‘We’re desperate’: Louisiana’s ‘cancer alley’ residents decry environmental racism before the UN

Activists from Louisiana in Geneva ahead of the examination of the United States (US) before the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). (Credit: Geneva Solutions/ML)

Members of the black communities of the most polluted places in the United States were in Geneva to call for justice before a UN racism expert body.

In southern Louisiana, a 129 km-corridor snakes along the Mississippi river, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Centuries ago, the stretch of land was covered by plantations worked by black enslaved people brought from Africa. Today, over 200 petrochemical plants have replaced the corn and rice fields, poisoning the air, water and soil the descendant communities depend on.

Three local organisations were in Geneva last week for the examination of the United States by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to ask for years of racism and environmental injustice to stop. Geneva Solutions met with them at Palais de Nations to discuss their expectations from the independent experts.

Years of environmental havoc

Louisiana's river parishes have among the highest cancer rates in the country, earning them the nickname cancer alley. The levels of pollution are so high that the UN special rapporteur on the environment David Boyd classified the area as a sacrifice zone, where the lives of residents are essentially sacrificed for the economic gains of industry.

Read more: UN environment expert: the world’s toxic wastelands have millions of residents

The frontline communities have been leading many legal battles, sometimes for decades, to get the polluting firms to take safety measures, but with little results.

“For six years we’ve been trying to get our government to stop this from poisoning us. And so far, they've just gone along with them [the industrial companies],” said Leticia Taylor of the Concerned Citizens of St. John’s Parish.

The predominantly black parish is at the epicentre of the health crisis. Taylor’s NGO has been fighting for a moratorium on the Dupont/Denka neoprene plant, whose emissions of chloroprene, a chemical compound considered as likely carcinogenic by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are 44 times higher than the safety limit.

“We’re desperate,” said Jo Banner, co-founder the Descendants Project, an NGO fighting to protect the memory of her slave ancestors and the future of the communities.

Erasing Louisiana’s past of slavery

On top of posing health and environmental risks, industrial development in cancer alley is threatening to wipe out Louisiana's history. Banner’s organisation is leading the fight against construction plans for a grain elevator on top of an ancient plantation in the town of Wallace.

“There's a high probability of burial grounds on that site, yet this company is allowed to ram heavy beams into the ground, and potentially destroy or damage those sites,” she said. The NGO petitioned the local court for a restraining order against the project but it was rejected for insufficient evidence.

For Pam Spees, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is providing legal support for the NGOs, the decision is linked to the state’s history of racism.

“Louisiana's chief archaeologist has said that wherever there was a plantation, there is going to be a cemetery of people who were enslaved on it. We can't go out and mark them with headstones because they weren't accorded that respect at the time and their deaths weren't recorded, like those of their white plantation owners,”  she said.

Spees has accompanied the activists during their meetings with local authorities. “It’s like talking to a wall,” she said. “The local and state governments deny that this is happening, deny that the science is real, deny that what people are experiencing is real.”

Turning to the international community

The Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is one of the only three UN human rights conventions that the US has signed and ratified. Frustrated with the lack of results back at home, the NGOs submitted a report to the CERD, tasked with evaluating the country’s compliance with the treaty.

“We come to an international place to have more power and more leverage on our state and local officials, who have not heard our cry about the injustice that we live everyday,” said Barbara Washington, co-founder of Inclusive Louisiana. The campaign group has been fighting dangerous air pollution levels in Saint James Parish, where 24 plants – from steel, to gas, to asphalt – are spewing toxic emissions every day.

According to Washington, these industrial projects in her parish are concentrated in districts that are mostly black. “We've seen that in an area where there are predominately white people, they get what they want, but when we come to the table, we don't because of the colour of our skin,” she said. “It can’t be anything else but race.”

In a positive step for fighting environmental racism in the US, President Joe Biden’s administration  broke his predecessor’s standoff with the multilateral system and recently passed the Environmental Justice for All Act, opening a door for the activists. But campaigners are still wary whether this will lead to real change.

“Yes, their climate policies and their perspectives on racism in the United States are different from the previous administration, but that doesn't mean that action will follow,” said Spees.

The international criminal lawyer is in charge of coordinating the international legal strategy of the organisations. For Spees, it is a case of crimes against humanity.

“The hallmark of crimes against humanity is that they are committed on a widespread or systematic basis. In this case it’s both. It's severe and people are dying. There are communities that are targeted for erasure and we see that clearly on maps. There are residential neighbourhoods in St. James Parish, which are already designated as future investment areas,” she said.

The organisations were able to speak to the committee experts ahead of the session and ask them to address specific issues at the examination session. They will now wait for the final report before deciding what step to take next.

“It's our home and we love it. There are many different economic opportunities that do not involve industries that will kill us. So this is not the nail on our coffin,” said Banner.