Cancer Alley (2001)

After a not-very-impressive breakfast at 7:30 we head out to the bus. Rick Hind, an old friend who has been with Greenpeace for years, is a happy sight. Not happy is the article he shows us from a local paper about a huge fire a couple of weeks back at a refinery in one of the communities we'll visit. Evidently the result of a lightning strike, a vat of toxic waste burned out of control for days, sending fumes, toxic particles and God knows what-all into the surrounding community. Residents were told to stay closed in their houses day and night and to definitely NOT use their air conditioning. This in June in Louisiana !

There's a huge crowd going on this tour. Two buses and 70-plus people in all, I'm told. The “delegates,” apparently those who give it some news value, are introduced before getting aboard. Photos and intros are short because it's raining. Toxics experts, a couple of doctors, some scientists, a great number of people from Greenpeace and others from a couple of local environmental groups climb aboard with us. Alice Walker and her friend, a smiling, very pleasant Asian man, come on last, and though they sit in the seats directly in front us, there isn't a chance for an introduction before we're off. She seems just as she appeared in the documentary Shel and I saw – quiet, unassuming, diffident.

A local activist is our tour guide and gives a running commentary about the history of the city and the problems attendant to the fact that much of it is at or below sea level. Cemeteries are full of crypts because bodies can't be buried below the ground. A series of channels and a hugely complicated pumping system keep the entire place from reverting to the swamp that is evidently its natural state.

Driving back north on good old I-10 he shows areas that are flood basins used when the Mississippi gets high and tells how water is diverted into Lake Ponchartrain. Soon we're off and west of the I-10, seeing the countryside west of the Cypress groves Mike and I discussed when nearing the city last night. Our guide and Damu point out the beginning of the string of refineries that run from here to Baton Rouge (the first is Shell Oil) and are wreaking such havoc on the mostly black, poor communities on which they've imposed themselves.

We're told that there will be a delay in getting to our first stop because the State Police have closed the best road to it. Flooding. There is some grumbling that suggests the police may be simply making our visit difficult, but that seems a bit of a stretch to me.

A long detour takes us past fields of sugar cane and then we pull to a stop at Elle Plantation, a very small community made up of a row of run-down houses on one lane surrounded by cane fields. Behind one of the fields, too close for comfort, sits a huge processing plant.

The people of the community, black and white, clearly poor, have gathered in their lane and welcome us as we pile off the bus. Some press is here to meet us, some have come on the bus with us and some trail behind in cars. And here, as we're climbing down to meet with this group, we're joined by a car bearing Congresswoman Maxine Waters, her husband and some staff.

As we gather in a rough semi-circle in the road, Damu points out each of the ‘notables' in our group, then members of the community are introduced and take turns speaking to us on a bull-horn provided by Greenpeace. One woman, who seems to be the appointed spokesperson for the community, produces a list of family and neighbors who have died of cancer, liver and kidney disease and other less-clear causes. Among other insults, she talks of being victimized by “mustard gas,” which is later explained to me as a chemical reaction resulting from a process used by the company to clean old equipment. The gas had seeped out into and across their community. The residents claim the company has responsibility for the medical problems that have resulted from this and other such incidents; the company will not help.

These complaints, from people who are clearly forgotten, ill-educated and miserable, touch the heart, primarily because they show such obvious appreciation for our coming and attach such a sense of hope to our presence. We have made them, for a brief moment, visible, and while I'm happy to let them know that someone cares, I'm fearful that they are being set up, once again, only to be terribly disappointed.

The last to speak over the bull-horn are three small children who simply repeat the litany, “Please help us!” Rehearsed or not, it's tough to see them in this situation and impossible not be moved.

The people in Elle Plantation (the existence of which predates the company's refinery) want the company to move them as, we learn, the same company has done with another nearby community that had experienced the same types of problems. In fact, just up the road we're later shown the site from which the other community was moved. We're then astonished to find that said community had been relocated a scant couple of miles farther down the same road, clearly remaining within range of any serious toxic poisoning.

