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USA: Environmental racism in “Cancer Alley” must end – experts

02 March 2021

GENEVA (2 March 2021) – UN human rights experts today raised serious concerns about further industrialisation of the so-called Cancer Alley in the southern US state of Louisiana, saying the development of petrochemical complexes is a form of environmental racism.

Originally called Plantation Country where enslaved Africans were forced to labour, the petrochemical corridor along the lower Mississippi River has not only polluted the surrounding water and air, but also subjected its mostly African American residents to cancer, respiratory diseases and other adverse health effects, the experts said.

"This form of environmental racism poses serious and disproportionate threats to the enjoyment of several human rights of its largely African American residents, including the right to equality and non-discrimination, the right to life, the right to health, right to an adequate standard of living and cultural rights," they said.

Federal environmental regulations have failed to protect people residing in "Cancer Alley", the experts said.

In 2018, St. James Parish Council approved the "Sunshine Project", which would be one of the largest plastics facilities in the world to be developed by FG LA LLC, a subsidiary company of Formosa Plastics Group. The Parish Council also approved plans to build methanol complexes by YCI Methanol One and South Louisiana Methanol.

Formosa Plastics' petrochemical complex alone will more than double the cancer risks in St. James Parish affecting disproportionately African American residents, they said. According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency's National Air Toxic Assessment map, the cancer risks in predominantly African American Districts in St James Parish could be at 104 and 105 cases per million, while other districts with predominantly white population, could have a cancer risk ranging from 60 to 75 per million.

The construction of the new petrochemical complexes will exacerbate the environmental pollution and the disproportionate adverse effect on the rights to life, to an adequate standard of living and the right to health of African American communities. The combined emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year in a single parish could exceed those of 113 countries, the experts said.

They expressed concerns at possible violations of the cultural rights of the affected African American communities in the area, where at least four ancestral burial grounds of enslaved Africans are at serious risk of destruction by the construction of the Sunshine Project.

"The African American descendants of the enslaved people who once worked the land are today the primary victims of deadly environmental pollution that these petrochemical plants in their neighbourhoods have caused," they said. "We call on the United States and St. James Parish to recognise and pay reparations for the centuries of harm to Afro-descendants rooted in slavery and colonialism."

The experts welcome on this occasion the January 20 Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis and the pledge of the US Government to listen to science, strengthen clean air and water protections, and hold polluters accountable for their actions. The experts call on the US Government to deliver environmental justice in communities all across America, starting with St James Parish.

Corporations also bear responsibility and should conduct environmental and human rights impact assessments as part of the due diligence process, the experts added.


*The Experts: Ms. E. Tendayi ACHIUME Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; Ms. Dominique DAY (Chairperson); Mr. Ahmed REID; Mr. Michal BALCERZAK; Mr. Sabelo GUMEDZE; Mr. Ricardo A. SUNGA III; Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent;

Mr. Dante Pesce (Chairperson), Mr. Surya Deva (Vice-Chairperson), Ms. Elżbieta Karska, Mr. Githu Muigai, and Ms. Anita Ramasastry, UN Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises; Mr. David BOYD, Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment; Ms. Tlaleng MOFOKENG, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Mr. Marcos ORELLANA, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page: United States of America

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