Cancer Alley: Big Industry, Big Problems

Clusters of poverty and sickness shadow America's industrial South

Cancer Alley: Big Industry, Big Problems

Clusters of poverty and sickness shadow America's industrial South

This is part two of msnbc‘s four-part series, Geography of Poverty. Read part one »

This is part two of msnbc‘s four-part series, Geography of Poverty. Read part one »

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — 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.

An 85-mile stretch known as Cancer Alley is home to more than 150 plants and refineries.

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.”

Living in Cancer Alley
From areas of major displacement to emissions, click the buttons and explore the map below.
Plants
Displacement
Emissions
Poverty
Plants
Spill Displacements
Expansion Displacements
Percent population below the poverty line

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Emissions releases (1000 lbs).

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Sources: Plant data from Randy Peterson and Chemplants.com and EPA emissions registration data; povery data from US Census 2013 5-year ACA; displacement information from news sources, Mary Sternberg's Along the River Road, Steve Lerner's Diamond, and Kate Orff's research in Petrochemical America; emissions data is from the EPA's 2013 registry. Size of emission bubbles releases reflects types of different releases.

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.

Poor and minority communities have also been degraded by exposure to toxic materials unleashed by dilapidated housing, crumbling infrastructure and the nasty stuff released from the mouth of smoke stacks. Louisiana has the highest concentration of oil, natural gas and petrochemical facilities in the Western hemisphere, and many of the poorest people in the state live close to these refineries.

Louisiana is the third poorest state in the country, with nearly 20% of its population living below the poverty line, according to the most recent Census. The level of poverty is even greater in the city of Baton Rouge, where Exxon’s Standard Heights plant is located, with nearly 25% of the population below the poverty line. About 50% of households headed by single women with children under the age of 5 are living in poverty.

“It’s an economic issue but there are also racial dynamics playing out, and race is still the most powerful predictor of where these facilities are located,” Bullard said. “African Americans, even affluent African Americans are more likely to live closer to and in communities that are more polluted than poor white families that make $10,000 a year.”

Homes in Forgotten America

Abandoned houses in Birmingham, Jefferson County, Ala. The population is 212,237 and 30.2% live below the poverty level. Some 16,000 properties in the city are tax delinquent. The city spends $6.6 million per year cutting overgrown grass.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

‘Everything in Their Lives Is Contaminated’

Environmental concerns exacerbate the myriad other issues the poor already face, including access to good jobs, adequate health care and dependable public transportation.

Bullard describes it as a “double whammy — the poverty and the pollution.”

“There are some communities and some people that are considered less than. Some communities are considered so much so that they’ll build a new school for black children on a landfill,” he said. “We would never consider building a school like that in the suburbs. That’s what environmental racism is about, it allows some of our elected officials and people in power to say it’s OK.”

Perhaps no other region exemplifies that one-two punch as much as the South, with its dark history of chattel slavery a still-charged third rail.

Much of America’s prosperity was built on slave labor. For hundreds of years, through a network of slaveholders and plantations, enslaved Africans and their American-born progeny harvested great wealth from Southern sugar, cotton and other cash crops. When slavery was abolished after the defeat of the South in the Civil War, much of the region’s wealth went with it.

Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, Ala. Population is 90,468 and 26.3% live below the poverty level.

Today, the South remains largely poor, and ancestors of the slaves who built this nation remain there in large numbers. While black poverty exists across the country, it remains largely concentrated below the Mason-Dixon Line. While Jim Crow segregation may have ended there half a century ago, it was followed by racist public policy, state sanctioned violence and subjugation. Such challenges have made poverty virtually insurmountable for many communities in the so-called Black Belt.

Over the past decade, 10 of the 20 poorest states have been in the South. While the national poverty rate was 14.5% in 2013, the rate in the South was 16.1%, the highest rate in the nation. At a time when the majority of the country’s public school children are now living in poverty — for the first time in more than a half-century — childhood poverty in the southern states is endemic.

While poor blacks in the South suffer widely, the suffering isn’t theirs alone. White poverty in the South and Appalachia, in communities spanning up from Alabama and Mississippi, through Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, are among the most impoverished places in the country. The economies in these places have also been tied to big industry – mostly coal. Generations of whites in these coal towns made tough livings from the mines. They too suffered great health effects from breathing in dangerous particles, with high rates of chronic bronchitis, black lung and COPD.

