BATON ROUGE, Louisana—One by one nearly all of Brunetta Sims’ neighbors have disappeared. Some have died of cancer or other mysterious illnesses. Others packed up and moved when the air got too thick or too nasty for their little ones to handle. Many more relocated after being bought out by the bigwigs over at the oil plant next door.
“They’re all gone now. Nobody here but me,” Sims said from her kitchen table in Standard Heights, an African American neighborhood along the fence line of Exxon Mobil’s colossal Baton Rouge plant and refinery, the 11th largest oil complex in the world.
For a long time Sims said she paid little mind to the stench that would often waft into her home from across the fence. She was comfortable in her modest but sturdy little house and was happy enough to have a place to call her own. She ignored her burning eyes and scratchy throat. She chalked up persistent sinus infections to bad allergies. And she even looked past the soft sheet of grime that she’d wake to find blanketing her car on many mornings.
“I really didn’t think about all that stuff until something went wrong,” she said. “But sometimes the smell is so bad, so bad you just can’t stand it.”
There came a point when there was no more pretending, no more turning a blind, burning eye to the mysterious smells or the illnesses that seemed, in one way or another, to touch nearly everyone she knew.
A couple years back, Sims said she noticed sores on her feet that wouldn’t heal. Her doctors couldn’t figure out exactly what caused them. The sores were similar to the ones her brother, who lived with Sims and her family, had also gotten. He died last year of cancer and liver problems at 65. Other family members and friends have also died early, she said, of cancers and lung disease and a number of other maladies that so many in neighborhoods up and down the Mississippi River corridor seem to suffer disproportionately.
Mile by mile, town by town, there’s another little cluster of poverty and sickness. Most of these small towns are poor and black and nearly all are a stone's throw from the petrochemical processing facilities that dot the region.
There have been so many cases of cancer, so much inexplicable illness and death, that the corridor has become known as Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is home to more than 150 plants and refineries. Studies conducted in Louisiana and throughout the country show that the poor and, in particular, poor African Americans, are more likely to live near industrial plants and are exposed to toxic pollutants at a rate much higher than more affluent whites.
“People are talking about this economic recovery and the rebirth of clean energy and renewable energy, but what we have is energy apartheid, where poor communities and poor communities of color are still getting the dirtiest of the dirty energy,” said Dr. Robert Bullard, author of “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality.”
Grassroots activists in the early 1980s coined the term environmental racism, a type of violence and yet another form of redlining. In this case, it means those who are—and aren’t—exposed to contaminated air, soil and water are largely segregated along racial and class lines.
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