“On the street, I know three people, two from the same family, who had cancer at the same time. My brothers have friends who died prematurely or are ill. They have breathing problems, leukemia, asthma …”
About 160 km between Baton Rouge and the tourist city of New Orleans, there are more than 150 petrochemical facilities and refineries.
The smell of benzene permeates the air, and the US Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies the toxic substances it releases as probable carcinogens.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the risk of cancer among its residents, most of whom are black, is 50 times higher than the national average.
In counties like Saint John Baptiste, the cancer risk ranges from 200 to 400 people per million and is linked to emissions of ethylene oxide and chloroprene, two powerful toxins.
The numbers contrast with the rest of Louisiana, which ranges between 6 and 50 per million.
Hey President of the United States, Joe BidenShortly after arriving at the White House, he said he wanted to address “the disproportionate impact on health, the environment, and the economy of communities of color, especially in hardest-hit areas like the Louisiana Cancer Corridor.”
“The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has primary responsibility for implementing Clean Air Act programs, including monitoring emissions and air quality, and enforcing regulations,” an EPA spokesperson said.
Louisiana Cancer Trail – Image: Getty Images/BBC
For its part, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality says that “the air quality in Louisiana is very good.”
“We comply with regulations. We meet all EPA standards for pollutants,” Gregory Langley, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Health, told BBC Mundo.
However, Eve Butler has a different experience than Louisiana officials say.
Butler told BBC World Service: “It’s not just that it smells different. On a few occasions I went out without an umbrella. It started raining and getting my hair and face wet. Days later my skin started falling out. The sun.”
From your window, when you wake up every morning, what you see are six storage tanks used by the petrochemical company installed in front of your house.
“The grass has changed color, the trees are not green anymore and sometimes black things grow on some plants that were healthy until recently,” she says.
The concentration of factories that emit toxic substances is so enormous here that it has attracted the attention of the United Nations.
The body describes what is happening in the Hall of Cancer as a form of “environmental racism”.
Sometimes schools are close to petrochemical facilities – Image: Getty Images / BBC
“The petrochemical corridor along the Mississippi River not only polluted the surrounding water and air, but also exposed its residents, mostly African Americans, to cancer, respiratory disease and other adverse health effects,” they said.
“This form of environmental racism poses grave and disproportionate threats to the many human rights of its residents,” they said.
According to EPA data cited by the United Nations, in St. James County, where Butler lives, the incidence of cancer in black communities is 105 cases per million, while in neighborhoods where white residents live, the incidence is 60 cases per million.
Butler, 64, was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, and although it contained and had not spread throughout her body, she had to undergo surgery and lost her left breast.
He adds, “I have a daughter and two grandchildren. I told my daughter that she would have to move because the district is not a safe place. The only relatives I have now are my mother and one of my eight brothers.” .
Something similar is happening with Marilee Orr, who is also a local resident and environmental activist against pollution.
“A lot of residents would leave if they had the money, and they would just give up everything. They would go to another part of Louisiana or wherever they wanted. Right now, they can’t even have a birthday party for their kids in the yard because it smells so bad it makes them cough and hard.” They have to breathe.”
An area known for the Cancer Trail in Louisiana – Image: Getty Images / BBC
Air pollution and cancer
Kimberly Terrell and Gianna St. Julian are research scientists at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and author of the “Toxic Air Pollution and Cancer in Louisiana” report, released in June of last year.
Both agree that there is strong evidence of a link between air pollution and cancer rates.
“In Louisiana specifically, more pounds of toxic industrial air pollution are released into the air than any other state in the country,” Saint Julian explains.
“There are three major pollutants to the atmosphere. The first is benzene, which usually comes from burning gasoline in oil refineries. The second is formaldehyde, which is another very common industrial toxic,” Terrell says.
“Finally we have ethylene oxide. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that it caused thirty times more cancer than previously thought. It is produced in the plastics industry,” explains the scientist.
“And these three are the most common,” he adds. “But the list is much longer and some communities are dealing with even more exotic pollutants.”
The Louisiana Department of the Environment told BBC World that it “does not agree with the methodology or conclusions of the Tyrrell and St Julian’s report”.
