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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

LOE Retrospective/ Cancer Alley

Air Date: Week of

Southern Louisiana, where the Mississippi River flows between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, is home to over 100 petrochemical plants and much of the nation’s petrochemical industry. The area, dubbed Cancer Alley, also has some of the highest rates of lung cancer and mortality with African Americans disproportionately affected. As part of Living on Earth’s 20th anniversary, we’re looking back to some of the stories we covered in our early years. This week LOE’s Steve Curwood talks with Paul Templet, who was head of the Department of Environmental Quality in Louisiana in the late 1980s and early 90s, about how the state reduced toxic pollution at that time and what the situation is along the lower Mississippi region now.


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. This week we continue our look back 20 years to when our show first began. Steve Curwood founded Living on Earth back then, and he and the show are still going strong today. Hi Steve.

CURWOOD: Hi there, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: We should remind long-time listeners that when you first began the show, it was just a half-hour long and each program focused on a single specific issue.

CURWOOD: Yeah, Bruce, and for one of those first shows that aired in May of 1991, producer George Homsey and I took a trip down south to Louisiana - to where the Mississippi River flows between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Now this area is called Cancer Alley, and it’s home to more than 130 petrochemical plants.

And back then, it made Louisiana industry second only to Texas as a source of toxic chemicals. The people who lived there had some of the nation’s highest cancer rates, and some said African-Americans bore an unfair share of the cancer burden. George and I were given a tour of the lower Mississippi by Pat Bryant, an environmental justice activist with the Gulf Coast Tenant Organization. Here’s an excerpt:

Mississippi River entrance of the Industrial Canal. View from the Lower 9th Ward. (Infrogmation)


CURWOOD: Driving with Bryant along the Mississippi out of New Orleans, it’s not very long before the air turns sour.


CURWOOD: Hmm. What’s that smell?

BRYANT: That’s ethylene oxide.

CURWOOD: So what are we passing here?

BRYANT: That’s coming from Union Carbide. That’s their contribution to this toxic stew. And this was the smell that got us involved in the environmental movement. We just waged a successful campaign here, and people were concerned that their health was endangered and wanted an organization to look into it, and we began - that’s how we began. That smell - ethylene oxide.

CURWOOD: It’s nauseating. It’s overpowering.

BRYANT: Oh yeah. Very. You know, ethylene is very bad on the respiratory system…the body in general.

CURWOOD: Now the smell that we smell - is this chemical…is this a carcinogenic chemical? Does it cause cancer?

BRYANT: Oh yeah. Ethylene oxide, yeah - it’s said to cause cancer. They say they control it. And they release very little to the atmosphere. But chemists who work along with us - we have chemists in our organization - they’ve brought us out and helped us identify certain smells, and they said that one is ethylene oxide.

CURWOOD: Ethylene oxide is used in making anti-freeze, laundry detergents, and polyester fabrics. It’s also a known carcinogen. The 2,000-acre Union Carbide plant in Taft, Louisiana, can make over a billion pounds a year of this stuff - more than a fifth of the total U.S. production capacity.

Mississippi River, New Orleans. (PRA, Wikipedia Creative Commons)

The plant also churns out two dozen other chemicals, a half a dozen of which are known or suspected carcinogens as well. In 1987, the plant discharged more than one and half million pounds of pollutants into the air of St. Charles Parish, including more than a hundred thousand pounds of ethylene oxide. Union Carbide says emissions have been cut in half since then, and that the company plans to reduce ethylene oxide emissions further still - to less than five percent of 1987 levels.

There’s no hard science proving that the plant causes sickness in nearby residents, but Pat Bryant believes those who live in the village of Killona, just a few thousand yards away, have had their health compromised. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the cancer death rate for females in St. Charles Parish is rising 18 times faster than the national average.

BRYANT: These are poor people who struggle to buy a little piece of property - some of them rent from the plantation owner who sold to Union Carbide and to the other companies - the chemical companies.


CURWOOD: Among the people we interviewed for that program was Paul Templet. He took a leave from teaching environmental science at Louisiana State University to run the state’s Department of Environmental Quality in the late 1980’s when Buddy Roemer became governor.

TEMPLET: Previous governors have said we have to sacrifice the environment to get jobs - we now know that was a Faustian bargain, and we don’t want to do that anymore. In fact, now we know that you’ve got to have a good environment to have a good business climate.

CURWOOD: What kind of man is Pat Bryant?

TEMPLET: He wants to shake the system up. Nothing wrong with that - that’s a part of the American scene also, part of democracy - I have no problem with that. I think his major premise is that there are more toxic dumps, there are more industries locating in black communities than elsewhere. That’s probably true. I can’t - I don’t think it’s directly related to racism, although it’s hard to discount. I think it has to do with economic levels, and the fact that property values in the black community are lower than they are in white communities. And when industry looks for a piece of property, they find the lowest price.