The collapse of those industries brought the collapse of those people’s livelihoods. Many Appalachian communities suffer from widespread drug abuse and high rates of incarceration.

More than 20 years after President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, an historic action calling for “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” scientists and environmental justice activists say facilities continue to release dangerous levels of toxic pollution into the air and water, which has wrought untold havoc on the environment and the health of those who live close by.

Southern poverty is not a burden suffered by blacks alone. From the Deep South up through Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, the whites of Appalachia suffer greatly and are among the poorest Americans.
“It’s getting back to that way where they are treating people differently. Racism is flaring back up again. They have to lose that pride.”
Generations of Appalachia’s whites made their livelihoods working dangerous coal mining jobs.
In recent decades as the mining industry collapsed around them, those jobs were replaced with government dependence and poverty.
Appalachia is a 205,000 square mile region that treads along the Appalachian Mountains that includes parts of 13 states, from northern Mississippi to southern New York.
Between 2007 and 2011 nearly every county in central Appalachia had a poverty rate above 20%.
In West Virginia alone, 1 in 4 children live below the poverty level.
In Central Appalachia, 25% of people aged 25 and over don’t have a high school diploma, compared to 14% nationally.
Chalkboard in an abandoned school in Logan County, W.V., where the population is 35,987 and 22.2% live below the poverty level.
“People moved away, people die. The coal companies bought the houses out so they can strip mine.”
“They just want more, more, more. That's why the coal companies are in trouble … It's hard to get a job back here.”
 
Closed furniture plant in Lenoir, N.C., where the population is 18,228 and 24.6% live below the poverty level.
 
 
  • Southern poverty is not a burden suffered by blacks alone. From the Deep South up through Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, the whites of Appalachia suffer greatly and are among the poorest Americans.
  • “It’s getting back to that way where they are treating people differently. Racism is flaring back up again. They have to lose that pride.”
  • Generations of Appalachia’s whites made their livelihoods working dangerous coal mining jobs.
  • In recent decades as the mining industry collapsed around them, those jobs were replaced with government dependence and poverty.
  • Appalachia is a 205,000 square mile region that treads along the Appalachian Mountains that includes parts of 13 states, from northern Mississippi to southern New York.
  • Between 2007 and 2011 nearly every county in central Appalachia had a poverty rate above 20%.
  • In West Virginia alone, 1 in 4 children live below the poverty level.
  • In Central Appalachia, 25% of people aged 25 and over don’t have a high school diploma, compared to 14% nationally.
  • Chalkboard in an abandoned school in Logan County, W.V., where the population is 35,987 and 22.2% live below the poverty level.
  • “People moved away, people die. The coal companies bought the houses out so they can strip mine.”
  • “They just want more, more, more. That's why the coal companies are in trouble … It's hard to get a job back here.”
  •  
  • Closed furniture plant in Lenoir, N.C., where the population is 18,228 and 24.6% live below the poverty level.

“In a lot of these areas the groundwater is contaminated and these are areas where people still subsist on hunting and fishing,” said Wilma Subra, a veteran environmental justice crusader in southeastern Louisiana. “Everything in their lives is contaminated as a result of living close to these facilities and they are being left behind.”

From community to community the stories change little, Subra said — people die too soon, while others suffer from various respiratory issues, memory loss, the loss of liver function and uncomfortable skin conditions.

Equally disturbing, activists said, is the arrogance of politicians and industry leaders who are filling their coffers rather than taking on the concerns of the communities at the bottom of the socio-economic food chain.

“The contrast is unbelievable. You have in one neighborhood 40% child poverty and Exxon right across the street pulling in $40 billion,” said Anne Rolfes, founder of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental advocacy group. “Once you get into the details it’s really quite unbelievable. The state and EPA say there are no problems, that nothing bad has been found inside their samples, even though the findings… the state compares to short term standards but people don’t live there short term.” One recent study by researchers at the University of Minnesota highlighted the segregation of pollution in America highlighting the exposure to one key pollutant in particular, nitrogen dioxide. Nitrogen dioxide is an airborne pollutant produced by car exhaust and petroleum refining that is linked to high risk of asthma, heart attack, low birthweight and more benign symptoms like coughing, wheezing and bronchitis. According to the researchers minorities were exposed on average to 38% higher levels of nitrogen dioxide than their counterparts in white neighborhoods. From big cities to smaller rural communities across the country, that disparity in exposure equates to about 7,000 deaths from heart disease in a year.

