Southwest Louisiana is special in many hearts with its festival culture and breathtaking natural beauty. However, it is important to acknowledge that despite the serene and picturesque surroundings, there exists a troubling reality of racial inequalities in environmental health in this area. Living in this region for so many years has allowed me to witness the profound implications and effects of environmental racism.
Historical Context: Environmental Racism in Southwest Louisiana
Dr. Robert Bullard defined environmental racism as "any policy, practice, or directive that differently affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.” Not only that, but it “is a form of institutionalized discrimination.”
Modern definitions indicate that environmental racism happens when minority and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards like toxic waste and pollution. It is inherently intertwined with systemic racism, as it underscores the inequities that minorities face in the realm of environmental policy, health, and safety.
Decades back, as the drums of industry beat louder, communities like St. James Parish became unwilling neighbors to factories and petrochemical plants. St. James Parish is primarily comprised of racial minorities who found themselves living next to waste dumps whose placement was rarely a coincidence. The residents of Cancer Alley are the product of systemic negligence and, at times, discriminatory practices.
Over 150 industrial plants now operate in this region, constantly releasing a toxic cocktail of pollutants into the air and water. Research indicates that the predominantly Black communities residing near this corridor experience cancer rates alarmingly above the national average.
Similarly, Calcasieu Parish saw an influx of industrial buildouts. Over time, many of these industries became sources of pollutants, with marginalized communities bearing the brunt of these effects.
The Mossville Tragedy
Mossville, a historically African-American community in Calcasieu Parish, encapsulates the tragedies wrought by environmental racism. Founded by a former enslaved person in the 1800s, Mossville was a self-sufficient community until the industrial boom. Over the decades, it became surrounded by major industrial facilities.
The community faced alarming rates of health issues, many of which residents attribute to the pollutants from nearby plants. According to a 1998 study, residents of Mossville had dioxin levels in their blood that were three times higher than the national average. Dioxin is a toxic substance that is commonly linked to industrial facilities. According to the EPA, it can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, immune system damage, and hormone interference. Unfortunately, the concerns of Mossville were not given the attention they deserved, resulting in a slow departure of residents from a previously vibrant community.
Health Impacts and Implications
Beyond the evident environmental degradation of sacrifice zones, the human cost is staggering. Children growing up in these zones suffer from skyrocketing asthma rates. Elders grapple with many health problems ranging from respiratory complications to various forms of cancer. These health challenges don't merely represent personal tragedies. They symbolize a cycle of economic struggle and diminished opportunities for future generations. Frontline communities in St. James and Calcasieu Parishes are ground zero for these health disparities.
While Cancer Alley along the Mississippi River is a living emblem of environmental racism, communities like Mossville paint an equally haunting picture. Climate change adds another layer to these challenges. Calcasieu Parish faces threats like increased extreme weather events, which can mean increased storm surges, making historically marginalized communities even more vulnerable.
But it is not just about environmental degradation. It’s about the children in Mossville who grew up with respiratory issues, the older folks who faced so many health problems, and families confronting economic hardships due to medical bills and relocations.
Toward a Just Future
It’s important to document and combat these racial disparities in environmental health. That includes revamping public policy to make environmental regulations more strict in light of the harms Cancer Alley and Mossville residents face. Community engagement is also important. The voices of affected communities must be at the forefront of decisions. Their lived experiences, like those in Mossville and north Lake Charles, provide invaluable insights, Beyond just policy, tangible support in terms of health initiatives, infrastructure upgrades, environmental education, and economic aid is key.
Mossville’s legacy and similar communities in southwest Louisiana serve as a somber reminder of the work ahead. Environmental racism is more than an academic term. It’s a lived reality for many. But as we look forward, we can still rewrite this narrative. The mistakes of the years gone by can serve as lessons for today and can help us reach a more just, equitable, and environmentally conscious Louisiana.