Taft, Louisiana, 1993 (© Paul Turounet)

[MUSIC: Eddie Bo “I Got The Blues” from New Orleans Solo Piano (Night Train International 2006).]

CURWOOD: These days, Paul Templet is retired from LSU. He joins us from his home in Baton Rouge. Hi, Paul.

TEMPLET: Hey, how’s it going, Steve! Good to hear from you.

CURWOOD: So that was the situation back in 1991. So what were you able to do about toxic pollution when you were Secretary of the Louisiana DEQ?

TEMPLET: Well when the numbers first came out that you mentioned in '88 - '87 or '88 - showing Louisiana had the highest toxic releases in the entire country, and we’re a small state, it told us pretty quickly what we had to do.

So we set out to reduce those emissions - releases to the atmosphere, and to water and to land - and at the end of four years, using a number of different approaches, we managed to cut them in half. That’s a start. It’s not the end, but it’s a good start because no other state has ever done that. So that’s good, but unfortunately it hasn’t come down much since - the agencies seem kind of dead in the water.

CURWOOD: So things got better back then but they’re, what, just about the same on the lower Mississippi?

TEMPLET: Yeah, I have looked at the numbers in the past and the reductions have sort of ceased. The state’s back in the mode of saying, ‘Oh, we can’t crack down on pollution because we’re going to run jobs off,’ which, to me, is not correct - it’s a bad bargain. Turns out - and this is the research I did when I went back to LSU after I left the DEQ - I was looking into the connections between economy and environment, and what you find is that states with good environmental programs have better economies, not worse.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1993 (© Paul Turounet)

Yet, in spite of that, every time we tried to put in new regulations or new laws to lower pollution levels or even increase the enforcement - all of which we did - we kept hearing from industries, ‘Oh, you’re going to run jobs off, it’s going to be bad for the economy.’ Well it’s not true. It may cause them to spend more money, and they do, but the economy in general gets better.

And the upshot, and kind of the curious circular path I followed, was that when I finished the research - it took me about ten years to do it - what it showed was that if you do the things that will make the lives of your people better - that is, cut pollution, improve services, and so on - you make the economy better because if you’re requiring industry, say, to reduce their pollution levels, they’re going to have to spend money and they did spend more money.

The spending in Louisiana went from about 200 million a year on pollution control in '88 all the way up to about 1.1 billion by '91 or '92 - so a factor of five increase. Now industry doesn’t like doing that, but as they do it, they have to buy equipment, they have to hire people, and indeed hiring in the chemical industry went up by about 25,000 jobs in those four years when it was declining all over the United States.

So cleaning up the environment means you’re gonna have a better economy, and as Buddy Roemer used to say, ‘Clean environment is good for business.’ I don’t know how he knew that, but he certainly did, and he acted on it - he let me do those things. That had never been done before in Louisiana.

CURWOOD: Now when we talked back in 1991, you said you thought that class and poverty played a bigger role than race in determining where polluting industry is located - how do you feel about that today?

TEMPLET: Well, as I was listening to that, I was thinking, ‘Yeah, but poverty is due to racism.’ So it may be one step removed from racism, but it looks to me like…I mean, there is obviously a race basis to the fact that our poorest segment are minorities in Louisiana because there was institutional racism.

Industry does seek the cheapest property, and they also seek rural property because they want acreage - they want large acreages. And that’s the place where minorities have settled in Louisiana, partly because that’s also the place where the plantations were. So there was a racism component, of course.

CURWOOD: In Louisiana you have all these petrochemical plants along the Mississippi that pollute. And then, of course, you’ve had Hurricane Katrina, not to mention the oil spill last year - what needs to be done to protect the environment in Louisiana?

TEMPLET: Well, a number of things - obviously you have to have regulatory agencies that are serious about protecting the people of Louisiana and the United States in general. But the state itself has to be more proactive - it has to do those things which are good for the people of Louisiana. And if you do those things, you will improve both the economy and the environment.

We’ve got a lot of chemical plants here, as you know, up and down the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and those certainly could lower their pollution levels, but it takes political will. It takes the courage of somebody like Buddy Roemer, the governor I worked for, to stand up to the oil industry - and very few of our governors have ever been willing to do that.

CURWOOD: Paul Templet is an emeritus professor of environmental science at Louisiana State University. Thank you so much!

TEMPLET: Sure, my pleasure!



Listen to Living on Earth's Cancer Alley program from May 17, 1991


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