Activists in southern Louisiana kicked off a five-day march on Thursday that aims to bring environmental justice to Cancer Alley—the 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that’s home to poverty-stricken communities in the shadow of scores of petrochemical facilities.
The march was organized by the Coalition Against Death Alley (CADA), which formed earlier this year and began planning “non-violent protests to pressure industrial giants and governments to stop the ongoing poisoning of majority-black communities” in the region, also known as Louisiana’s Petrochemical Corridor, which runs along the Mississippi River.
Marchers began Thursday morning in St. John the Baptist Parish at an elementary school near the Ponchartrain Works facility, which the American chemical giant DuPont sold to the Japanese company Denka in 2015.
A study released by the Environmental Protection Agency that same year determined that the plant—the only one in the United States that manufactures neoprene, synthetic rubber made from chloroprene—put nearby residents at the highest risk for developing cancer from airborne pollution of anywhere in the country.
Denka reached an agreement with the state’s environmental agency in 2017 to scale back the facility’s high emissions of chloroprene, which the EPA classifies as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” However, readings from last year show that the company has failed to reach its reduction targets, and activists are demanding bolder action for the sake of public health.
In an interview with The Guardian Thursday outside the elementary school by the facility, local activist Robert Taylor called for the plant to be shuttered.
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“We are demanding not only the saving of our children at this school, we are demanding the salvation of this entire area,” he said. “Up and down this river they are poisoning our communities with impunity. We have implored [the factory] to get down to at least what the EPA says is a safe level. They have refused to do that and based on that, they need to shut down.”
CADA’s broader demands, detailed on the coalition’s website, are:
No new petrochemical projects in the river parishes;
Ban industrial emissions within five miles of public spaces;
Either curb production at Denka to stay under the EPA-recommended limit for chloroprene emissions or shut Denka down;
Shut down Mosaic and remove the toxic radioactive gypsum waste material that is posing a public health risk;
Cover healthcare costs incurred by residents due to pollution exposure; and
End the industrial tax exemption program.
The marchers took a detour from their planned route on Friday to attend a court hearing in Baton Rouge for a lawsuit filed earlier this week over state officials’ refusal to grant activists permission to march across the Interstate 10 bridge in Baton Rouge and the Sunshine Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River.
“We see the act of crossing these bridges as symbolic,” Rev. Gregory Manning, one of the march’s organizers, told The Louisiana Weekly earlier this week. “We want to bring attention to how this is an issue that impacts both sides of the river, and we also want to bring attention to specific plants like Denka Dupont, and the recently approved Formosa plant in St. James.”
The newspaper reported that in addition to signs, marchers planned to carry photos of loved ones lost to cancer and other illnesses that they believe were tied to regional pollution from the petrochemical industry.
“What we are seeing illustrated now is intentional genocide, and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the governor are very conscious of what is happening with the uncontrolled amounts of poison and toxins filling the air in this sacrificial zone, where the ancestors of those enslaved became sharecroppers and worked hard to purchase property, now worth pennies on the dollar,” Manning added. “The government is complicit, and this behavior will not be tolerated any longer.”
According to the LA Bucket Brigade, the judge was expected to rule on whether the marchers will be allowed to cross the bridges sometime Friday afternoon. Members of the coalition spoke outside the courthouse about the suit as well as the march, which is set to conclude at the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol on Monday.
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