In recent years, Louisiana has consistently ranked among the states with the highest rates of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Louisiana and other southern states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia, all have lung cancer death rates that are through the roof.

There’s also evidence that the amount of toxins released into the air by Louisiana’s petrochemical industry are vastly underreported. The state gives companies like Exxon allowances to pump out millions of pounds of air pollution each year. But because of leaks, spills and questionable self-reporting, the amount may be far greater than anyone really knows.

According to a recent report by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade that analyzed state Department of Environmental Quality data, there were 331 industrial accidents in 2013. That’s an average of nearly an accident every day of the week. The group calculated that the accidents released more than 200,000 pounds of hydrogen cyanide, 200,000 pounds of carbon monoxide and more than 800,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide into the air. While routine industry and government tests have shown relatively safe levels of pollution in the air near the plants, many have complained that the tests are often one-offs that don’t take into account repeated exposure.

Big Money, Big Problems

Exxon and other companies have reduced their emission levels over the last few decades, and industry groups insist the impacts of Cancer Alley a myth. And while it is difficult to link high rates of cancer directly to environmental factors given the prevalence of other high risk behaviors like smoking, the impact of industrial byproducts and waste are unmistakable when the most vulnerable communities are literally surrounded by smoke stacks.

Cancer Alley is an 85 mile stretch of over 200 petrochemical facilities beginning in Baton Rouge (25.4% poverty) stretching past New Orleans (27.3% poverty) and towards the coast. Though comprising just 1/3 of the state’s population, 80% of Louisiana’s African-American residents live within three miles of a hazardous industrial zoned facility.

In recent years, huge multinational corporations have drawn increased international investment. A prominent Chinese billionaire-politician whose natural gas company has a checkered environmental record has been dumping huge amounts of capital into facilities in black towns in St. James Parish, located in the heart of Cancer Alley. Wang Jinshu, the Chinese tycoon, is building a nearly $2 billion methanol plant in the parish with a $9.5 million carrot in state government tax incentives.

Locals and critics of industrial expansion have said they were never part of the discussion and that politicians, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, are putting politics and profit over people’s health. Chinese investors are also courting nearby Texas with a plan to build a $4.5 billion methanol plant in Texas City, a predominantly black community. The plant, if completed, would be the largest in the world, capable of producing 7.2 million tons of methanol a year for export to China. The effort to expand manufacturing in the Gulf Coast comes amid a much broader push by the states to make the corridor for industrial investment even wider.

“It’s not just health we’re talking about, we’re talking about transformative wealth being stolen by property values being devalued because of environmental racism.”

The U.S. Commerce Department has officially recognized the Chemical Corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans as one of the nation’s leading manufacturing zones, a designation aimed at making it easier to get federal money to help boost American manufacturing. As part of the initiative, affiliate programs say they’ll use the newly granted access for workforce development, local job creation, research and innovation.

But many say big industry has been talking the same game for decades, using the the prospect of good jobs as a carrot to entice the support of poor folks in poor communities.

“These facilities are sold as bringing an economic renaissance to those communities and providing jobs and an increased tax base for the community. But the benefits are more dispersed and the costs are more concentrated,” said Bullard, the author, who is also the dean of the school of public affairs at Texas Southern University.

The long term financial ramifications cut across generations, Bullard said. Property values closest to industry are often devalued because of safety, health and quality of life concerns. With the typical wealth of whites 13 times greater than African-Americans, many blacks — whose wealth is typically tied up in their homes — see it diminished further by where their homes are located.

“It’s not just health we’re talking about, we’re talking about transformative wealth being stolen by property values being devalued because of environmental racism,” Bullard said.

The oil and gas industry is such a major source of revenue for the region that in the chemical corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, it’s hard to find someone that isn’t intimately touched in some way by it.

Abandoned oil tanks in a bayou in Myrtle Grove, La.

Companies once built entire residential neighborhoods to house their employees. Standard Heights, where Brunetta Sims lives, was one of those neighborhoods. It was originally home to workers at Standard Oil who built the plant there in 1909. Today, Exxon is the largest employer in the parish and the second largest manufacturing employer in the state, employing about 3,000 and thousands of additional contractors, according to the company’s website. The operation pays more than $100 million in taxes each year. At the same time, about one in five East Baton Rouge parish residents lives in poverty.

