect the community from flooding. Not only that, but it would also potentially emit more ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic compound, than any other facility in the county.[15] The Environmental Protection Agency estimates this complex would almost double the risk of cancer in the area.[16]

Slow violence and exploitation

The environmental and health impacts of the plants have been present for a while, getting gradually worse as time moves on and fit into Rob Nixon’s archetype of slow violence quite well. Nixon describes slow violence, a term he coined in 2011, as violence that occurs “gradually and out of sight”, incremental violence that spans across “time and space” and is often not viewed as violence at all.[17] Slow damage to local communities in Cancer Alley isn’t visceral, it is only tangible to those with a local perspective, those who were there before so many companies arrived and those who have grown with the damage being done to their surroundings and its people. Those privileged enough could escape it when the companies first arrived, those who were not, could not, and were forced to watch their community slowly degrade. This is the reason why the antagonists of these acts were outside of the reach of persecution; the lack of visual evidence makes the claims easy to deny. This systemic yet slow violence relates to an idea by Johan Galtung, who argued that violence could be ‘structural’ in the ‘60s, its impact is tangible, but the blame is hard to pin because the harm is not visible.[18] The violence, in his words, is “as natural as the air around us”.[19] Slow violence compounds, one type tends to bring on others, which not only have impacts on physical health but mental health also. The stresses that the communities have gone through lead to more side effects, like an increased risk of cardiovascular problems.[20]

Not only are the local communities of Cancer Alley dependent on the Mississippi River for water for personal and agricultural use, but they are also controlled by the economic cycle of the plants, especially for employment and restoration efforts.[21] During a boom, the company increase its output to meet demands, therefore pumping more pollution into the surroundings. During a recession, demand drops, and companies prioritise the areas around them less, dropping efforts of community reparations and making cutbacks on staff, often locals, to preserve their net worth. Cancer Alley has its roots in economic exploitation, corporate greed coming first over the needs of the community. Human life is devaluated and the natural life around these communities is exploited.[22] Bullard notes that statistically, these communities face some of the worst environmental problems, and this, combined with poor infrastructure, economic disinvestment, and high levels of poverty leaves them at a disadvantage.[23] Furthermore, these areas have a harder time getting homeowners insurance, when damage hits, they are further disadvantaged.[24] When considering climate change, which is worsened by the effects of industrialisation, damage only gets worse. Communities like St. James Parish and others on the waterfronts suffer from more extreme weather and flooding each year, another example of the slow violence being inflicted on them.[25] Small, low-income communities end up losing more, whereas the companies that overshadow them tend to gain wealth in the face of disaster.[26]

Expanding past Cancer Alley

The impact of over one-hundred-and-fifty petrochemical plants is not just limited to Cancer Alley though. Monique Verdin suggests that perhaps the area that was named Cancer Alley in the 80s should be expanded to the two-hundred-and-twenty-five miles of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and the Gulf of Mexico.[27] This is evident when looking at towns that border the ocean, where excess nitrogen and other toxins coming from industry pollutants upstream are disturbing the fragile ecosystem that balances out freshwater and saltwater, made worse by rising sea levels.[28] This unpredictable water supply could be detrimental to agriculture in the area. First noticed in 1985, this area only increases each summer.[29]


To conclude, black communities living in Cancer Alley are more likely to have petrochemical plants near their communities. Pollution caused by these plants greatly increases health risks in the community, especially with cancer and respiratory problems. This slow violence against the communities has been ongoing since the 40s and viewing these neighbourhoods as ‘sacrifice zones’ is an example of systemic environmental racism. Furthermore, the impact of pollutants in the Mississippi River stretches beyond Cancer Alley, directly impacting oceanic life in the Gulf of Mexico. The abandonment of specific communities based on race alone goes against the very morals the country is built on, putting the people living in them in a position to continually be exploited and dominated by the corporations surrounding them.

[1] Pezzullo, P.C “Touring ‘Cancer Alley’, Louisiana: Performances of Community and Memory for Environmental Justice”, Text and Performance Quarterly, 23:3. (2003) p.227
[2] Bullard, R.D. "Confronting Environmental Racism in the Twenty-First Century." Global Dialogue 4:1 (Winter, 2002) p.35
[3] James, W., Jia, C., & Kedia, S. “Uneven magnitude of disparities in cancer risks from air toxics”. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 9:12. (2012). p.4382
[4] Verdin, M. "Cancer Alley: Istrouma to the Gulf of Mexico." Southern Cultures 26:2 (Summer, 2020) pp.83,89
[5] Bullard, R.D. “Addressing Environmental Racism” Journal of International Affairs 73:1. (Fall 2019/Winter 2020) p.238
[6] Bullard, R.D. “Addressing Environmental Racism” pp.239-40
[7] “Environmental racism in Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’, must end, say UN human rights experts” UN News. (2nd March 2021) Available at:  (Accessed: 07/12/2021)
[8] ibid
[9] Ulkins, G. “A Look Back: 30 years since the Exxon explosion in Baton Rouge” WAFB (24th December 2019). Available at: (Accessed 11/12/2021)
[10] Verdin, M. "Cancer Alley: Istrouma to the Gulf of Mexico." p.83
[11] ibid p.87
[12] Fisher, R. “The Unseen ‘slow violence’ that affects millions” BBC Future (1st February 2021) Available at: (Accessed 05/12/2021)
[13] James, W., Jia, C., & Kedia, S. “Uneven magnitude of disparities in cancer risks from air toxics”. pp.2381-4
[14] Pezzullo, P.C “Touring ‘Cancer Alley’, Louisiana: Performances of Community and Memory for Environmental Justice” p.226
[15] Ramirez, R. “’This is environmental racism’: activists call on Biden to stop new plastics plant in ‘Cancer Alley’” The Guardian (17th May 2021). Available at: (Accessed 07/12/2021)
[16] “Environmental racism in Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’, must end, say UN human rights experts”
[17] Nixon, R. Slow violence, and the environmentalism of the poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011) p.2
[18] Fisher, R. “The Unseen ‘slow violence’ that affects millions”
[19] Galtung J. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” Journal of Peace Research 6:3 (1969) p.173
[20] Fisher, R. “The Unseen ‘slow violence’ that affects millions”
[21] Verdin, M. "Cancer Alley: Istrouma to the Gulf of Mexico." p.80
[22] Bullard, R.D. "Confronting Environmental Racism in the Twenty-First Century." p.34
[23] Ibid p.35
[24] Bullard, R.D. “Addressing Environmental Racism” p.240
[25] Fisher, R. “The Unseen ‘slow violence’ that affects millions”; Ramirez, R. “’This is environmental racism’: activists call on Biden to stop new plastics plant in ‘Cancer Alley’”
[26] Bullard, R.D. “Addressing Environmental Racism” p.240
[27] Verdin, M. "Cancer Alley: Istrouma to the Gulf of Mexico." p.80
[28] Ibid p.92
[29] “Larger-than-average: Gulf of Mexico ‘dead zone’ measured” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (03/08/2021) Available at: (Accessed 11/12/2021)