Tue, 27 Sep 2022

by Xin Ping

BEIJING, Sept. 21 (Xinhua) -- Siblings, in-laws and neighbors fell victim to cancer. Mary Hampton is not the only one with such a devastating story to tell in the African American communities in Louisiana's chemical corridor, home to nearly 150 oil refineries, plastics plants and chemical facilities.

The tragedy is so commonplace that this stretch of land along the Mississippi River is grimly dubbed the "Cancer Alley," or the "Death Alley."

For years, residents of these communities had to live with a foul smell and chemical fog, resulting from the pollutants discharged by the toxic industries nearby. Data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed that in 2020, air concentration of cancer-causing chloroprene in the region's St. John the Baptist Parish were 8,000 times higher than the established acceptable level. Residents experienced stinging eyes, asthma, skin disorders and reported a higher-than-average cancer rate. According to the EPA's 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment, the cancer risk rate for parts of the area is 47 times higher than the national average.

Louisiana's riverside neighborhoods are not the only African American communities burdened with excessive health hazards from heavy pollution. According to a UN Special Rapporteur report on environmental rights, large polluting industrial facilities in the United States are disproportionately located in communities with the highest percentages of people of African descent and the lowest household incomes. A 2007 study by Robert Bullard, an American academic, found that African American children were five times more likely to have lead poisoning from proximity to waste than Caucasian children.

From New York to California, from Florida to Alaska, thousands of communities live adjacent to heavy industry where low-income people of color continue to be disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals, wrote Steve Lerner, an academic, in his 2010 treatise, titled "Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States."

The problem is clearly a systemic one. Racism is so entrenched and widespread in U.S. society that it is sadly no surprise to find its environmental facade.

In a press release last year, UN human rights experts said the development of petrochemical complexes in the "Cancer Alley" in the southern U.S. state of Louisiana is a form of "environmental racism." Coined by the African American civil rights leader, Benjamin Chavis, in 1982, "environmental racism" is described as "racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements."

This definition captures, in a disturbing way, the situation in "Cancer Alley" and other similar places, where environmental policies discriminate against communities or people of color.

First is the local authorities' unscrupulous approval of heavily polluting projects in Black-majority communities without taking necessary procedures or heeding local feedback. In 2018, St. James Parish Council gave the green light to the "Sunshine Project" in developing one of the world's largest plastics facilities near the residential area. With more such hazardous projects continuously being approved and constructed, local organizations filed complaints against the Louisiana environment authority arguing for racially biased processes in its permits issuance. But the process is advancing slowly.

Then is the lack of protection from the law and its enforcement. In 1992, a study entitled "Unequal Protection" published in the National Law Journal revealed racial disparities in the enforcement of environmental protection laws in the United States. According to the study, "white communities see faster action, better results and stiffer penalties than communities where Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities live." Fast forward to today, the U.S. government is still being blasted for inaction. In March 2021, UN human rights experts criticized U.S. federal environmental regulations for failing to protect people residing in "Cancer Alley."

People or communities of color also tend to be treated with sluggish attention to their concerns. In the case of Flint, Michigan, during the operation of an ill-managed water project, residents complained about the stinky and soiled water and symptoms of hair loss and skin rashes for 18 months without receiving responses from the authorities. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission later concluded that the slow official reaction was a "result of systemic racism."

Exceptional delay to the needs of people of color is also visible during disaster relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, when some badly-hit Black neighborhoods were left waiting for much-needed aids for days on end as they watched Red Cross trucks swoosh past their neighborhoods.

From enslavement and racial segregation in history to violence against racial and ethnic minorities and "I can't breath" today, systemic racism remains persistent and widely present in the U.S. society.

The United Nations has expressed considerable concerns about pervasive racism in the United States. Periodic reviews by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination have highlighted a series of concerns about the racial situation in the United States, including racial profiling, racist hate crimes, obstacles to vote, discrimination and segregation in housing and education, access to health care and, as is discussed in this case, disparate impact of environmental pollution.

Disappointed with progress at home, Louisiana local organizations recently took their case to Geneva. "We're desperate," said a representative decrying U.S. environmental racism before the international community. But with racism still haunting U.S. society, their journey to environmental justice will be long and arduous.

(The author is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly for CGTN, Global Times, Xinhua News Agency, etc. He can be reached at xinping604@gmail.com)

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