“You don’t do shit you like to do, you do shit you have to do to put food on the table,” said Andrew McDonald, a Standard Heights resident who for years worked as a tank technician at many of the area plants.

McDonald, 66, said he used to work as a contractor inside petrochemical facilities patching up the tanks when they cracked or were somehow damaged. He said the fumes could be enough to knock a grown man down, and he’s seen it happen. Others had patches of skin shorn off while using sandblasting equipment. McDonald said he can recall a number of accidents and leaks dating back to the late 1990s. After each one he would wake up the next day extremely ill, his stomach quivering with nausea.

“I just don’t like being so close to it. I can just see that thing blowing up and taking me with it,” he said. McDonald, now a certified painter, said he hasn’t been as sick as many of the folks in the neighborhood, “But if I got something I got it from inside.”

Petro and the Past

The fabric of life in the South has been colored by race from the outset. The long chains of slavery, particularly in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, still linger in the destitution and poverty of many of those whose ancestors had been enslaved there.

The economy of the antebellum South was dependent on slave labor. Following the Civil War and emancipation, many former slaves continued to live on or near the plantations where they’d been enslaved. In Louisiana, along the Mississippi River, many of the old plantations that remain intact were the scenes of unspeakable acts of violence and terror.

Plantations stretched up and down River Road, the winding artery that snakes alongside the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. When slaves were freed, many who’d lived in the River Road plantations took up in houses nearby. Many of these houses were passed down through generations of black families. Many of the descendants of former slaves continue to live in the area.

A refinery seen through a car window in Baton Rouge, La. The petrochemical companies “try to make us feel like we’re in the wrong.”

As big industry expanded in the region, it did so along the river on land that had been owned by slavers and planters, where there was access to the waterway and rails. While the corporations bought up some of the old plantation land, it proved much more difficult to purchase land passed down by the descendants of slaves, local historians say. Because of Louisiana’s Napoleonic Codes, property could only legally be sold with proper proof of ownership. That means the big industrial facilities were unable to get their hands on many of the properties along the lane. To this day, many small black communities that have been around since Reconstruction remain, clustered around the facilities that have expanded or popped up over the last several decades.

“That’s how you see the fence line communities now,” Subra said. “They didn’t move them away, they just developed right next to them.”

Many of the companies have since bought out many former residents, paying to relocate them across town or across the street, razing homes to create what look like buffer zones between the facilities and the communities. Subra and other activists have worked as brokers between the companies and the nearby communities, helping residents work through the process of requesting buyouts.

“The issue becomes, my grandmother and my mother lived in the house and now me and my brother live in the house. But the facilities buy them out and they have to split up the profit with all the relatives,” Subra said. “In the end they don’t get enough money to buy a new house. So they’re stuck.”

“[These families] were there and these Goliaths moved in and the Davids have suffered. The disenfranchised, which we try to empower, don’t have access or a sense of empowerment.”

The petrochemical companies and the black communities, including the physical land these communities have occupied for generations, have become so enmeshed that a number of refinery grounds include old black cemeteries and other hallowed ground.

Buried deep in the belly of the Marathon Petroleum Company in Garysville is Bishop cemetery, a patch of crumbling headstones and green grass surrounded by barbed wire and machinery. The cemetery holds the remains of former slaves and their descendants from the San Francisco Plantation nearby.

The crypts and tombs, the peace of the dead, offer stark relief to the twisting metal pipes and smokestacks that hover not far above.

Marathon spokeswoman Sid Barth said families that can prove they’re descendants of the plantation can still be buried in the cemetery. The refinery maintains the grounds and has a special procedure for visits and funerals, though they haven’t conducted many in recent years.

A secretary at Hobbs Funeral home, one of the oldest black funeral homes in St. James Parish, where the cemetery and refinery are located, said they haven’t buried anyone in Bishop for a few years. But families still make the annual pilgrimage to the site on All Saints Day, when mourners deliver flowers and bouquets to the graves of their ancestors.