The petrochemical industry in the Cancer Corridor began with the opening of the Standard Oil refinery in Baton Rouge in 1908 and has grown to more than 300 facilities in the past century.
The reasons that prompted this type of industry to establish itself in this field are a combination of geographical and social conditions, but also political ones.
For starters, Craig E. Colten, professor emeritus in the department of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State University, explains that the state is home to abundant oil deposits that have been exploited since the early 1900s, as well as other natural resources like salt and gas.
The area’s second attraction is that the Mississippi River is a waterway that allows boats to pass and transport goods and waste from as far away from the sea as Baton Rouge, which is about 2,32,000 miles downstream. River.
Another factor is the tax credits for setting up this type of business in Louisiana. A state that, although having one of the most industrialized regions, is one of the poorest in the United States.
While the country has 10.5% of people living in poverty, Louisiana is up to 19%, according to the census.
The median household income in the United States is about $63,000 (about R$353,000), while the median household income in the state is only $49,500 (about R$278,000).
Low labor cost, state government subsidizing the arrival of new businesses with tax incentives, as well as lax environmental policies and laws are, for Professor Colton, factors that have allowed the world’s largest power to also be one of the most polluting powers. places on earth.
“Since 1997, massive releases of toxic substances have been allowed into the corridor area, dumping more than 65.5 million pounds of chemicals into the environment and forever changing the landscape of industry in southeast Louisiana,” Professor Colton said.
What is happening in the cancer corridor is not accidental, says Marcos Orellana, a United Nations special rapporteur and a lawyer who specializes in international law, human rights and the environment.
In a conversation with BBC Mundo, he said: “What exists is a coordinated and systematic policy by Louisiana authorities to favor the sites of highly polluting industries in places where people of African descent live.”
“If we look, for example, at Formosa’s Sunshine project, which aims to open a large plastics production plant, the land use in the municipality has been changed to allow the project in which the Afro-descendant communities live,” he says.
“While the same county authorities have banned the sites of other petrochemical plants where whites live.”
“So there is no coincidence here, but there is open discrimination based on race,” he says.
“The facilities literally surrounded the Afro-descendant communities who live there, with toxic pollution continuing,” he adds.
BBC Mundo contacted the Louisiana governor’s office to question them about the UN rapporteur’s accusations, but as of the time this report was published, there had been no response.
Despite complaints, EPA statements, and scientific studies, the petrochemical industry continues to grow in the region.
Orellana, the UN rapporteur, mentioned above a massive plan known as The Sunshine Project to build a US$9.4 billion (about R$54 billion) petrochemical complex on an area of just over 9 square kilometres.
Everything belongs to the same company, Taiwanese petrochemical Formosa, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of plastics.
For years, company executives have tried to obtain permits to make the project’s 14 facilities a reality along the Mississippi River.
The plan includes building chemical plants, docks for ships and barges, assembly lines, railroad connections, power plants and a sewage treatment plant.
“The Cancer Corridor does not exist,” Janelle Parks, director of community and government relations in Formosa, said in an email to BBC Mundo.
“There is no scientific evidence that cancer rates in the Louisiana Industrial Corridor, which includes St. James County, where the Sunshine Project is located, are higher due to industrial activity,” she argued based on registry data. From Louisiana Oncology, State University School of Public Health.
Local media reported that Democratic Governor of Louisiana John Bel Edwards supports the bill as an economic driver for his state.
But neighborhood associations and activists in the county, to which Eve Butler belongs, have been fighting the company for years, and in recent months, several reports suggest the fight may be in their favour.
The US Army Corps of Engineers has ordered an environmental review of the Formosa project in Louisiana, temporarily halting the company’s plans.
This is a small victory for women like Eve Butler and Marielle Orr.
“Over the years I’ve lost a lot of people,” Orr told BBC Mundo.
Friends, neighbors and co-workers.
“They’ll say that the rates of cancer in Louisiana are higher because people are obese, eat poorly, or smoke. But the truth is, my community has asthma, rashes, and nosebleeds for no apparent reason.”
“When we started with the association where I work, another mother co-managed it. Her name was Ramona Stevens. When cancer was detected, it was all over her body and she died at age 39, leaving two children behind,” Orr recalled.
“And it kept happening. It kept going the whole time.”
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