The town of Reserve sits in the heart of an industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. For more than 30 years, it has been known to many of its residents as “Cancer Alley”. That designation stems from the toxic pollution that is belched out from chemical plants along the serpentine squiggles of the lower Mississippi River. For a long time, proof of that morbid title lay mostly in anecdote and suspicion.
in December 2015, on the back of a government report on toxic air. The findings from America’s environment agency, the EPA, not only confirmed the existence of a profoundly higher risk of cancer throughout the region, but it pinpointed Reserve, a working-class town of about 10,000, at the bullseye. Although there are more than 50 toxic chemicals that contribute to the risk here, chloroprene, the primary component of the synthetic rubber neoprene, is responsible for the vast majority. It is a product that has for almost a century been used all over the world in the manufacture of tyres, wetsuits, medical equipment and countless other products – and the Louisiana plant is the only place in the US that produces it. The plant owned by the Japanese company Denka, was deemed responsible for the greatest risk of cancer of any manufacturing facility in the US. Emissions of the chemical above 0.2 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) in the air were unsafe for humans to breathe over the course of a lifetime. The readings were devastating. Routinely, chloroprene emissions were dozens of times above the EPA’s guidance, suggesting residents living close to the plant had been constantly exposed for decades. On one day in November 2017 at a station at the fifth ward elementary school, which sits on the plant’s fenceline, a thousand feet from the plant chloroprene was recorded at a staggering 755 times above the EPA’s guidance. Nearly 400 young children attend the school, breathing the air each day.
In Louisiana, the petrochemical industry’s ties to society run deep. A recent industry study found that the chemical sector generates some $80bn annually and supports two of every seven jobs in the state. Like much of Cancer Alley, Reserve is predominantly black and low-income. Black Americans make up 60% of the population in the town, and the per-capita income of $18,763 is about 40% less than the national average.In large part that dominance owes to a historically lax regulatory environment and weak union protections. While the state has the power to enforce stringent regulations on the plant, or even close it down entirely, many residents in Reserve are unsurprised that it has taken a more lenient approach. The Louisiana secretary of environmental quality, Chuck Carr Brown, has not committed the firm to the safe level guidance from the EPA, a target that, by Denka’s own admission, would be impossible for them to make “technologically feasible”. It is clear from early on that the state agency, was not committed to setting tighter enforceable limits, so people at least held out hope for the federal government. It was the EPA after all that had identified the extent of the problem, set the 0.2 µg/m3 standard, and begun the air monitoring. Surely they would have the teeth to hold Denka accountable for the pollution? However, the EPA regional director, David Gray, announced that it was “doubtful” the agency would ever set a legally enforceable standard for the toxin. “The fact of the matter is there is a sole source of chloroprene in the United States and it’s here.”
“I still can’t believe that this one community could be asked to suffer this much, merely for the profit of these foreign corporations. What kind of people are they to knowingly wipe out a whole community of people for profit?” explained Robert Taylor, a local campaigner. “The petrochemical industry and human beings cannot live and operate side by side,” Taylor says. “So they have decided they’re OK with just wiping us out, especially because of the fact that this is a poor black population. We were the lowest-hanging fruit.”
A phenomenon now commonly described as environmental racism. EPA-funded research from 2018 found that non-white Americans and those below poverty level are more likely than others to live near toxic pollution, and that the racial correlation is stronger than the economic one.
“In other words, the siting of polluting industrial facilities is both racist and classist, but mostly racist,” says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Trump administration has already rolled back dozens of environmental protections making the likelihood of more federal intervention in Reserve slim to none. it’s much worse under Trump than it was under any previous Republican administration which proposed a 31% budget cut to the EPA. Denka has pushed the Trump administration to withdraw the assessment of chloroprene as likely to be carcinogenic. Between 2017 and 18 the Japanese company spent $350,000 to hire lobbyists in Washington, records show. Calendars reveal Denka met EPA officials on three occasions during this time. A letter from the company’s chief executive, Koki Tabuchi, to the former EPA chief Scott Pruitt, written on June 26 2017 and later released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals the company’s aggressive campaign. Denka touts the conclusions of a toxicological assessment it commissioned itself, which found that the safe amount of chloroprene in the air should be 156 times greater than what the EPA has determined. But Denka doesn’t have many options besides to dispute the science. Company officials acknowledged that the EPA’s safe air quality levels are “technologically impossible to achieve,” and that the current Iris calculations “threaten the very survival of Denka’s neoprene production facility,” in a 2017 letter to the EPA.
Those with no connection to the battle in Reserve have watched on in horror. Dr Ron Melnick, a former government scientist who was one of the first researchers to find chloroprene’s links to cancer, was dismayed to hear about the rates of exposure to the chemical.
“It’s shameful,” he says. “I wouldn’t even live in an area that the EPA says emissions are acceptable. For sure, I wouldn’t live or have my children in a place which exceeds the EPA limits.”
When you think about it, nothing has ever really changed,” said Reserve resident Mary Hampton, reflecting on how black Americans in Louisiana have borne the brunt of commercial production here.
“First slavery, then sharecropping, now this. It’s just a new way of doing it,” said the 80-year-old, who has lived a few blocks from the factory’s fenceline her whole life. Hampton traces her family’s roots back to a slave vessel that arrived in Louisiana from Haiti. The ship carried her great grandfather, then defined as chattel property, to the banks of the lower Mississippi where generations of her family labored in the sugar industry - first as slaves, then as sharecroppers and finally as employees