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UN Human Rights Experts Comment on Environmental Racism in Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’


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“Cancer Alley,” located in Louisiana along the lower Mississippi River, serves as an industrial hub, with nearly 150 oil refineries, plastics plants, and chemical facilities. The ever-widening corridor of petrochemical plants has not only polluted the surrounding water and air, but also subjected the mostly Black residents of St. James Parish to higher risk of developing cancer, respiratory diseases, and other health problems. 

Experts appointed by the Geneva-based United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation issued a statement on Cancer Alley on March 2.

“This form of environmental racism poses serious and disproportionate threats to the enjoyment of several human rights of its largely [Black] residents, including the right to equality and non-discrimination, the right to life, the right to health, [and the] right to an adequate standard of living and cultural rights,” the experts said. 

Failure of Federal Regulations

According to the experts, federal environmental regulations have failed to protect people residing in Cancer Alley. 

In 2018, the St. James Parish Council approved the industrialization of toxic chemical development through the “Sunshine Project”—a subsidiary company of Formosa Plastics Group that would create one of the world’s largest plastics facilities—and the building of two methanol complexes by other manufacturers. Formosa Plastics' petrochemical complex alone will more than double the cancer risks in St. James Parish, disproportionately affecting Black residents, flagged the experts.  

Greater Risks

According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency's National Air Toxic Assessment map, the cancer risks in predominantly Black districts in St. James Parish could be at 104 and 105 cases per million, while those threats in predominantly White districts range from 60 to 75 per million. 

The experts said that the new petrochemical complexes would exacerbate environmental pollution and disproportionately affect Black communities’ rights to life, health, and an adequate standard of living.  

The combined emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year in a single parish could exceed those of 113 countries, the experts said. 

The UN experts also sounded the alarm over possible violations of cultural rights, as at least four ancestral burial grounds are at serious risk of being destroyed by the planned construction. 

“The [Black] descendants of the enslaved people who once worked the land are today the primary victims of deadly environmental pollution that these petrochemical plants in their neighborhoods have caused,” they said.  

Recent Executive Order

The experts welcomed President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis and the pledge of the U.S. government to listen to science, strengthen clean air and water protections, and hold polluters accountable for their actions.  

While signing the Order, President Biden raised hopes by specifically citing Cancer Alley and commenting that “environmental justice will be at the center of all we do when it comes to addressing the disproportionate health and environmental and economic impacts on communities of color.”

The experts called on the government to deliver environmental justice in communities all across America, starting with St. James Parish, while upholding that corporations also bear responsibility and should conduct environmental and human rights impact assessments as part of the due diligence process. 

Disclosure: For the names of the experts, visit ohchr.org. Independent experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work. 

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.
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