The waterway linking Gulf Coast oil with the refineries of Baton Rouge has brought great prosperity to Louisiana. But the people living in “Cancer Alley” have a different story to tell.
A little more than a century ago, down a winding, serviceable waterway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, there was an abundance of green along its shores. Sugarcane stalks matured ten-feet high, and glistening men freely harvested their livelihoods here. When the yellow sun peaked and their arms tired, they’d cut open a stem and suck the clear, energizing nectar. Beyond them, the Mississippi River stretched a mile wide, appearing any number of colors depending on the tide and the time of day. Rickety boats glided past the farmers, puffing white clouds of nothing but hot water that dissipated after a brief stint in the air.
What those fieldworkers likely didn’t know was that thousands of feet underneath them and in the depths of a sprawling gulf a few hundred miles south were countless salt domes storing immeasurable amounts of black oil about to be discovered.
By 1906 the Louisiana legislature passed the state’s first oil and gas conservation law. The state’s inaugural natural gas pipeline was laid two years later, and shortly thereafter Standard Oil built a refinery in Baton Rouge.
The ExxonMobil company occupies that plant today, and with an approximate daily input capacity of 500,000 barrels of petroleum, it is currently the second largest such construct in the United States. The site is also the de facto starting point of what is often called “Cancer Alley,” a roughly hundred-mile portion of the Mississippi River between the state capital and New Orleans whose landscape has been vastly transformed over the past century. Its banks are littered with more than 140 industrial plants, and nearly one quarter of the world’s petrochemical production takes place there.
“You drive down these public access roads right through this labyrinth of rusting pipes,” said photographer Giles Clarke, who visited the ExxonMobil plant and the outlying area in October of 2013. “These are huge, huge complexes.”
Louisiana’s government permits ExxonMobil to release millions of pounds of emissions into the air each year from the plant, not including toxins that find their way out after accidental leaks. It’s a necessary evil if the state wants to collect tax revenue that can reach up to $144 million from the company, as it did two years ago. However, according to published studies from the EPA, the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry and the World Health Organization, exposure to pollutants like those emitted from the plant — ethylene, propylene, and benzene, just to name a few — has been proven to increase the likelihood of a person suffering from a number of skin disorders, respiratory diseases and cancers.
Clarke became interested in Cancer Alley after doing some volunteer work for the Bhopal Medical Appeal. His friend Colin Toogood works for the organization, helping to generate relief funds for those suffering from the after effects of the Union Carbide plant disaster of 1984 in India. After gaining a stark understanding of that tragedy, Clarke wanted to learn more about the oil industry’s global impact on the environment and people. With Toogood in tow, he decided to pay the Cancer Alley corridor a visit.
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Standard Heights is the Baton Rouge neighborhood located just south of the ExxonMobil plant on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. Clarke attended a community gathering at the Allen Chapel in Standard Heights, organized by Stephanie Anthony, Executive Director of the Louisiana Democracy Project. The group strives to spur awareness and active participation in dealing with public concerns. “We’re a grassroots organization,” Anthony, fifty-one, told me in a recent phone interview. “We don’t get funding from anyone, so we just say what we want.”
“You can smell it in the air — the emissions,” Clarke said, “particularly up towards Standard Heights. Huge emissions flares are burning. Your clothes stink when you get home. Your eyes are watering.”
The purpose of the Allen Chapel meeting was to give locals an opportunity to voice their concerns about the environment, the sickly residents, and a proposed settlement between ExxonMobil and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ). The world’s fifth most-profitable company was agreeing to pay a fine for damages following a June 12, 2012 accident at the Baton Rouge plant that saw 31,000 pounds of benzene escape into the atmosphere along with hefty amounts of other carcinogens.
One woman at the Allen Chapel meeting spoke of her experience living in Standard Heights and dealing with the very tangible residue that falls to the earth after the ExxonMobil plant releases its emissions:
When I go to my car at four o’clock in the morning I have to go back into my house and get some soap and water to clean the windshield… I had a pool. My kids love to swim. I had to take my pool down because I felt the water would become hazardous. So I got a trampoline. They can’t even jump on the trampoline [because] of all the stuff that lands on [it]. I have my grandkids to raise because their mother’s dead and they have asthma. It’s not about money; it’s about our health.
Clarke and Anthony both claim that the ExxonMobil plant usually frees its waste emissions, often utilizing gas flaring practices, at night. They speculate the company does so likely to minimize the number of witnesses to the ritual. Stephanie Cargile, the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge refinery Public & Government Affairs Manager, called that claim “inaccurate.” She added, via email, that the plant “operates continuously,” using various systems “to mitigate emissions on a continuous basis. Flaring is used on a minimal basis during unit start up or shut down procedures” and that neighbors are notified when flaring may occur.
At the Allen Chapel gathering, one outspoken thirty-two-year old man, Percy G. Montgomery, told attendees:
Just the other day my windows were rattling because Exxon was blowing emissions out of the stack. I went to my doctor today and he told me I have to have chemo. I’m blind in one eye and I’m really sick of Exxon saying “Oh, we’re gonna dump a little more and they’re gonna be all right. We’ll keep on dumping, they ain’t gonna do nothing.” We need to do something, instead of having Exxon killing us off.
