'Cancer Alley' community fights back against air pollution: report

A chemical plant lights the sky in Norco. (NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune file photo)

An $85 million campaign launched by Michael Bloomberg on Wednesday aims to help environmental justice advocates in Louisiana and elsewhere push back against petrochemical and plastic pollution.

The campaign, called "Beyond Petrochemicals: People Over Pollution," is modeled on previous such efforts targeting coal and carbon, a statement from the former New York mayor's Bloomberg Philanthropies said. It will focus on three main areas in its support of advocacy efforts: Louisiana, Texas and the Ohio River Valley. Louisiana native Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., who heads the Hip Hop Caucus advocacy group, will serve as campaign chair. 

Its aim will include working to "block the expansion of more than 120 proposed petrochemical projects," the statement said.

Local groups to benefit will include Rise St. James and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Both have fought against plant expansions in the industrialized area of the state activists have labeled "Cancer Alley," located along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Environmental groups argue that Black communities in the area have been subjected to an unfair pollution burden and the health risks associated with it. Companies operating such plants point to the jobs and investment they bring while saying they have worked to bring down emissions.

"Petrochemical plants poison our air and water – killing Americans and harming the health of entire communities. And with many heavily polluting new projects planned around the U.S., we’re at a critical moment for stopping them,” Bloomberg, a UN special envoy on climate solutions, said in the statement. "This campaign will help ensure more local victories, support laws that protect communities from harm, and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling the climate crisis.”

The announcement pointed to two recent environmental justice victories in Louisiana. They include a judge's decision to revoke air permits for a massive planned Formosa Plastics complex and the defeat of the South Louisiana Methanol Project in St. James Parish.

The Louisiana Chemical Association hit back at Bloomberg's effort, saying it "demonstrates how out of touch he and his friends are with reality." It also contends that the plants belonging to its 64 member companies are not responsible for communities' health challenges, having previously pointed to issues such as a lack of preventative care and poor nutrition.

"From the batteries for electric cars to the materials needed to produce solar panels and wind turbines, products made by Louisiana’s petrochemical manufacturers are utilized every day to improve efficiencies and reduce emissions," said association president Greg Bowser. "Without Louisiana’s chemical industry, everyday items like cell phones, laptops and medical equipment would simply not exist."

The Bloomberg campaign intends to boost community leadership, finance studies and engage in litigation as part of its work, the statement said, adding that such efforts are becoming particularly important as the world transitions to renewable energy.

It pointed to estimates showing that petrochemical applications will account for nearly half of the growth in oil demand by 2050 and exceed carbon emissions of coal-fired power by 2030.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Sept. 22 with reaction from the Louisiana Chemical Association.