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The Picture of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley Just Keeps Getting Worse

A report from Human Rights Watch includes new data on incidence of birth defects in the region.

A Louisiana petroleum refinery.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

For decades, oil and gas producers have built their facilities along an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Today, that area is known as Cancer Alley.

A report by Human Rights Watch released last week documents in painstaking detail how lax oversight of Louisiana’s fossil fuel and petrochemical industries contributed not just to devastating rates of cancer diagnoses, but also to elevated incidence of birth defects and respiratory ailments. The area is a “sacrifice zone,” per the United Nations, in which the area’s Black residents bear the brunt of harms created by nearby polluting industries.

“The failure of state and federal authorities to properly regulate the industry has dire consequences for residents of Cancer Alley,” said Antonia Juhasz, a senior researcher on fossil fuels at Human Rights Watch. “It’s long past time for governments to uphold their human rights obligations and for these sacrifices to end.”

The report, titled “We’re Dying Here,” brings a sharper focus to reproductive complications linked to fossil fuel pollution. The region’s rates of low birth weight and preterm birth are triple the United States average, according to new data from Tulane University researchers. In addition, chronic asthma, bronchitis, and persistent sinus infections are also common. “It’s just like a death sentence, like we’re sitting on death row waiting to be killed,” Sharon Lavigne, a St. James Parish activist, told a UN panel in 2021. “We are being a sacrifice zone for the state.”

The “Cancer Alley” nickname itself is nothing new, but the area has once again been in the spotlight amid the Biden administration’s consideration of 17 new export facilities for liquified natural gas. One of those, the proposed $10 billion Calcasieu Pass 2 project, would be built in Louisiana’s Cameron Parish, about a three-hour drive from the Cancer Alley zone. Last week, the White House announced that it would pause the approval process for new LNG terminals to allow for an updated review of their climate effects.

According to one former Environmental Protection Agency official, CP2 alone would add “an unbelievable amount of pollution.” Nonetheless, as Human Rights Watch notes, “at least 19 new fossil fuel and petrochemical plants [are] planned for Cancer Alley, including within many of the same areas of poverty and high concentrations of people of color.”

Jacob Lambert profile image

Jacob Lambert

Jacob is Heatmap's founding multimedia editor. Before joining Heatmap, he was The Week's digital art director and an associate editor at MAD magazine.


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Lithium ion batteries.
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