Residents of Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” battle for clean air
Along a winding stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the sugar cane fields that surrounded small neighborhoods for generations have been gradually replaced by smokestacks and chemical flares.
Sharon Lavigne, a retired schoolteacher from St. James, Louisiana, and founder of Rise St. James, an organization dedicated to environmental justice, recalls the days before the industry arrived in the 1990s. 1980.
“We had clean air and we could drink water from the fire hydrant. We can’t do that anymore. You can’t go out and sit on your porch for a long time because of the pollution, the smell,” Lavigne told ABC News. “I’d like that back.”
Many residents of this 85-mile stretch of Louisiana refer to it as “Cancer Alley,” an area once known for its agriculture and remnants of former slave plantations and cemeteries. But today, the region’s predominantly black communities are surrounded by 150 industrial factories, a situation the United Nations has called “environmental racism”. The area has a 95% higher risk of cancer due to air pollution than the rest of the country, according to the EPA.
Residents have been protesting industrial plants for years, saying the facilities affect their health. Today, several companies and the state of Louisiana are proposing new industrial facilities that they claim will be carbon neutral through a process called carbon capture. But after years of industrialization, many local residents and environmental activists are skeptical of the proposals.
The new projects are in response to Governor John Bel Edwards’ initiative to make Louisiana net zero emissions by 2050. Carbon capture is set to be a key part of the state’s plans. In October 2021, Bel Edwards and the CEO of Air Products and Chemicals announced a $4.5 billion blue hydrogen facility, which would be the largest industrial facility using carbon capture in the world at the time of the announcement. The proposal comes as Congress and the Biden administration approved $3.5 billion for carbon capture facilities across the country in the latest infrastructure bill.
Air Products and Chemicals plans to directly capture carbon dioxide from their proposed blue hydrogen facility and transport it via 35 miles of pipeline to a sequestration site at Lake Maurepas. The carbon dioxide will be injected into rock formations a mile underground. The facility will extract methane from natural gas to create hydrogen, which will be used for electricity, cars, buses and planes.
“With the advanced technology we use, this allows us to capture over 95% of CO2 and safely sequester 5 million tonnes of CO2 per year to create this clean, low-carbon hydrogen for the energy transition” , Simon Moore, VP of Investor & Business Relations & Sustainability at Air Products and Chemicals, ABC News told ABC News.
Louisiana’s geology also makes it a suitable place for carbon capture and sequestration, according to Dr. Cynthia Ebinger, professor of geology at Tulane University. “In Louisiana, we know where the conditions are right,” Ebinger told ABC News. “What we have is layer after layer after layer of sand, salts, clays, limestones – and combinations of these for storage and sealing.”
However, many environmental activists have concerns about the carbon capture proposals. Beverly Wright, founder of the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and advisor to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, questions the science behind the process and sees carbon capture as a false solution that is “too beautiful to be true”. ”
“So you really believe that the industry that caused this problem would be the industry that will fix it?” Wright told ABC News. “No chance.”
For many locals, distrust of the industry runs deep. Travis London, an environmental activist who monitors air quality for Public Lab, lives in Donaldsonville, near an industrial ammonia plant. “I see a lot of impact. I’ve seen kids have allergy issues and also asthma,” London told ABC News. “I’ve seen people have cancer on my street.”
Many environmental activists, including London, are now trying to educate the public about the risks of carbon capture. In Baton Rouge, organizers hosted the Gulf Gathering for Climate Justice and Joy, a gathering of Southern environmental activists fighting against what they call the oil and gas industry’s “false promises.”
Among the crowd was Sharon Lavigne, who attended the rally to inspire others to take action against the industry. Industrial facilities have been built next to many of its neighbors’ homes. “We were all healthy people, and all of a sudden we noticed people were dying,” Lavigne said.
Lavigne, whose family has lived in St. James for generations, dedicated his retirement years to working to prevent new industrial facilities from being built in his hometown.
“This is our home. We love our home. And that’s where we want to be,” Lavigne said.