“It’s something to see. If you’re born and raised out here like I am, some things just don’t cross your mind, you’ve seen it all your life,” said the secretary, who noted that her great-grandmother and other relatives are buried there. She said she appreciates that Marathon has left the cemetery largely undisturbed. And that for the most part they’ve been good stewards of the land. Her only gripe would be the refineries’ continued expansion into nearby land.

Those in poverty are subject not just to widening income inequality, but to environmental injustices as well.

The poor are exposed to pollutants in higher numbers than higher income groups.
 
Studies have found that babies from poor households show more signs of long-term health problems due to stressors like pollution.
As children born from poverty begin their education, they lag behind their peers. As they grow older, the achievement gap widens, exacerbated by stress and pollution.
This cycle — from early stressors to flagging educational attainment — perpetuates generational inequality.
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Those in poverty are subject not just to widening income inequality, but to environmental injustices as well. The poor are exposed to pollutants in higher numbers than higher income groups.
Sources: Michelle L. Bell and Keita Ebisu; Environmental Inequality in Exposures to Airborne Particulate Matter Components in the United States. Gary W. Evans, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and Pamela Kato Klebanov; Stressing Out the Poor. Arloc Sherman, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Research by Zoe Elfenbein.

As for folks complaining about falling ill from what’s being pumped into the air by the refineries, she stopped short.

“I can’t say. I’m not a doctor. The only thing is, some mornings we’ve gone to bed and woken up in the morning and we’d have all kinds of stuff on the car, like there was a fire, you’d just have black ash or something on you car.”

Paul Orr, a spokesman for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), said the petrochemical corporations have gobbled up so much land — much of it from residents — that they have literally altered the map.

“When you take a look at the map, a lot of communities simply aren’t there anymore. In a lot of cases the industry nearby bought them out and relocated them or paid them to relocate because there were so many issues,” he said.

Orr said there’s no end to the line of people coming to their small organization looking for help. Environmental justice awareness is at a high point, he said.

“You have the people who want to leave and the people who aren’t at that point yet,” he said. “I think the big multinational corporations realize that it’s easier and cheaper for them to deal with community buyouts than a bunch of litigation.”

Mary Lee Orr, Paul’s mother and the founder of LEAN, said there are a lot of elderly and handicapped people up and down the alley who are ill. Said she started LEAN after one of her sons, Michael, was born with a lung problem and other ailments. Doctors said he might be deaf, blind or suffer from cerebral palsy. She said she started her activism in a small black community called Alson, not far from Baton Rouge.

“It’s about access to the river and many of these families were here before the plants, sometimes they came from former plantations and agricultural areas,” she said. “They were there and these Goliaths moved in and the Davids have suffered. The disenfranchised, which we try to empower, don’t have access or a sense of empowerment.”

Many of the most vulnerable people in the region don’t feel they have the agency to act, she said. “I think they already have a very complicated life. Say you’re worrying about if you can pay your rent, pay your car note, get groceries or a job, the last thing they think they can do is take on the environment,” she said.

‘Nothing But Death and Strange Cancers’

Any time a storm brews, Keith Adams, of St. Rose, said the flares from the stacks light up like Chinese water candles. He guesses the refineries burn off more when there’s bad weather to better disguise the releases.

On a recent morning with storm clouds brewing, he pointed from his living room window to a stack in the not-so-far distance. It was lit up. St. Rose, about 10 minutes from the Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner, just outside of New Orleans, sits along River Road and butts up against IMTT and Shell chemical facility.

Just last June, the facility leaked a foul odor that lingered for days, leading to dozens of reports of sickness.

“I’m sitting there thinking I’m going to die,” said Adams.

A hotline set up by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade lit up with caller complaints. Transcripts, published in the groups IWitnessPollution reports, offers a glimpse of what residents were experiencing that day.

  • “I'm calling to report, um, more illnesses from the condition there is, um, skin irritation and vomiting. I'm on the list, I'm Deborah Fleming, and again there is the skin irritation … and the vomiting from the family members.”
  • “My daughter, Mikia, is 1 years old. She has bumps all over her skin. I smell the smell. I'm currently pregnant. I got sick from the smell, because I couldn't' take it. So, I am now staying by my cousins house, because the smell is so bad. And my son Michael. He's 2 years old. He's just got stomach pains a little bit, he's been telling me his stomach's been hurting.”
  • “We have a bad smell in the air. Really bad, it's burning my eyes. Today is July 14th, 2014. Again, we have a real bad odor that's in the air, again. Please help us.”