Clarke got to know Montgomery and his mother, Lee Ester Hunt, during his trip, interviewing and photographing them at their home. Hunt was required to take strong medication on a daily basis to fight cancer, and Clarke learned that Montgomery had a benign tumor the size of a tennis ball removed from his head in 2003.
Montgomery told Clarke that his typical day living in Standard Heights is spent indoors so he doesn’t have to “smell Exxon.” He added: “The only time I [go] outside is to get my mail or to take my dog out.”
Clarke and Montgomery have stayed in touch. In a recent online chat, Clarke learned that Montgomery’s mother died last summer. Her kidneys gave out and she had a stroke. Montgomery, who’s now living with his brother, wrote: “I’m making it through. But I really miss her.”
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Clarke toured the outlying area, encountering a cancer patient one afternoon named Elizabeth Plaisance, who was sitting on her front porch, drinking a can of beer. She told him:
It’s better not to live in this town. I’ve lived here off and on for twenty years. There’s no help, that’s why I turn to beer. It helps alleviate some of the pain. Chemo makes me too sick to take care of my kids. It makes you where you can’t even get out [of] the bed. Kids are begging you to get up to fix them something to eat and you can’t move, you just can’t. But I deal with it. That’s all you can do… My dad was a deacon in the church. He believed we should all have faith in everything we do. So I believe. I live with it.
In 1947, Kerr-McGee Oil Industries Inc. erected Kermac Rig. No 16, an experimental, freestanding drill in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the first rig that stood out of sight from land, and when it survived 140-mile-per-hour hurricane winds in September of that year, other oil companies began making their way deeper into the Gulf. By the 1960s refineries dominated the Mississippi riverside with pipelines running from the Gulf to what was then known as the “petrochemical corridor” between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Costs were minimized and oil shipping was maximized with ideal river access. Today, there are more than a hundred offshore drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
The late ’80s saw the start of a local environmental social justice movement. A group of about 4,000 people called the Coalition for Community Action won compensation from Rollins Environmental Services in 1987 after filing a lawsuit claiming that the landfill company was improperly disposing of sludge generated by the Baton Rouge oil refinery, then owned by Exxon. The plaintiffs were each awarded between $500 and $3,000 when the case settled out of court. During news coverage of the local landmark decision and subsequent reports of growing environmental activism in the area, it was noted that the region appeared to have a high number of cancer patients and fatalities. Thus, the Cancer Alley moniker was concocted.
According to the National Cancer Institute, between the years 2000 and 2004, Louisiana ranked second out of America’s fifty states in cancer mortality rate, with roughly thirty more deaths per 100,000 residents than the U.S. average. In another report from the organization that tallied the average annual number of cancer diagnoses between 2007 and 2011, four of the top five ranked state parishes — Jefferson, East Baton Rouge, Orleans, and St. Tammany — are located in Cancer Alley. The other parish, Caddo, located in the northwestern portion of the state, is where Louisiana’s first natural gas pipeline began pumping, and was the site of the nation’s first over-water oil drilling.
Not far from Elizabeth Plaisance’s residence, Clarke was also welcomed into the dark home of Michael Brown, who said he’s lived in Standard Heights, literally feet from the ExxonMobil plant’s chain-linked, property-lining fence, for forty years. Brown said he has never once opened his windows. “He wakes up and his eyes are streaming and he has headaches,” Clarke reported. “He’s experienced countless leaks. He’s another man trying to keep his family together.”
I asked Clarke why he thinks the people choose to remain in the area in spite of all the potential health risks. He said: “You have to remember these people are incredibly poor. They’re not getting help in relocation costs. Just to move and to get your kids into new schools, that all costs money. We’re talking about people here who live in wooden shacks. There’s a sense too that ‘This is my home.’ They’re also ill and weak. It’s all they know and they’ve been there for generations.”
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Clarke traveled to the ExxonMobil plant’s outskirts for a closer look, jumping on his parked rental car’s rooftop in hopes that he could capture the expanse of the place in his photos. He said that when one drives down the area’s highways, the refineries don’t look nearly as overbearing as they actually are. He wonders too if the freeways were built so far away from the 2,400-acre complex for just that purpose.
Off the ironically named Scenic Highway that runs adjacent to the ExxonMobil refinery, Clarke noticed a long plume of black smoke and decided to investigate its origins. He found himself on the grounds of a small pig farm and met its owner Michael Montgomery — no relation to Percy — who was drinking a beer, and, it appeared, not the first of the day. On Sundays, when the local fire chief is off duty, Michael is paid to burn peoples’ garbage. “I don’t know why he does it,” said Clarke. “I guess it’s just quicker, easier, and cheaper for people to bring it to Michael instead of the dump.”
In Michael Montgomery, Clarke sees another symbol of the futility of the people who live in Cancer Alley. At one point, Clarke recalls, Michael pointed to the ExxonMobil plant and said that they were all being killed by emissions from there, so the company probably wasn’t going to be too worried about his “little fire.”
