Culture Of Life: Touring Cancer Valley

Snaking along an 80-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the tour traveled “Cancer Alley,” so-called for its dense cluster of petrochemical plants, oil refineries and other toxic industries. At the southwestern end of the state, the cities and towns of Calcasieu Parish, some of them founded by freed slaves in the 19th century, sit next to more than 53 industrial factories; more than 40 of the plants are clustered in a ten-mile radius. Recent tests have shown that residents of Mossville, a small town near Lake Charles, have dioxin levels in their blood three times the national average.

The communities these plants loom over, most of them made up of poorer African American families, have complained for years of the contamination of their land, water and air, and the attendant cancers and other life-threatening illnesses that have been so prevalent since the chemical factories moved in. Their environment, with its intense concentration of vinyl chloride plants — the chief producers of dioxins — has earned the title “Global Toxic Hotspot,” while the state of Louisiana as a whole has been labeled a “polluter’s paradise” by Greenpeace….

…At their first stop, less than two miles from the Georgia Gulf chemical plant, the town of Ella’s water supply is contaminated by vinyl chloride and arsenic. Ella, also known as Ella Plantation, derives its name from the slaveholding plantation that once occupied the site. As the celebrity delegation listened, Brooks described Ella’s deterioration, how death and illness had cut their community by two-thirds, how toxic contamination made it almost impossible to keep animals or harvest a vegetable garden. “We’re in an awful place here,” she said, “and we’re just like dogs waiting to be gassed. We have nowhere to go, and we need your help. We can’t move, but if we all help each other, we can move [Georgia Gulf, one of the petrochemical companies] out of here.”

If the companies don’t move, sometimes the townspeople have to, as a matter of survival. As the bus drove past the former sites of Reveilletown and Morrisonville, tour participants heard former residents talk about the deaths of their communities. “The people literally started dying out when the plant came around us,” said Linda Turner. In 1987, the residents of Reveilletown sued Georgia Gulf, claiming serious health problems and property damage from the company’s vinyl manufacturing. In a settlement sealed by the court, Georgia Gulf relocated the families and bulldozed every building in the town. Soon after, residents of nearby Morrisonville threatened action against Dow Chemical for creating similarly toxic conditions in their town. To avoid a potentially massive liability, Dow relocated residents to a new subdivision. Now nothing remains of Morrisonville but the cemetery where the town’s people had been buried for more than 100 years. When residents moved into Morrisonville Acres, the new community built for them, many died of illnesses before they could enjoy their new homes.

This is a culture of life.