Environmental Justice and the “Cancer Alley” of the United States

 
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Environmental justice is a very serious problem in the United States. The scope of its influence is illustrated with the fact that the country has some severe issues in ensuring equal treatment to all its citizens; however, in order to develop the solutions, it is critical to acknowledge the degree of its impact on the people’s lives. Thus, the environmental justice can be referred to as a fair distribution of both harms and benefits of human environmental activity between all the individuals. Correspondingly, the environmental injustice is the failure to do so. In other words, this is the exposure of the citizens to various kinds of pollution based on their socioeconomic status (Connolly, 2009). Unfortunately, the United States has a variety of pollution sources, because it is a developed and highly industrial country. Numerous manufacturing plants, incinerators, the dumps of toxic waste, and many other related facilities are located all over the state but the biggest similarity between them is that most such facilities are located in low-income neighborhoods often inhabited by Native Americans, African Americans, and Latinos. As a result, the racial component has become an integral part of environmental injustice, and hence, the population that suffers most from the exposure to toxic pollution is represented by minorities. 

According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the environmental justice must be recognized as a civil right (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2016). Hence, the state is required to make sure that all the citizens regardless of their origin, race, or income are entitled to be treated with equal respect when it comes to the creation, introduction, and further enforcement of the regulations, laws, and policies connected with the environmental activities. However, as the experience shows, the low-income communities that are often represented by racial minorities become affected by the pollution the most (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2016). This is due to the fact that they often lack financial and political support to protect them from the polluters or to bring the latter ones to justice (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2016). Since the communities usually have little influence in such matters, the environmental advocates look for the possible means to enforce the environmental justice and help the low-income societies and the minorities (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2003). Unfortunately, they are not always able to help, and the existence of “Cancer Alley” is an illustration of the harmful effect of environmental injustice in the United States.

The “Cancer Alley” is a name for a massively polluted industrial corridor in the state of Louisiana, which is a tremendous hazard to the health of the nation. This is an immense natural test bed that serves as the ground for examining the health disparities with the cancer risks coming from the air toxics that emerge from the preponderance of petrochemical industries in this area. Likewise, this region is inhabited mostly by the people of a lower socioeconomic class who are the representatives of racial minorities. The “Cancer Alley” is approximately 85 miles long and is located in southeastern Louisiana, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. This territory incorporates around 25% of the US petrochemical production; there are more than 130 industrial facilities of the kind solely in the aforementioned region (James, Jia & Kedia, 2012). The socioeconomic status data of this part of the country shows the high levels illiteracy and poverty, as well as the low levels of citizens’ income (James et al., 2012).

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The beginning of the petrochemical industry in this region dates back to the launching of a Standard Oil refinery. It opened in 1908 in Baton Rouge that has grown to more than 300 facilities since then (James et al., 2012). The factors that boosted this hazardous tendency were the tax exemptions, the federal investment, and the water discharge permit spread on the territories along the Mississippi River. The vast toxic releases that have been permitted in the “Cancer Alley” after 1997, resulted in the spill of more than 140 million pounds of pollutants into the environment, which eventually changed the industrial landscape of southeastern Louisiana (James et al., 2012). As a result, the health of the local communities was undermined by the chemical emissions.

The study shows that the state average is 32% white and 64% black residents. However, there are 13 regions of high risk in the Cancer Alley, and 11 of them are mostly inhabited by African Americans, where they make more than 75% of the whole population (James et al., 2012). Some of these tracts consist of more than 90% of African American citizens (James et al., 2012). This is a significant difference, especially in spite of the fact that the national averages make up 75% and 12%, correspondingly (James et al., 2012). Moreover, the census data of 79 tracts in the regions of St. John the Baptist, Jefferson, Orleans, and East Baton Rouge are mostly inhabited by black residents with extremely low incomes (James et al., 2012). As the research findings reveal, the cumulative cancer risk mean in “Cancer Alley” was 45.8 per million, which means that around 46 people out of a million are exposed to the danger of cancer due to the lifetime exposure to the variety of carcinogenic toxics in the air (James et al., 2012).

Oftentimes, the health disparities result from the social, physical, environmental inequalities, and naturally, the risk of cancer grows with the decrease of the household income. This tendency is particularly evident in the region of “Cancer Alley”. One can find numerous explanations for the presence of such disparities at both micro and macro levels. However, one of the most important factors provoking the environmental injustice is the artificially created environmental hazards experienced by the low income and minority communities. Namely, the national survey acknowledges that the African American and Hispanic populations are more likely to suffer from the higher degree of exposure to the aromatic air toxics (James et al., 2012). At the same time, these findings reflect the poor social structure of the country that does not allow the environmental justice to take place. The powerful communities exploit the powerless ones for their own gain, and eventually, the people of lower social class find themselves unable to combat the corporations and get exposed to the serious health conditions over their lifetime (James et al., 2012).

Although the state-federal agencies have been trying to develop the working solutions for ensuring the environmental justice in the “Cancer Alley”, their efforts did not seem to have a success. One of the examples of such failures is the experience of the Convent, a small community residing in St. James Parish, which is a part of the infamous “Cancer Alley”. When in the early 1990s, the project of the huge polyvinyl chloride plastic plant was proposed in this region, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality gave the permission to start the construction despite numerous complaints (Cox, 2012). The public dissatisfaction was due to the fact that the vinyl chloride emissions are potentially hazardous to the human health. The aforementioned emissions “cause or contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to result in an increase in mortality or an increase in serious irreversible, or incapacitating reversible illness. Vinyl chloride is a known human carcinogen which causes a rare cancer of the liver” (Cox, 2012). The long process of public dissatisfaction, valid claims against the construction of the plant, and the support from multiple environment protecting organizations managed to withdraw the project. However, their win felt very ambiguous at that time, because the plant was still to be constructed elsewhere, which meant that the other communities had to continue that struggle at some point.

To conclude, the “Cancer Alley” in the state of Louisiana is the region inhabited mostly by the African American residents with a low socioeconomic status. They were unable to protect themselves from the environmental racism, and, therefore, their home has turned into a concentration of toxic emitting plants. The case of the “Cancer Alley” is an illustration of the environmental injustice in the United States, and it is crucial to raise the public awareness about such problems in order to prevent such situations from happening in the future.