Boarding the bus to head for our next meeting, Mike and I introduce ourselves to Alice Walker and I get to tell her how much Shelley and I enjoyed the television interview. She notes that one of the stories from Elle Plantation had very much moved her. In a simple observation about the effects of the chemical pollutants on the community, she recalled, someone said that the pecan trees, though still looking healthy, now gave nuts that were crumbling and mealy. The eyes and ears of a poet, I thought, get connections that others may miss.

Our next stop, in Myrtle Grove, is frustrating. We're late because of the road having been flooded earlier, there's a snafu with communication and the bus has trouble getting into the area. Once there, the people are warm, thrilled to see us and enormously appreciative of our presence, late or not. The meeting is in the Myrtle Grove Community Church , with a mostly black congregation, and it is hot and loud and wonderful. It is essentially a revival meeting, complete with great gospel singing, powerful preaching and testimony from a community spokesperson. Alice Walker is asked to speak and tells of her youth and her love of the clean and healthy forests near her home, then talks of the mealy, crumbling pecans in the shells of healthy-appearing trees at Elle Plantation and gracefully makes the connection to the suffering of the people in these communities. It's a robust event, full of high spirits and determination and it's frustrating to have to leave before the meeting is over because of our need to play catch-up.

Because we leave before hearing everyone, a woman from Myrtle Grove rides with us to supply the details of chemical odors, bad water, illnesses permeating the community and uncaring officials from the offending company (this another of the string that runs through the “Alley”) who deny responsibility, claim any pollutants that may exist are contained on site and accuse locals of trying to extort money by exaggerating the problems.

Next stop is on the campus of Southern University in Baton Rouge , a black college in a beautiful setting on the banks of the Mississippi River . Here we're treated to a nice lunch with the college administrators and staff and then a press conference where we're each asked to describe the purpose of the tour and our reactions so far. Each of us speak from a slightly different perspective, which is good, then a young woman, a graduate of the university, tells of the lingering effects of damage that was done her when a barge capsized on the river just offshore and a cloud of benzene encompassed the campus. A lovely young woman, her tale of years of debilitating illness, nausea, and possible neural damage is staggering. She's followed by a teacher who describes her own confusion as to what to do during the event. Her students were suffering, yet they were all told to remain on campus, no cause for alarm. Nor has there been any acceptance of responsibility for the accident.

Here is the venality of the corporate mind-set writ large. Big business and big profits so blind those in positions of power that human beings and the environment suffer without the simplest expression of regret from anyone. One understands, of course, that to express regret might imply responsibility and open one's company to a lawsuit. Better, then, to go about one's business and let the suffering people and the damage done be rendered invisible.

Leaving Baton Rouge it's I-10E back to New Sarpy, another community in the “Alley,” this bordering a Shell Oil refinery. We disembark in a lane next to a chain link fence, just on our left, through which is the refinery. To our right is a crumbling playground, beyond it the four streets of the small town. In the park a group of the residents, adults and kids, black and white, greet us with enthusiastic waves and applause. Signs abound, asking Shell to move them. We're told that the park, distressed as it is, was donated by the company as a good-will gesture. Upkeep, evidently, wasn't part of the gift.

Though we hear from a few people, each community has a designated spokesperson who gives us the dope. Whether coincidentally or not, every one so far has been a woman. In this case, a well-spoken woman tells us of the horrors emanating from across the fence. Because the wind is blowing away from us today, she says, we aren't being exposed to the terrible odor they live with on a regular basis. (I think again of “The Smell of Money”) Because of the insufferable conditions imposed by the fall-out from operation of the plant, disease, despair and intolerable conditions have poisoned their town. Unbelievably, the company has admitted, she says, that some harm is being done, so they have agreed to relocate the residents of two streets of this four-street town. The lunacy of this proposition is so apparent that there's nothing to do but laugh.

Maxine Waters responds for our group and she's quite terrific. Condemning the dire situation of these people's lives and the imbecilic response of the company, she promises, to great applause, that she will personally call the CEO of Shell Oil on Monday when she returns to Washington and confront him about what's going on.

