UN Condemns Environmental Racism in Cancer Alley, Naming Formosa Plastics

Image courtesy of Treehugger

In response to a series of letters from the Loyola Law School Human Rights Advocacy Project and members of the Stop Formosa Plastics Coalition including RISE St. James, CIEL, and Healthy Gulf, UN experts on Contemporary Forms of Racism condemned the environmental racism in Cancer Alley, declaring that it “must end.” The experts specifically cited the controversial Formosa Plastics mega plant in St. James Parish, noting the threat it poses to the predominantly Black community’s health and cultural heritage, and urging “the US Government to deliver environmental justice in communities all across America, starting with St James Parish.”

The report came as a tremendous victory for the Stop Formosa Plastics Coalition and especially RISE St. James, a faith-based organization dedicated to reducing industrial pollution in their community, who have been fighting the Tawanese company since 2018. The international attention will add mounting pressure to both local and national leaders and regulators including the St. James Parish Council, the Army Corps of Engineers, and President Biden, all of whom have the power to revoke necessary permits for the facility. 

Both the letters and report highlighted the threat of the Formosa Plastics facility and further petrochemical buildout in Cancer Alley, considering the historical, racial, and environmental context. The strip along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans containing more than 150 petrochemical facilities and called “Cancer Alley,” was once the heart of “Plantation Country” where enslaved people were forced to labor. This history is memorialized by the graves of enslaved ancestors that are present on the proposed Formosa Plastics site, which the company neglected to disclose after their cultural resource survey. To add insult to injury, when St. James residents requested to visit the burial grounds for their Juneteenth observance, Formosa blocked the request, forcing residents to win the battle in court.

This mistreatment of the dead is mirrored in Formosa’s treatment of the living. The proposed site, which would consist of fourteen plants expected to release 1.6 million pounds of toxic emissions annually, is situated near an elementary school and residential homes. The proposed emissions would double the cancer risk in St. James, which already has 84.5 cancer cases per million, well over the national average of 31 per million.

Although Formosa Plastics has been a notoriously bad actor, it’s not the only perpetrator of environmental racism in St. James nor in Cancer Alley. The St. James Parish Council changed the zoning designation of the predominantly Black 5th District from “residential” to “residential/future industrial” without alerting residents and then approved permits for three petrochemical projects in the district including the Formosa Plastics plant, Yuhuang Chemical Industries Methanol, and South Louisiana Methanol. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards has backed the Formosa Plastics mega plant with plans to grandfather in industrial tax exemptions for the project of $1.4 billion over a ten-year period. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) has consistently failed to identify and penalize industrial polluters who have violated environmental regulations, leaving fenceline communities to fend for themselves.  

With such failures from local and state regulators, it’s no wonder that the UN experts called upon the federal government to bring justice to Cancer Alley. President Biden already named Cancer Alley as an example of environmental injustice–a focus of his campaign and presidency. Now, residents of Cancer Alley look to Biden to follow through on his promises.


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