America, world’s most powerful and one of the highly developed countries, has been carrying a scar of anathema to its public health and environment policy.
It’s really hard to believe that America has a ‘Cancer Town’—a small town, a chemical plant and the residents' desperate fight for clear air—where almost every household has someone that has died from cancer.According to the EPA study, Louisiana has the most toxic air in America.
Along the Mississippi River is an area some call 'Cancer Alley', where residents face the highest risks.
Nestled in the middle is the community of Reserve, where the risk of cancer is the highest in the country, 50 times the national average.
Here is the tell of ‘America’s Cancer Town’ published in ‘The Guardian’--
From her front porch in Reserve, Louisiana, Mary Hampton looks in every direction and sees ghosts.To her left is her brother Fred’s home. He died from cancer. On the right is another brother’s home. His wife, Olga Mae, she died from cancer too. Across the street? A neighbour who died from cancer just a couple of months ago. The list goes on and on.
Hampton is not alone. Many residents in this tight-knit, predominantly black riverside town can rattle off a similarly jarring list of loved ones who have battled or died from cancer.
“Almost every household has somebody that died with cancer or that’s battling cancer,” Hampton says. “It’s the worst thing you’d ever want to see: a loved one, laying in that bed, pining away, dying. Just to sit and look at them, and know you can’t do anything about it.”
Reserve sits in the heart of an industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. For more than 30 years, it has been known to many of its residents as “Cancer Alley”. That designation stems from the toxic pollution that is belched out from chemical plants along the serpentine squiggles of the lower Mississippi River.
For a long time, proof of that morbid title lay mostly in anecdote and suspicion. “We always wondered about the pollution, but we never really knew,” says Hampton, who, like many residents in the region, relied on petrochemical plants to make a living for much of her career.
But the town underwent a profound awakening in December 2015, on the back of a government report on toxic air. The findings from America’s environment agency, the EPA, not only confirmed the existence of a profoundly higher risk of cancer throughout the region, but it pinpointed Reserve, a working-class town of about 10,000, at the bullseye.
In the tract of land where Mary Hampton lives, the risk of cancer from air toxicity is 50 times the national average. The highest of anywhere in the US. In fact, five census tracts within the St John the Baptist parish, the municipality to which Reserve belongs, are in the top 10 cancer risk zones in America.
And yet, those 2015 revelations were met with next to no action.
“We felt like nobody cared. The attitude was ‘it is what it is so you all just live with it,’” says Hampton. “What are we supposed to do, stay here, be sick and die?”
Residents across the parish routinely articulate similar feelings of abandonment; from their elected representatives, from industry, and, frequently, from the national media.
For the next year, the Guardian will be reporting from Reserve and elsewhere in Cancer Alley on the battle the residents are waging for clean air. In a series of reports, films and public meetings we will track the progress of their fight, ask why local politicians are absent, and ask what residents of Reserve have to do to win the right to a clean and safe environment for their children.
We will ask why a poor, predominantly African American town has had to live with a likely carcinogen for 50 years, and give voice to residents’ frustration, anger and sadness that their appeal for a healthy environment is falling on deaf ears.
This is the first dispatch in that series.
The toxic chemical plant next door
A few blocks from Mary Hampton’s porch sits the primary cause of this extraordinary risk level: the Pontchartrain Works facility, and the chloroprene that belches from its stacks. Although there are more than 50 toxic chemicals that contribute to the risk here, chloroprene, the primary component of the synthetic rubber neoprene, is responsible for the vast majority. It is a product that has for almost a century been used all over the world in the manufacture of tyres, wetsuits, medical equipment and countless other products – and the Louisiana plant is the only place in the US that produces it.
Its primary component, however, is now considered by the EPA as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans”.
Beginning in 1968, the factory, then owned by the chemicals company DuPont, emitted chloroprene into the air in Reserve without much attention. Residents complained about intermittent bursts of chemical odors, and told anecdotes of illnesses and ailment, for the most part without ever making a connection.
