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“We’re Dying Here”: Human Rights Watch on the Fight for Life in Louisiana’s Fossil Fuel Cancer Alley

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Image Credit: Eli Reed / Human Rights Watch

A damning new Human Rights Watch report documents the devastating human toll of fossil fuel projects in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, an 85-mile corridor stretching from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that is filled with fossil fuel and petrochemical plants. Human Rights Watch found newborns living in Cancer Alley experience low birth weights at more than three times the national average. Residents of the predominantly Black communities in the area report a range of other health problems, as well, including respiratory illness, cognitive issues and cancer. “Louisiana citizens are exposed to the worst toxic pollution of any people across the United States,” says the report’s author, journalist Antonia Juhasz, who outlines recommendations for better regulation and enforcement to reduce the harms while pushing for a phase-out of the industry in the long term.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to look more closely at the area of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley, an 85-mile corridor stretching from Baton Rouge and New Orleans that’s filled with fossil fuel and petrochemical plants.

A new report by Human Rights Watch has found newborns living in Cancer Alley experience low birth weights at more than three times the national average. The rate of preterm births is also twice the national average, which can cause several long-term health problems later in life, including respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, and cognitive issues. Cancer Alley is home to predominantly Black communities who suffer from the highest pollution-related cancer rates in the country.

This is an excerpt from a new video produced by Human Rights Watch, beginning with Kaitlyn Joshua, resident of Ascension Parish in Louisiana.

KAITLYN JOSHUA: I first heard the term “Cancer Alley” when I was in college. I thought, “Oh my god, this makes so much sense.” And it completely defines what we’ve been dealing with in this area for quite some time. Cancer Alley is, by definition, the long stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is filled with fossil fuel and petrochemical industry. If you just look at a map, where the plantations once existed is now majority Black and Brown population along that same line; it’s also the similar map of the petrochemical industries and the buildout.

SHARON LAVIGNE: I never really associated the industries with our illnesses. But I do know people started dying so fast. And we had one person died one week. Sometimes we had two in one week. Sometimes we had three.

SHAMELL LAVIGNE: When I started learning more about what these chemicals are doing to our bodies and that there was a connection between the chemicals that are in our water and in the air, and that those chemicals can cause miscarriages and infertility issues, that’s when I started, like, realizing, “OK, this may have contributed to my miscarriage.”

KIMBERLY TERRELL: The approach that DEQ and industry has taken is to simply try to point to a map and say, “Oh, well, you know, there’s some places where the cancer rates are lower, and we don’t see cancer across the entire area at rates that are higher than the state average.” That’s not the question, right? The question is: Are people who are exposed to cancer-causing pollution developing cancer at higher rates in those communities? And absolutely, the data support that, yes, in Louisiana, places where you have more industrial pollution, you have higher cancer rates.

ASHLEY GAIGNARD: The industry is expanding on both sides of us, so we’re almost sandwiched in between. And we make a sacrifice here in Donaldsonville. I’m a mother of three kids: one girl, that’s my older child, and I have a set of twins, a boy and a girl. All three of my babies was preterm deliveries and underweight babies, my son born with only one developed, strong lung. The doctor did not have faith that that twin would live to make it with the other twin.

KIMBERLY TERRELL: We know that Louisiana has a really high rate of adverse birth outcomes, but what we found was that pollution is a really big factor. Pollution is causing health problems above and beyond cancer. Our study provides more evidence that people who are living close to petrochemical plants in the area known as Cancer Alley who are exposed to hazardous air pollution are more likely to have babies that have low birth weight or deliver those babies preterm. Low birth weight and preterm birth are associated with health problems that can persist into adulthood.

ASHLEY GAIGNARD: My son actually went to school about two miles from the industry, and the air quality caused him not to be able to participate in recess because he would have so many asthma attacks. He would describe it as pinching your nose and trying to suck through, breathe through a coffee straw.

KAITLYN JOSHUA: I had asthma my entire life. It does limit a lot of what I can do, but I still try and make sure that I can, you know, run up behind my kids, especially my 5-year-old. I grew up in Baton Rouge, and we moved to Geismar about a year and a half ago. Just last year, my husband and I experienced a miscarriage. That was right after the abortion ban in the state of Louisiana. A great deal of the hospitals were turning us away. I spent a lot of time trying to understand why so many women, and myself included, were experiencing miscarriages. Complete strangers that look like me, that live in this region, have said, “You know, I’ve experienced that multiple times.” And then, of course, came back to Cancer Alley being one of the reasons. I think our state is going to have to, you know, take a hard look in the mirror and understand that we can’t keep saying yes to industry as is.

