In 1987 some residents in the tiny community of St. Gabriel, Louisiana, called Jacobs Drive, the street on which they lived, "cancer alley" because there were fifteen cancer victims in a two-block stretch. Half a mile away, there were seven cancer victims living on one block. The eighty-five-mile stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans was formerly referred to as the "petrochemical corridor" but after reports of numerous cases of cancer occurring in the small rural communities on both sides of the river, the entire area became known as cancer alley.
In 2002 Louisiana had the second-highest death rate from cancer in the United States. Although the national average is 206 deaths per 100,000, Louisiana's rate is 237.3 deaths per 100,000.
In 2000 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) data showed that Louisiana ranked second throughout the nation for total onsite releases, third for total releases within the state, and fourth for total on- and offsite releases. Louisiana, which has a population of 4,469,970 people, produced 9,416,598,055 pounds of waste in 2000. Seven of the ten plants in the state with the largest combined on- and offsite releases are located in cancer alley, and four of the ten plants with the largest onsite releases in the state are located there.
Industrial accidents and accidental releases are common occurrences in cancer alley. For instance, in 1994 Condea Vista (Conoco) located in Lake Charles reported thirty-nine chemical accidents that released 129,500 pounds of chemicals. The following year, Condea Vista reported ninety accidental chemical releases. In 1997 the company was charged with contaminating local groundwater supplies by discharging between 19 to 47 million pounds of ethylene dichloride (EDC), a suspected human carcinogen, into a local stream. In 1999 hundreds of unskilled laborers filed suit against Condea Vista, claiming they were exposed to EDC while cleaning up a spill from a leaking underground pipeline.
The population of cancer alley is primarily African-American and low-income. Despite the large number of industrial facilities—more than 136— unemployment is high in many communities and most residents do not have a college education. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of cancer alley have been organizing to limit the siting of noxious facilities in their neighborhoods. The most famous case of community resistance occurred in Convent, where, in 1996, Shintech announced plans to build a $700 million chlor-alkali vinyl complex that would be permitted to emit 611,700 pounds of contaminants into the air. The battle between Shintech and Covent garnered international attention. Finally, in 1998 Shintech decided to abandon its plans to build a plant in Convent.
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