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(Washington, DC) – The fossil fuel and petrochemical industry in the Louisiana area that has come to be known as “Cancer Alley” has devastated the health, lives, and environment of residents, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Cancer Alley refers to an approximately 85-mile stretch of communities along the banks of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where communities exist side by side with some 200 fossil fuel and petrochemical operations. 

The 98-page report, “‘We’re Dying Here’: The Fight for Life in a Louisiana Fossil Fuel Sacrifice Zone,” documents how residents of Cancer Alley suffer the effects of extreme pollution from the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry, facing elevated rates and risks of maternal, reproductive, and newborn health harms, cancer, and respiratory ailments. Parts of Cancer Alley have the highest risk of cancer from industrial air pollution in the United States. These harms are disproportionately borne by the area’s Black residents.

“The fossil fuel and petrochemical industry has created a ‘sacrifice zone’ in Louisiana,” said Antonia Juhasz, senior researcher on fossil fuels at Human Rights Watch. “The failure of state and federal authorities to properly regulate the industry has dire consequences for residents of Cancer Alley.”

From September 2022 to January 2024, Human Rights Watch interviewed 70 people, including 37 Cancer Alley residents, and traveled throughout the region to document the human rights impacts of fossil fuel and petrochemical operations on local residents. Cancer Alley residents described the impact on their health, including miscarriages, high-risk pregnancies, infertility, the poor health of newborns, respiratory ailments, and cancer. Many shared stories of entire communities devastated by cancer, the deaths of family and friends, missed days of work and school due to illness, and children rushed to emergency rooms suffering from asthma attacks.

The report includes new research revealing the toll of air pollution on maternal, reproductive, and newborn health in Cancer Alley, done by researchers at Tulane University in New Orleans in a paper currently under peer review for publication in the “Environmental Research: Health” journal. The researchers found exceptionally elevated rates of low birthweight and preterm birth, as much as triple the US average. Those parts of Louisiana with the highest rates of adverse birth outcomes correspond to those with the worst air pollution, including areas within Cancer Alley.

Robert Taylor in Reserve, Saint John the Baptist Parish, in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. October 17, 2023. © 2023 Eli Reed for Human Rights Watch

For decades, Louisiana’s regulatory authorities, particularly the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, have failed to address the severity of harm from fossil fuel and petrochemical operations, enforce minimum standards set by the federal government, and protect the health of local residents. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not ensured that federal laws and mandates are enforced in Louisiana, and as such, is failing to protect residents from harm caused by the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry.

In December 2023, for the first time in global climate conferences under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the final outcome agreement of the UN Climate Conference, COP28, called on governments to begin “transitioning away from fossil fuels.” Immediate implementation of this commitment in Cancer Alley would have profound benefits for the health of residents of the area.

Also on January 25, Amnesty International released a report titled “The Cost of Doing Business? The Petrochemical Industry’s Toxic Pollution in the USA.” The reports by two of the world’s largest human rights organizations expose the devastating human rights toll of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry on frontline communities in the US and say that state and federal authorities should take immediate actions to address this harm.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality should increase regulations and enforcement, deny permits in already overburdened communities, and support local calls for moratoriums on new or expanded fossil fuel and petrochemical operations.

The EPA should order fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities posing an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment to immediately pause all operations. The agency should also object to permits in already overburdened communities, support moratoria on new or expanded fossil fuel and petrochemical projects, and implement a remediation and relocation plan.

“It’s long past time for governments to uphold their human rights obligations and for these sacrifices to end,” said Juhasz.

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