ROBERT TAYLOR: When I look back over the years, we’re still at the bottom of everything. It’s Black people who are suffering the brunt of all the ill effects of this petrochemical industry. We don’t benefit anything from it.

TISH TAYLOR: We are the sacrifice zone. We mean nothing at all. What they would like is for all of us to move, for them to buy us out. We die out, or they try to buy us out, so every bit of this beautiful river road is industrial.

AMY GOODMAN: “We’re Dying Here,” a video produced by Human Rights Watch, which has just published a new report, “The Fight for Life in a Louisiana Fossil Fuel Sacrifice Zone.”

We’re joined now by the report’s author, Antonia Juhasz, senior researcher on fossil fuels at Human Rights Watch. Antonia is an award-winning, longtime investigative journalist covering oil and energy, author of several books, including Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill.

Antonia, this is the first time that Human Rights Watch has investigated the human rights toll of the oil, gas and petrochemical industry in the United States, the first time in the Gulf Coast. Talk about the significance of this. I mean, the facts and figures in this video and your report are devastating.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Thank you. Thank you, Amy, and thanks for having me. And thanks so much for having Roishetta at the opening section and airing the sections of the video.

Human Rights Watch did a fantastic report and investigation on coal and mountaintop removal in 2018. But that’s the only time that we’ve done this type of deep traditional human rights investigation looking at accusations of human rights harm and then investigating them on the ground for oil, gas or petrochemicals in the United States, and, as you said, the first time in the Gulf Coast.

The significance is documenting, as you say, this devastating harm and demonstrating the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry’s role in bringing about these harms. I’ve covered the Gulf Coast and Cancer Alley for some time. I was actually astounded at the level of pollution, simply the scale of the pollution that we uncovered, and the role of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry in covering it. Louisiana has — citizens are exposed to the worst toxic pollution of any people across the United States. The fossil fuel and petrochemical industry contributes to the worst air pollution in the state. They’re the second-leading cause of water pollution in the state. They’re the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

And the state is failing to regulate those emissions, so that people across Louisiana, Cancer Alley in particular, and in Black communities in particular, are exposed to devastating amounts of extremely harmful pollution, causing expanded rates or extreme rates and risk of cancer, respiratory ailments, and then, as you showed in the clip, the new research that we were able to share by Terrell, St. Julien and Wallace finding for the first time — the first time this has been investigated in Louisiana — what exposure to extreme air pollution causes to maternal, reproductive and newborn health. And then, what we were able to add to that was isolating out that the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry is the single largest contributor to industrial air pollution. And this toll, as you said, is just dramatic — three times the national rate for low birth weight, two-and-a-half times for preterm birth, and the devastating toll that that has on people’s lives, their livelihoods and their well-being, and the failure of the federal and state governments to protect, uphold and defend human rights of people living in Cancer Alley.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Antonia, I wanted to ask you — this reminds me, decades ago, back in the 1980s, when I was a young reporter in Philadelphia, I worked on a series of articles. At that time Philadelphia County had the highest cancer death rate of any urban county in the United States, and it was at the bottom of what was then called Cancer Alley in New Jersey, where all the petrochemical — all the petrochemical and oil-producing companies were strung along the New Jersey Turnpike down to Philadelphia. And when I reported back then that the death rates were highest in Philadelphia within the neighborhoods, in the two neighborhoods that were filled, one with oil refineries — because Philadelphia was then one of the few cities that had oil refineries within the city limits — and with chemical plants, there was a huge uproar. The state introduced a cancer registry. But interestingly, all of the people who were dying were largely white working-class people, in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia and in South Philadelphia. I’m wondering — you mentioned the Black communities that are affected here. Do you think there’s a difference in the reaction to this kind of information when it affects communities of color versus white communities?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely the case. And what you’re seeing in Louisiana is, first, I mean, this history is very important. The fossil fuel and petrochemical industry moved in, as the video showed, into the — basically onto, on top of former plantations. Some even took the names of the plantations that they moved in on top of. Many pushed out, moved in on top of communities that had been built that were called “free towns,” that were communities built by formerly enslaved communities and their families — pushed them out, destroyed them, built side by side within Black communities.

And what research by Kimberly Terrell also showed is that as the years progressed in the '60s and ’70s and moving forward, the industry actually concentrated the worst-polluting facilities and more facilities even more firmly into Black communities. So, you do have white communities throughout Cancer Alley. They are getting harmed. But the worst-polluting facilities, the most polluting facilities are concentrated in those Black communities, in Welcome, where Sharon Lavigne is from, throughout the region. And we're seeing significantly disproportionate harm and a disproportionate toll on the Black communities as a result. So now the community with the highest risk of cancer in the entire nation, with seven times the risk rate of anywhere else in the U.S. from industrial air pollution, is in Cancer Alley, is where Robert Taylor lives. He was also in the video.

And what you have here is — so, the federal government sets a minimum bar by which all states need to have their laws adhere to, and Louisiana basically has its laws at that lowest bar. And then it doesn’t enforce them. So, the state isn’t enforcing them. It’s failing to enforce the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, other federal laws. And then the federal government is failing to step in and ensure that the state enforces the law. I mean, I was able to record data that the industry puts out itself. So, the industry self-reports its pollution. So what we know about how much it pollutes only comes from the industry itself. And first of all, that data has been shown to be sometimes 28 times too low. The amount that they’re reporting is actually 28 times more than the — the actual emissions are 28 times more than what they’re actually reporting. But even based on the self-reported data, they are showing, themselves, that they are polluting beyond what’s allowed under the Clean Water Act, under the Clean Air Act, under federal laws. And there’s just a failure of enforcement, so that you have this extreme burden, extreme amount of pollution, resulting in extreme human health harm.

And what’s important, as you demonstrated with, you know, what happens in other locations, is you can enforce the law. You can tighten the regulations. You can make them tighter. You can increase enforcement. And you can make the facilities safer. You can force the industry to spend its money not on expanding, but rather keeping the existing operations as clean and safe as they possibly can. And some places do it way better than others. They tighten the regulations. They tighten the enforcement.

But we also found, and one of the reasons why we took on this research was to say, you know, “Can you regulate this problem away?” And the answer is ultimately no, because not only do you have an undue, unnecessary burden being caused by the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry on the ground and the human rights harms on the ground, you also, of course, have an industry that’s the single largest contributor to the climate crisis. And as I said, the fossil fuel and petrochemical operations in Cancer Alley and across Louisiana are the single largest industrial contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Fifteen percent of the gas that is produced in Louisiana and is moved around in Louisiana and is consumed in Louisiana simply goes to moving around more oil and gas.

And so, this explains the necessity and why local communities are calling for, first, a moratorium on any new fossil fuel and petrochemical plants. They’ve said, “Enough is enough. We don’t trust that you can operate safely, and we don’t want you to continue to contribute to the climate crisis.” And so, we support moratoria on new or expanded operations, like the one that Biden has basically put in place for LNG. And we also say, “Don’t expand with things like CCS. Instead, figure out how to implement the just and equitable phaseout.”

And so we put in place recommended laws and changes to regulation and enforcement that can help speed up that phaseout of fossil fuel and petrochemical operations in Cancer Alley in Louisiana, and do it in a model, for example, that’s already being used through the Inflation Reduction Act, and that’s been applied to abandoned oil and gas wells, which are a huge pollution source, dangerous. Workers have been employed to remediate those old sites, turn them into safe sites. Let’s do that as we move out of fossil fuels and petrochemicals. Let’s hire workers to remediate those sites. Let’s build off of what Louisiana is already in the forefront of, which is implementing localized renewable sources of energy that are safer, cleaner, employ workers to do that. And we are offering recommendations that could help move through that transition, better regulate the industry now, transition away from it, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Antonia Juhasz is senior researcher on fossil fuels at Human Rights Watch. We’ll link to the report, “’We’re Dying Here’: The Fight for Life in a Louisiana Fossil Fuel Sacrifice Zone.”

Coming up, we continue with Amnesty International’s new report, “The Cost of Doing Business? The Petrochemical Industry’s Toxic Pollution in the USA.” Back in 20 seconds.

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