But after the EPA’s December 2015 air toxicity report, which was based on more stringent estimates for the carcinogenicity of chloroprene, the anecdotes were finally backed by government science. Almost overnight, the plant now owned by the Japanese company Denka, was deemed responsible for the greatest risk of cancer of any manufacturing facility in the US.
Finally, the residents felt vindicated. But angry too.
“I was angry, I felt hurt, and most of all I felt like, where are we to go?” Hampton says.
Lydia Gerard, who lives a few blocks from Hampton and whose family goes back five generations in Reserve, says: “It just takes the wind out of you, it really does. It makes you want to throw your hands up.” Her husband died from cancer in 2018.
“We can’t give up, and we won’t. We have to continue to let those plants know that we are looking at them. It may not be in my lifetime that anything gets done, but I’m praying that it is.”
Lydia Gerard: ‘We can’t give up, and we won’t.’Lydia Gerard: ‘We can’t give up, and we won’t.’ Photograph: Julie Dermansky/The Guardian
A few months later, the EPA set up monitoring stations at six locations around the parish to monitor chloroprene emissions. The agency now stated that emissions of the chemical above 0.2 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) in the air were unsafe for humans to breathe over the course of a lifetime. The readings were devastating. Routinely, chloroprene emissions were dozens of times above the EPA’s guidance, suggesting residents living close to the plant had been constantly exposed for decades.
In January 2017, Denka signed a voluntary agreement with the state of Louisiana to reduce its pollution. But still, the high readings continued.
On one day in November 2017 at a station at the fifth ward elementary school, which sits on the plant’s fenceline, chloroprene was recorded at a staggering 755 times above the EPA’s guidance. Nearly 400 young children attend the school, breathing the air each day. It sits about a thousand feet from the plant, closer than Mary Hampton’s front porch.
Denka has consistently rejected the EPA’s guidance and its findings on cancer risk in ambient air in the parish, suggesting to the Guardian they are not based on “sound science”.
“The safety and health of Reserve residents, the surrounding community and Denka Performance Elastomer’s [DPE] employees are the company’s top priorities,” said a spokesman for the company. “DPE operates its facility safely and within all permits written by the Louisiana department of environmental quality in accordance with existing standards designed to protect public health and the environment.”
The EPA suggests that chloroprene emissions above 0.2 ug/m3 are unsafe for humans to breathe over a lifespan.
Since 2016 the EPA has been monitoring air quality at locations around the plant including a nearby elementary school. They are routinely dozens of times above the 0.2 guidance.
For Mary Hampton, the realities of Cancer Alley turned from a dream to a nightmare. Her father, Joseph James Sr, dreamed, in the midst of Jim Crow segregation, of owning a stretch of land his family could call home for generations.
Mary Hampton with her son, Allen Schnyder.Mary Hampton with her son, Allen Schnyder. Photograph: Julie Dermansky/The Guardian
That was no simple feat. On his modest salary as a sugarcane drier, he had to rely on the compassion of a white seller who allowed him to pay in installments of $20 a week. Back then, banks in the south rarely lent to black people.
James was eager to buy property along the River Road, which for generations was land where black Americans could only have lived as enslaved people on sugar plantations, or after the civil war, as tenant sharecroppers. He built his family home on the front lot, brick by brick. All paid with cash. He hoped that through hard work and thrift, his progeny could cobble together some of the generational wealth that black Americans in the south have been routinely denied.
That was a dream born before 1957 when DuPont bought the old Belle Pointe plantation next door, a plot of land that already carried its own dark secrets, and began constructing the new chemicals plant in an area once worked sun up to sun down by more than 150 enslaved black Americans. For many African Americans in Reserve, including Hampton, who trace their ancestry back to slavery in the area – the reminder of past atrocities is made even starker by knowing what the land has been used for since.
“When you think about it, nothing has ever really changed,” she says. “First slavery, then sharecropping, now this. It’s just a new way of doing it.”
As the EPA’s 2015 findings reverberated around the community, they gave rise to a profound realization for Hampton: she had been breathing toxic air for most of her adult life. Horrified, she joined with other residents to found the Concerned Citizens of St John the Baptist group. They have been organising ever since.
Family photos in Mary Hampton’s house in Reserve Louisana.Family photos in Mary Hampton’s house in Reserve, Louisana. Photograph: Julie Dermansky/The Guardian
‘Maybe they just don’t want to know’
Hampton’s group meets twice a month at a church in Reserve, but despite the group’s growing numbers, they have found little to no support from their elected representatives.
In Louisiana, the petrochemical industry’s ties to society run deep. A recent industry study found that the chemical sector generates some $80bn annually and supports two of every seven jobs in the state. In large part that dominance owes to a historically lax regulatory environment and weak union protections.
While the state has the power to enforce stringent regulations on the plant, or even close it down entirely, many residents in Reserve are unsurprised that it has taken a more lenient approach.
The Louisiana secretary of environmental quality, Chuck Carr Brown, a former industry consultant, has worked with Denka to lower chloroprene emissions. Since 2016 the company has spent $30m retrofitting the plant to offset some air pollution. But the secretary has not committed the firm to the safe level guidance from the EPA, a target that, by Denka’s own admission, would be impossible for them to make “technologically feasible”.
In 2016, Brown accused Hampton’s group of “fear-mongering” over the potential harm of the compound. The official declined to be interviewed for this article, but has since apologized for the remarks.
Still, residents around the plant remain furious with the aspersion.
“We have these supposed protectors in government, who are supposed to be watching out for us. But where are they when these people are treating us like guinea pigs, prone to genocide?” says George Handy, a 63-year-old resident who has lived most of his life next door to the plant.
The industry and Brown also regularly cite research from the Louisiana Tumor Registry, which claimed in its most recent report that the term Cancer Alley “has no scientific validity”. The registry data, which tracks incidence of cancer out of the state university in Baton Rouge, has found that while some census tracts in the region have much higher incidence rates than the state average, others are much lower – and that none of that data is indicative of a disproportionate geographic risk.
One of the few local political voices to express firm support for the activists is Larry Sorapuru, who sits on the parish’s nine-person council. Sorapuru, a former chemical technician who has seen two aunts die from cancer, lives just across the river from the plant in the town of Edgard. During a recent trip to Reserve, driving along the streets of many of some of his poorest constituents, Sorapuru was non-committal over why the issue had failed to garner significant local political attention.
“Probably they [other parish council members] haven’t engaged with other environmental groups. Maybe they’re not realizing the health hazards involved. Maybe they just don’t want to [know]. Perhaps they don’t want to come out as being against Denka or DuPont. It’s a big company,” he says.
The plant has, for generations, been a major jobs and tax source for the parish. According to records from 2017, Denka was St John the Baptist’s third largest employer that year. Records from 2012, when DuPont owned the factory entirely , indicate the company was the second highest property tax payer that year.
A review of records by the Guardian also indicates that at least three parish officials have either worked for DuPont themselves or had family members employed by the company.
The Dupont/Denka plant. St John the Baptist parish has the highest risk of cancer from air pollution in the US because of chloroprene, which the plant has been emitting for 48 years. Photograph: Julie Dermansky
‘It is both racist and classist, but mostly racist’
Robert Taylor’s one-storey house sits even closer to the fenceline than Mary Hampton’s. When his wife Zenobia was diagnosed with cancer 16 years ago, he decided he had to get her out of Cancer Alley.
“If we were gonna help her spend some quality time with what she’s got left, we had to get her out of this,” Taylor says. He now spends his days split between tending to his wife in southern California, and back home in Louisiana, where his adult daughter, Raven, is sick from a rare intestinal disease – gastroparesis – that he said doctors have tied to chloroprene.
Like Hampton, the list of Taylor’s family members who have died from cancer is arresting. He lists his mother, sister and nephews – who all lived in Reserve – before pausing in a flash of frustration.
“I still can’t believe that this one community could be asked to suffer this much, merely for the profit of these foreign corporations. What kind of people are they to knowingly wipe out a whole community of people for profit?”
Taylor has been another of the leaders of the fight for clean air in Reserve since 2015, and he’s been more frustrated than ever as of late. Although it was clear from early on that DEQ, the state agency, was not committed to setting tighter enforceable limits, the 78-year-old had at least held out hope for the federal government.
It was the EPA after all that had identified the extent of the problem, set the 0.2 µg/m3 standard, and begun the air monitoring. Surely they would have the teeth to hold Denka accountable for the pollution?
But on a foggy February night this year, during one of the group’s regular meetings, Taylor received the most unsettling news he’d encountered through his four years engaged in the fight.
In a startling moment of candor, the EPA regional director, David Gray, announced to Taylor and the other concerned citizens that it was “doubtful” the agency would ever set a legally enforceable standard for the toxin. “The fact of the matter is there is a sole source of chloroprene in the United States and it’s here,” Gray said, explaining that since rule-making was such a long and strenuous process, the agency would be apt to prioritize compounds that are present in more than one community.
The disorientation among the crowd was palpable, cueing gasps of frustration and disbelief.
Taylor was apoplectic. Visibly shaking, he told the government official: “I wouldn’t dare sell my house to a human family. I wouldn’t dare bring another human family into this.”
Robert Taylor at his home. ‘I wouldn’t dare sell my house to a human family.’Robert Taylor at his home. ‘I wouldn’t dare sell my house to a human family.’ Photograph: Julie Dermansky/The Guardian
Reflecting on that moment a few months later, he recalled: “It caused a complete change in me. It took a few days to gather my wits back.”
The announcement was made starker by the fact that historically, it has been the federal government that has stepped in to protect black communities in the south when state and local governments have been unwilling or unable to act.
Taylor doesn’t shy away from what he sees as a clear racial component in why his town is left to breathe carcinogens. Like much of Cancer Alley, Reserve is predominantly black and low-income. Black Americans make up 60% of the population in the town, and the per-capita income of $18,763 is about 40% less than the national average.
“The petrochemical industry and human beings cannot live and operate side by side,” Taylor says. “So they have decided they’re OK with just wiping us out, especially because of the fact that this is a poor black population. We were the lowest-hanging fruit.”
Taylor’s intuition is that Reserve is being overlooked because of the racial and economic demographics has been demonstrated on a national level, a phenomenon now commonly described as environmental racism. EPA-funded research from 2018 found that non-white Americans and those below poverty level are more likely than others to live near toxic pollution, and that the racial correlation is stronger than the economic one.
“In other words, the siting of polluting industrial facilities is both racist and classist, but mostly racist,” says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Concerned Citizens of St John the Baptist putting up signs in Reserve.Concerned Citizens of St John the Baptist putting up signs in Reserve. Photograph: Julie Dermansky
‘It’s much worse under Trump’
The context to that February evening was apparent to most people in the room: the Trump presidency’s assault on the EPA. The administration has already rolled back dozens of environmental protections making the likelihood of more federal intervention in Reserve slim to none.
A Louisiana environmental scientist, Wilma Subra, has been providing technical assistance to communities dealing with environmental health issues for nearly 40 years, and she says the administration’s rollback of regulation has been unprecedented.
Enforcement typically waxes under Democratic administrations and wanes under Republican ones. “[But] it’s much worse under Trump than it was under any previous Republican administration,” Subra says.
Earlier this year the administration proposed a 31% budget cut to the EPA, which could spell yet further disaster for the residents of St John the Baptist parish.
Subra visits Reserve every other week to brief residents on the EPA’s latest air quality readings, which she describes as an “extreme risk to their health”.
“The community in St John are forced to inhale toxic air emissions where they live, work and worship,” she says.
It is against this backdrop that Denka has pushed the Trump administration to withdraw the assessment of chloroprene as likely to be carcinogenic. Between 2017 and 18 the Japanese company spent $350,000 to hire lobbyists in Washington, records show. Calendars reveal Denka met EPA officials on three occasions during this time. A letter from the company’s chief executive, Koki Tabuchi, to the former EPA chief Scott Pruitt, written on June 26 2017 and later released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals the company’s aggressive campaign.
Tabuchi argued Denka had “suffered extraordinary hardship” because of what it defined as “flawed” science, which had “created unnecessary public alarm”. He was due to meet with Pruitt two days later.
Despite the campaign, however, the EPA ruled against Denka and upheld its assessment. A company spokesman confirmed that Denka is appealing against the decision, which is currently under consideration by the EPA. The company plans to submit more documentation to the EPA by June this year.
Cows graze on land bordering the Dupont/Denka plant.Cows graze on land bordering the Dupont/Denka plant. Photograph: William Widmer/Redux/Eyevine
In a statement to the Guardian, the EPA declined to comment on meetings with Denka because of “confidential settlement discussions”. But in a significant acknowledgment, the department stated it was working alongside the Department of Justice on a court-enforced agreement or “consent decree” with Denka. The EPA did not elaborate on the nature of this consent decree, which will be made public once finalized.
But a source familiar with the investigation said the settlement, while significant, relates to dozens of regulatory violations discovered at the plant and is not expected to address future emissions.
Denka is not the first to argue that the risks of chloroprene are overstated. DuPont, the compound’s creator, has also argued against government reclassification. But, quietly, the company has long been aware of the chemical’s risk. From the mid-1940s, DuPont scientists studied the effects of chloroprene on human health.
In a 1956 technical manual on neoprene, marked as confidential and numbering hundreds of pages, the warning is short but stark.
The document was unearthed by the Guardian amid thousands of records at DuPont’s archives in Wilmington, Delaware. It comes from DuPont’s first neoprene facility built in Kentucky in 1941 and closed in 2008 amid community outrage over the site’s emissions. The manual states that chloroprene “may enter the body either by inhalation or by absorption through the skin”. It warns that if consumed at high concentrations chloroprene “causes depression of the central nervous system and damage to vital organs”.
DuPont did not respond to detailed questions about its five-decades-long neoprene operations in Reserve. A spokesman pointed out the company no longer produces the product at all and reminded the Guardian it sold production to Denka in 2015.
“Prior to the sale, DuPont met the chloroprene limits in our DEQ air permit. We also met the Louisiana toxic air pollutant ambient air standard for chloroprene,” the spokesman said.
Despite the company’s attempts to shirk engagement, it has not escaped potential legal ramifications. Last year DuPont, Denka and DEQ were sued by a group of residents. Robert Taylor is the lead plaintiff.
“DuPont was there for 47 years unchecked,” says John Cummings, a veteran Louisiana trial lawyer leading the legal action. “These people were dying of cancer, children were going to schools and had to breathe this chloroprene gas daily. Nobody cared. And that’s why we’re taking action.”
The cemetery in Reserve, Louisiana, part of the St John the Baptist parish. Photograph: Julie Dermansky
A David-and-Goliath battle
Even those with no connection to the battle in Reserve have watched on in horror. Dr Ron Melnick, a former government scientist who was one of the first researchers to find chloroprene’s links to cancer, was dismayed to hear about the rates of exposure to the chemical in St John the Baptist.
“It’s shameful,” he says. “I wouldn’t even live in an area that the EPA says emissions are acceptable. For sure, I wouldn’t live or have my children in a place which exceeds the EPA limits.”
Robert Taylor, Mary Hampton and the thousands of others living close to the plant do not have the luxury of choice. They believe their David-and-Goliath battle against Denka, DuPont, the state and federal government is now their only recourse to breathe clean air again.
Taylor, who spent his life as a touring musician and working in construction, now accepts he has been thrust into a role that could define the rest of his life.
“If standing up for what is right, looking our enemy in the eyes and saying, ‘We’re aware of you and we need you to stop and we’re going to do everything we can to protect our community, our people, our children’ … if that would make me a radical, then I guess I’ll have to accept that title.”