“It’s like nothing else I’ve seen before in America,” Clarke remarked. “There’s so little regard for the environment down there and it’s permeated into the mindset of the residents.”
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About six weeks after Clarke returned home from Louisiana, he says he received a phone call from an FBI agent who claimed to work in the Baton Rouge field office. Clarke thought it was a joke at first, but the man then informed him that the FBI had scanned rental car invoices and tracked him down.
The agent inquired as to why Clarke had visited Standard Heights and the border of the ExxonMobil refinery. When Clarke said that he was a photojournalist and simply went down there to take pictures, the FBI agent replied that he was fully aware of Clarke’s profession, as well as the fact that Clarke’s wife runs a film production company. “I said to him, ‘All right now, there’s a limit to what we need to discuss here,’” Clarke relates.
According to Clarke, the agent explained that the oil refineries have been deemed “homeland-security sensitive,” and that private security teams hired by the petrochemical companies are required to file a report to the FBI regarding any suspicious activity in and around the plants. He also told Clarke that the agents had to follow up on each of those claims, so he’d appreciate it if Clarke would call him prior to any future Standard Heights trips. The agent could then notify the private security forces of Clarke’s pending arrival.
“If only government authorities were as good with monitoring toxic emissions and enforcing industrial pollution limits as they seem to be with plant and refinery security, then we might have a healthier, more sustainable environment down there,” Clarke said.
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A 2009 study of EPA data that appeared in USA Today indicates that the air outside many Baton Rouge schools is among the nation’s most toxic. Stephanie Anthony informed me that the emergency room at Baton Rouge General Mid City Hospital was shut down on April 1 due to a lack of funding. The medical center is less than three miles from Standard Heights. “Many of the children who live in the area suffer from asthma and bronchitis and they spend a lot of time in emergency rooms,” Anthony said, adding that the next-closest emergency room servicing the neighborhood is another six miles away. “There aren’t a lot of roads that go to those hospitals,” Anthony said. “It’s taken me an hour in traffic to drive from the city to the suburbs.”
In spite of what appear to be mounting problems, including a number of new industrial projects in the region highlighted by the ExxonMobil $215 million Baton Rouge plant expansion, Anthony remains positive about the work her organization is doing. “I would say we’ve made progress,” she told me.
Anthony points to that agreement between ExxonMobil and the LDEQ as a sign of change for the people of Standard Heights, but not because the locals received a whole bunch of money — almost all of the $2.4 million went towards in-plant improvements. “They have terrible working conditions for their employees and the community around them,” Anthony said of ExxonMobil. “They’re one of the most profitable corporations in the world and they have rusted pipes leaking oil all over the place. So for us to make it known that they’re not as safety conscious as they appear to be, that was a victory.”
The Public and Government Affairs Manager of the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge plant, Stephanie Cargile, responded to a number of my questions regarding operations and safety in and around the refinery via email. Cargile wrote: “ExxonMobil ensures strict compliance with regulatory requirements at the federal, state and local levels. We operate to the highest standards to protect the health and safety of our workforce and our neighbors, while minimizing impacts to the environment.” She added that, due in part to their efforts, the air around the Baton Rouge plant is improving and that ExxonMobil has received several awards for safety over the past few years alone. She insisted that they are perpetually in “strict compliance with regulatory requirements at the federal, state and local levels” and also added: “As one neighbor recently shared with us, it’s the longtime relationship between ExxonMobil employees and North Baton Rouge residents that matters now and in the future. Visiting activists who go from community to community to fundraise, spread misinformation, and use media stunts to garner attention simply have no role here — and many of our neighbors have shared that sentiment with us.”
Stephanie Anthony and other local activists met with ExxonMobil lawyers on Friday, April 17, 2015. Prior to the meeting, Anthony expressed that she was hopeful for a productive discussion about plant work plans and better communication between the company and community when accidents occur. She also said she wasn’t exactly anticipating much change, and, for her, the talk met those expectations. “We’ve been down this road before,” she said in a phone interview the following day. “They responded to a lot of our questions with ‘We have to speak to our people and get back to you.’ Even with basic things they have a company line: ‘We’re doing everything wonderfully. We’re a great neighbor. We’re really concerned about the people around us. We’ve been around a hundred years and we’ll continue to be wonderful.’”
Though Clarke more than admires Anthony’s efforts, he remains doubtful that things will turn. Clarke said he encountered some of the most genuine, welcoming people he’s ever met in Standard Heights, but added: “Almost all of them were sick. People are dying and it’s not getting better and everybody seems resigned to it.”
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Giles Clarke’s photography has been featured by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, CNN, Yahoo News, The Guardian, The Nation, and VICE among others. Giles is a featured photographer with Getty Images Reportage. For more information, please write firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram at @clarkegiles and Twitter at @gcwingman.
Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and journalist from Astoria, New York. His work has appeared in several print and online publications, including Narratively, where he serves as a features editor. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelRStahl.