Transitional Justice Demands Reparations for Louisiana Residents of Cancer Alley

Social IssuesEnvironment

  • Author Deshawn Moore
  • Published August 2, 2021
  • Word count 1,668

The residents of Cancer Alley are victims of environmental racism. Transitional justice demands reparations for them. Environmental racism is defined as a form of systemic racism where communities of color are disproportionately burdened with health hazards through policies and practices that force them to live close to sources of toxic waste such as sewage, mines, landfills, and industries that are emitters of toxic airborne pollution. Cancer Alley is a clear example of environmental racism. Cancer Alley is located in Louisiana. This 85-mile stretch has numerous factories that were built by petrochemical and oil companies. The smell in this area is commonly described as a rotten egg smell that can cause a headache or shortness of breath. This 85-mile stretch is called Cancer Alley because residents share common illnesses such as sinus infections, sores, skin rashes, lung disease, cancer, and early death. The residents of Cancer Alley are majority African American.

Cancer Alley is highly populated with African Americans because, following the Civil War, former slaves settled near or on the plantations that they used to work on. These former slaves built homes and communities on former plantation land. As years progressed, these homes and properties were passed down through families. The search for oil led companies to the area. Over 150 petrochemical companies moved into Louisiana and built their industries along the Mississippi River. Along with these petrochemical companies, over 20 major oil and gas companies moved into the area as well. Redlining, a form of credit discrimination, started back in the 1960s and prevented black families from moving out. Even though this practice started decades ago its effects are still present today.

Louisiana also allowed industrial companies to build their factories in these areas. The industrial factories were built around all land that their companies could not buy causing these African American communities and homes to be near chemical and oil factories. Once the factories were operational, it further lowered the property value for the neighborhoods that surrounded them. This led to more redlining and more African Americans who were forced to live near hazardous conditions. It wouldn’t be long before an unwelcomed neighbor came over for a visit. Residents soon began to experience health challenges.

Around the same time as Louisiana’s oil boom, the state ranking rose to third in cancer infections in the United States. Industrial companies are forced to dispose toxic materials that can cause diseases if not properly disposed. The industries located in Cancer Alley use several methods to dispose of waste. These methods are landfills, wastewater, injection into the ground, and on-site incineration. These methods of disposal are not safe. When these industries dispose of waste by landfills, wastewater, and injections into the ground, these methods commonly result in the Mississippi River and groundwater reserves being contaminated. This means residents and the wildlife have a high chance of consuming contaminated water. Also, by these industries doing on-site incineration, they release air pollutants such a carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and benzene into the air. These chemicals are toxic for humans to breathe and contribute to the foul smell in the area. There is a correlation between current industrial practices and the poor health of the communities in Cancer Alley, but nothing has been done about it. Local leaders believe no corrective action has been taken because of environmental racism and because the government has not been enforcing laws such as the Clean Air Act regarding pollution.

Transitional justice is the weapon needed in this fight. Transitional justice is a form of justice that is used when a society needs to transition from one that engages in civil and human rights abuses to one that does not. Transitional justice is rooted in accountability. The common ways transitional justice is obtained are through truth seeking, reparations, reform, and sometimes criminal prosecutions. Truth seeking starts the process of transitional justice because it is the fact-finding process of human rights violations. Truth seeking often results in events and informationals, aimed at educating the community and local officials about the injustices. Once awareness has been raised communities often ask for reparations. Reparations are defined as actions taken to make amends to give satisfaction for a wrong or injury. The range of possibilities are endless. The most common forms of reparations are truth commissions, apologies, civil rights legislation, cash payments to communities, and cash payments to individuals. Lastly comes reform which aims to change or restructure laws along with institutions and the way they operate. The goal of reform is to restore confidence in the law including its institutions and to prevent any recurring violations. In some situations when serious human rights violations have taken place, criminal prosecution is pursued.

Transitional justice examples are in our midst. The residents of Flint, Michigan, fought against environmental racism and are now being compensated $600 million from a victim compensation fund after the Flint water crisis. Flint’s residents were able to obtain this after bringing attention to the condition of their drinking water on both a local and national level. They also rose awareness through social media which resulted in more support for the fight against human rights violations. Eventually, the governor and local officials apologized for their roles in the water crisis. The residents then filed personal injury suits against defendants such as the state of Michigan and the governor at the time of the crisis.

Flint, is highly populated by African Americans just like Cancer Alley. The Flint water crisis happened after the state of Michigan decided to switch Flint’s water source from Detroit’s treated water system to Flint’s water plant that used water from the Flint River. Many warnings were given to city and government officials about the condition of the Flint water plant and that filtering water through its old pipes could be hazardous to the Flint community. Even with these warnings’ government officials switched the water supply. Shortly after the water supply was switched the lead levels in the water began to rise and residents of Flint began complaining about the color, taste, and odor of their drinking water. The crisis wasn’t addressed until 18 months after it began and lasted close to 5 years until the water was considered safe to drink again. As a result, over 100,000 people were affected, 12 people died, and 80 people became sick with a rare disease. It is unsure what the long-term effects will be on the citizens of Flint bodies.

When comparing the crisis in Michigan to the one currently going on in Louisiana, there is a drastic difference in how long they took place. As previously stated, the crisis in Michigan lasted about 5 years while Cancer Alley began in the 1960s. Also, when comparing the number of victims, there have been more lives lost due to Cancer Alley. Local civil rights leader Mary Hampton who has lived on Cancer Alley her entire life stated that almost every household in Cancer Alley has had somebody die from cancer or is currently battling cancer. National data supports her statement because, in Cancer Alley, forty-six individuals per one million are at risk of developing cancer compared to the national average at thirty individuals per one million.

Transitional justice doesn’t just take place in the United States it happens internationally as well. For example, Europe is plagued with pollution. Europe was aware of their pollution problem, but for years nothing had been about it. Things remained unchanged until the European Environment Agency analysis report showed that in 2016 alone, there were about 400,000 premature deaths due to pollution. With this report and with pressure from local advocates, the European government was forced to make changes. The European government proposed new legislation such as the European Green Deal and stricter enforcement of their air quality index. Europe’s Green is still awaiting approval, so policymakers decide to lower the amount of pollution allowed. Since Europe has enforced new air quality standards, there has been a slight decrease in premature deaths due to pollution. Also, as a form of reparations, Europe decided to enforce a new standard that the polluter pays. This means that if a corporation emits more pollution than what is allowed, they will be responsible to pay the community and city that is affected.

Communities that have faced environmental racism situations that are similar to Cancer Alley have been successful in obtaining reparations through transitional justice. Cancer Alley residents should follow the steps of other communities that have received reparations because of transitional justice. They should start by showing the correlation between the industrial complexes and health outcomes for residents in Cancer Alley. The next step should be to raise awareness and seek acknowledgment and a public apology regarding the human rights violations that have taken place. Then request reparations because the residents of Cancer Alley deserve reparations. The reparations should not solely be cash as money is easy. The reparations for the residents of Cancer Alley should also include medical and psychological care. Medical expenses should be included because most residents of Cancer Alley pay more medical bills due to sickness that is common to the area. They should also receive psychological care because they have seen their loved ones and others pass away from Cancer or another deadly illness that only come from living in Cancer Alley. The reparations for Cancer Alley should also include new guidelines and legislation regarding pollution emission. These changes should happen to prevent further harm to the residents of Cancer Alley and as an acknowledgment of the decades of suffering and loss of life.

As local advocate and resident, Sharon Lavigne stated that the residents of Cancer Alley are indeed dying, but dying slowly. She stated George Floyd died from a knee on his neck in a matter of minutes, but residents of Cancer Alley have a knee on their neck, yet are given many years before dying. It is time for the knee to be taken off the necks of the residents of Cancer Alley. Transitional justice is the tool that can lift it!

My name is DeShawn Moore and I am a 2L at Southern University Law Center. I wrote this paper as part of my Law & Racism class. This article was also written to inform the public about the environmental injustices taking place in Louisiana. In this article, I provide history about Cancer Alley and how it originated. This article will also highlight other forms of environmental racism to show why residents of Cancer Alley deserve reparations.

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