Maxine has to catch a plane, so we wish her well and mount up once again, heading south to Norco , the community that suffered so as a result of the fire in the chemical vat. Being told to stay indoors with windows sealed shut in 90 to 100 degree temperatures amounted, one wag noted, to a choice between dying and frying.

In Norco , a more upscale black community, we are greeted by an extraordinary, happy group of people who have been anxiously awaiting our arrival. Cheering and singing welcome us as we're swept off the bus and into a small white clapboard church by their leader, a charming and exuberant woman. Knowing that we're short of time, they have arranged parcels of food (even vegetarian packs) and drink for us to take on the bus when we leave. The little church is jammed with people whose delight in our presence is almost overwhelming. After a short welcoming speech by the minister and a quick round of expressions of gratitude for our support, the event seems to expand out the door and back onto the street where we're herded again onto the bus. We're embarrassed to be leaving so soon, particularly when they had gone to so much trouble, but they don't appear to be in the least upset by it. Before we pull out, however, another woman, this one quite elderly, steps in to thank us for coming. She says the fire and their virtual imprisonment was hellish and asks for our support of their request to have either the plant shut down or the entire community moved to a site away from danger.

Still trying to keep up with the ambitious schedule Damu Smith had set for us, we head back to New Orleans for a Town Meeting. Prior to the meeting, however, there is one more visit as we drive through a neighborhood in the middle of the city that has been built atop a toxic dump. Yet another black woman, a leader from yet another black community, boards the bus and shows us through what is clearly a nice, middle-class neighborhood and an adjoining, less-nice, government housing project, all of which is known as Agriculture Street . She explains that the EPA named this a Super-Fund Site and offered to come in, dig out and clean up the tainted earth beneath any home if the owner would agree to signing a release afterward. Pointing out house after house that was “cleaned” in this way (its residents living in filth and chaos for months), she explains the downside: the EPA would only dig out a maximum of two feet below each home while the dump itself had been fourteen feet deep. For that reason she and many of her neighbors decided not to go along with the EPA and were suing the city. An additional irony lies in the dirt that was removed from those houses whose owners agreed; it was simply taken to a vacant area literally across the street from the impacted neighborhood and piled there. Driving by the fenced-off leavings we see a virtual mountain of toxic garbage left within a few feet of the homes from which it had been removed. A horrifying legacy of the idiotic treatment of these people is her claim that the breast cancer rate among women in this community is 67%.

Our Town Meeting is already in session on another college campus, this one the New Orleans branch of Southern University, but gets going in earnest when we arrive. Two doctors, one local, speak to the danger of high levels of toxicity in the air and water. A lawyer who runs a legal clinic tells of getting fledgling lawyers and law students to provide legal assistance to those victimized by this situation. Women representing two different local environmental organizations speak of the difficulties they face: diseases that appear to be associated with toxic exposure but can't be proven to be so, a poorly-educated and ill-informed populace in many of the affected areas, corporate and governmental resistance and foot-dragging. We are asked to give a personal reflection on this experience and each does so thoughtfully. Alice speaks of heart and hope, light and love. Haki Mahdbuti talks of organizing and continuing the struggle. I offer the analogy of the caged canary coal miners used to take into the mines with them: when odorless gases penetrated, or the oxygen level got too low, the canary would drop dead, warning them to evacuate. I suggested that poor communities here and in other parts of the country could be compared to those canaries. While the injustice being done them is unacceptable on its face, the argument that may more quickly impact the larger community is that the fate of these “canaries” spells doom for everyone unless something is done.

Damu did a pitch for Greenpeace and we all were hustled out of there. Some left for the hotel after a long day and Mike and I went to a dinner that had been arranged for those who cared to take part. Mostly attended by Greenpeace staffers, it's a nice, calm time to consider and discuss some of what we've seen. It is gratifying to spend time with these smart young people willing to stand up against the corporate giants, to dedicate their time, talent and energy – in some cases their lives – to the fight against the damage done by mindless greed. Their concern for the welfare of the poor, the pain of the victimized and the insult to the land we've learned about today is both inspiring and humbling.

We, of course, get to return to our clean and comfortable homes in clean and comfortable communities. But we can't forget.

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