U.N. Human Rights Experts Call Out Environmental Racism in Louisiana's 'Cancer Alley'

Karen Sokol
Robert Verchick

March 9, 2021

In the United States, many people think the world's worst human rights abuses take place elsewhere. Unless you are among those in the United States who are subjected to such mistreatment.

On March 2, human rights experts called the world's attention to some of the most egregious and systematic human rights violations perpetuated here in the United States — and in particular in our neck of the woods in southeast Louisiana. International human rights experts condemned long-standing environmental racism in "Cancer Alley" — a heavily industrialized and polluted corridor along the Lower Mississippi River — and said it must end.

In a statement, the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner summarized the experts' findings condemning the U.S. government's targeting of the residents of the region, most of whom are Black, for the siting of toxic polluting oil, gas, and chemical facilities. Plans to further develop the corridor's infamous "petrochemical complex" would further poison air and water and put Black people at even greater risk of cancer, lung disease, and other health problems, the office said in a statement.

"This form of environmental racism poses serious and disproportionate threats to the enjoyment of several human rights of its largely African American residents, including the right to equality and non-discrimination, the right to life, the right to health, right to an adequate standard of living and cultural rights," the experts asserted.

We couldn't agree more.

As environmental law professors in New Orleans, we're deeply familiar with industry's history of violating residents' right to healthy environment — particularly in Black and Brown communities — and we're glad it's getting the international attention it deserves.

Indeed, condemnation from the world's leading authority on human rights, which investigates abuses ranging from torture to assassination, underscores the severity of environmental racism in our own backyard. It can and should lead to action at the local, state, and federal levels.

The 'frontline of environmental racism'

Cancer Alley isn't the country's only case of environmental racism, of course. But the region's soaring rates of cancer — residents are 50 times more likely than other Americans to develop the disease — have given it iconic status. For this reason, the 85-mile stretch of land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is often referred to as the "frontline of environmental racism."

Without intervention, things will get worse. In 2018, officials approved the so-called "Sunshine Project," a sprawling plastic facility in St. James Parish.

If constructed, the already sky-high risk of cancer in these and other Black communities in St. James Parish would more than double, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Adding insult to injury: The proposed complex is sited on burial grounds of enslaved Africans, violating residents' cultural rights as well. As a result, the human rights experts "call[ed] on the United States and St. James Parish to recognise and pay reparations for the centuries of harm to Afro-descendants rooted in slavery and colonialism."

The human rights experts' call should further fuel the growing opposition to environmental racism in the United States. President Joe Biden has made environmental justice a central part of his whole-of-government approach to the climate crisis and has directed agencies to protect and invest in "sacrifice zones" — low-income communities of color that have borne the brunt of toxic pollution.

In his first week, he signed an executive order creating an interagency council on environmental justice, an office of health and climate equity at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and an office of environmental justice at the U.S. Department of Justice.

He has also tapped strong allies from underrepresented backgrounds to key posts, including administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, secretary of the Department of the Interior, and head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. And he named Shalanda Baker, a CPR Member Scholar currently on leave, as the nation's first deputy director for energy justice at the U.S. Department of Energy.

In their statement, the U.N. human rights experts welcomed Biden's initiatives to protect public health and the environment, curb the climate crisis, respect scientific evidence, and hold polluters accountable. But they also called on our government to deliver environmental justice in every community, starting with St. James Parish. They told companies to take responsibility for their poor behavior too.

We echo the call. The federal government must revoke the permit allowing Formosa Plastics to proceed with a project that loads so much harm and risk on St. James's Black community. The right to a clean, healthy environment is a human right, and we must remedy past and current systematic violations of it and vigorously protect it going forward.

Subscribe to CPR Resources

Read More by Karen Sokol
Read More by Robert Verchick
CPR HOMEPAGE
More on CPR's Work & Scholars.
Nov. 23, 2021

In Dispute over Groundwater, Court Tells Mississippi It's Equitable Apportionment or Nothing

Nov. 23, 2021

Court Unanimously Favors Tennessee in Groundwater Dispute with Mississippi

Nov. 22, 2021

Fossil Fuel Industry Continues to Deny Climate Science & Climate Justice . . . Under Oath

Nov. 18, 2021

U.S. Uses COP26 to Signal Leadership on Climate, but More Action Needed

Nov. 16, 2021

Maryland Matters Op-ed: Learning Lessons to Protect Workers through Pandemics

Nov. 15, 2021

Aggregating the Harms of Fossil Fuels

Nov. 11, 2021

The Need to Change Jurisdiction Over the U.S. Electric Grid