According to published reports from the state Department of Environmental Quality, the smell was linked to the refining of a batch of crude oil that contained higher than normal levels of sulfer compounds. The chemical company reported that they were using a crude they’d never processed before and that their equipment used to control the odor wasn’t working properly.

A short drive up River Road from St. Rose is Destrehan, which sits in a depression between a granary and a chemical plant. When the grain elevator is running, the bowl becomes filled with dust, Adams said — a nasty combination when there’s also the presence of other strong chemical odors.

“If it’s in the air and on your car that means we’re breathing that stuff in,” Adams said. “Here we are, the victims of it. And while they’re making money we don’t get anything from it but death and strange cancers.”

Jonathan Henderson, an organizer with the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network, said the impact of big industry in southeast Louisiana extends to the wetlands, the region's only natural defense against hurricanes. Forty to 60% of the damage to Louisiana’s wetland, Henderson estimated, comes from the oil and gas industry.

“This industry has extracted so much wealth out of Louisiana, and to this day it is still using our wetlands. But they won’t pony up the money we desperately need to save our communities,” he said.

Water pipes in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, La. Population is 378,715 and 27.3% live below the poverty level.

Henderson and other environmentalists believe much of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was due in large part to the depletion of natural barriers along the coast, coupled with the neglect and mismanagement of the city’s levee system.

“In my opinion a lot of the deaths that occurred in New Orleans happened after Katrina can partly be blamed on oil and gas,” Henderson said. “It’s not just the failure of the flood wall. There would not have been so much pressure on the floodwalls had we had natural barriers to slow down the storm surge.”

‘No Sense in Complaining’

Sitting at her kitchen table, Brunetta Sims seemed almost resigned to the fact of early death and sickness.

“Ain’t no sense in complaining,” she said, looking through her screen door to the vacant lots that surround her home.

The chatter and laughter of families and small children once filled the neighborhood. Now, hers is one of the few houses left standing. Her grandchildren spend little time outside these days. They complain about the smell and the way the air makes them feel. Sims pointed to another impediment to her grandkids’ outdoor time, an electrified barbed wire fence that stands between her house and the plant.

“I think it might be time for me to go,” Sims said. Of her neighbor, Exxon, Sims added, “They want me out of here so bad but they’ll have to pay me what it’s worth, not just throw peanuts at me.”

The exodus in her immediate neighborhood was hastened in the summer of 2012 after an accident at the Exxon plant leaked more than 31,000 pounds of the cancer-causing chemical benzene into the air. Dozens of residents throughout Standard Heights began falling ill. According to residents and reports, many vomited while others suffered breathing problems, tremors and burning eyes. Residents say they were unaware of what was going on at the time, but knew something wasn’t right.

“It’s a shame you can’t enjoy your own home. When we were kids we ran all over the place. We can’t do that now.”

It was a record spill. And rather than warn neighbors about the accident, official reports show Exxon instead tried to cover its tracks and did not officially report the accident to the Environmental Protection Agency as it is mandated to do.

An investigation by the EPA found that from 2008-2012, Exxon reported zero accidents at the massive facility, when in fact there were more than eight leaks during that time period.

An EPA report released a month after the 2012 leak found extensive pipe corrosion and out-of-date inspections, inadequate emergency procedures and staffing, and a failure to follow established best practices and operating procedures.

Beyond Exxon, many activists and locals wonder, how many undisclosed leaks and accidents have occurred at the more than 500 other petrochemical facilities across the state? And how many carcinogenic chemicals have residents been exposed to?

On that recent afternoon Sims sat with a friend, Marie Myles, talking of the pangs of living in Cancer Alley.

“Oh yeah, baby. These ulcers on my feet still bothering me,” Sims said, hobbling on feet wrapped in heavy gauze. “The sinus problems, the foot ulcers, the coughing. I’m an outside person, but Lord have mercy. Sometimes it’s so bad, it’s just horrible.”

Myles, who complains of chronic bronchitis and sinus issues, concurred.

“It’s a shame you can’t enjoy your own home. When we were kids we ran all over the place. We can’t do that now,” said Myles.

Sims’ gaze went out between Myles and the screen door toward all the vacant land in Exxon’s shadow.

“I’ve been here too long,” she said.

Photos by Matt Black/Magnum for MSNBC