The Hidden Struggle of Cancer Alley
A 100-mile stretch from New Orleans to Baton Rouge has over 156 industrial facilities. The most toxic land in the Western hemisphere, it is also a site of black resistance.
In Wes Craven’s 1982 film Swamp Thing, adapted from the DC Comic series of the same name, a Louisianan scientist named Alec Holland is transformed into a monstrous human-plant hybrid. The creature, dubbed the eponymous Swamp Thing, is unnatural. He is sentient vegetation, after all. Yet even after he diverges from homo sapien to the vegetal (swampus erectus?), his actions in the film betray very human attachments. After Holland’s love interest, Alice, discovers his mutation, he hands her an orchid and tells her, “Much beauty in the swamp, if only you look.”
But despite Holland’s declaration, and his designation as the film’s redemptive protagonist, the terrain after which he is named and from which he is made is nonetheless figured as an impenetrable vault. Growing wild at the margins of civil society, the swamp is where strange science experiments (including one that Holland himself was conducting) and DNA-spliced, binary-collapsing creatures, are hidden from view.
The swamp made an additional appearance in popular consciousness in 2005, when the levees built to protect New Orleans from the rising flood waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico failed. The outermost wetlands, which had been assiduously drained since the nineteenth century to make way for residences, had returned. Nowhere was the devastation more acute than in the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood that at the time of Katrina was over 98 percent black and largely poor. It was the last part of the city to be pumped dry, the last neighborhood to regain electricity and water services. Historical segregation and redlining, the legacy of Jim Crow, and incompetent infrastructural design amplified the hurricane’s destructive impact on black residents. The destruction of the Lower Ninth Ward and the struggle over its reconstruction actualized a racist narrative that interpreted Hurricane Katrina as a divine mandate to “clean up” (that is, gentrify) the city. Only about 37 percent of its original residents have returned to the Lower Ninth.
But the spatial proximity of poor people of color to the swamp predates New Orleans at the time of Katrina. In the eighteenth century, Louisiana held the largest Maroon settlements on the continent. Maroons – from the Spanish cimarrón, a name given to those that had escaped slavery – found cover in the swamp, forest, and tributaries surrounding the plantations, where muddy terrain made pursuit difficult. Like many of the areas in the state lying closest to the swamplands, the Lower Ninth was first populated by poor black people, many formerly enslaved, who were unable to afford land in safer, higher-elevated parts of the state. According to Sustain the Nine, a grassroots organization for the restoration of the Lower Ninth, the neighborhood was so undesirable that “poor African Americans and immigrant laborers from Ireland, Germany and Italy ... risked flooding and disease to move [there].” Given this historical proximity to the swamp, is it any wonder that the swamp has been designated as a no-man’s-land?
The institutionalized effects of white supremacist capitalism were made harshly visible during Katrina. But folks living along the Mississippi River have been struggling against business interests for dignity and autonomy for decades. Lesser known is the struggle of those living in “Cancer Alley,” a 100-mile stretch along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that has the highest concentration of petrochemical plants in the Western Hemisphere. Those working in the industry refer to it proudly as the Petrochemical Corridor, in a linguistic move that subordinates the land and its residents to the project of amassing ever more astronomical profits. As of 2005, there were 156 industrial facilities that collectively emitted 129 million pounds of toxic waste annually. More recently, while levels of hazardous output decreased to 87 million pounds per year, the emissions that hang over Cancer Alley still compose 63 percent of the state’s overall toxic output. This figure doesn’t account for so-called fugitive emissions, which are unintended or accidental leaks of hazardous gases into the surrounding area.