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International human rights body presses U.S. on Louisiana’s 'Cancer Alley'

Jo Banner Myrtle Felton Tish Taylor United Nations
The Descendants Project
Inclusive Louisiana co-director Myrtle Felton, Descendants Project co-founder Jo Banner and Concerned Citizens of St. John leader Tish Taylor prepare to testify in front of the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this week in Geneva Switzerland.

An international body of human rights experts on Friday asked the federal government to provide more details on how it plans to address concerns over environmental pollution from the petrochemical buildout along the Mississippi River in Louisiana.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination met this week in Geneva, Switzerland to scrutinize the United States’ progress toward ending all forms of discrimination as required by an international treaty passed in 1969. The week’s meetings covered a wide range of issues, from police brutality and racial profiling to health care and hate speech — and environmental justice.

A delegation of Louisiana residents residing in St. John the Baptist and St. James parishes also traveled to Switzerland in hopes of bringing their struggles against the expansion of heavy industry to a higher power. The four-day trip resulted in the committee’s rapporteur, or lead moderator, stating the Biden administration hadn’t responded to questions about pollution from petrochemical complexes, inadequate protection of burial grounds for enslaved people and reparations for slavery.

“We really would appreciate a direct response, especially on the situation of indigenous people in the Cancer Alley in Louisiana, and the issue of desecration of Black history through the state’s failure to preserve burial rights of formerly enslaved people,” said rapporteur Faith Dikeledi Pansy Tlakula of South Africa on Friday.

“Cancer Alley” refers to the region stretching from Baton Rouge to south of New Orleans along the river, where residents have complained of health impacts due to the area’s industrialization since the 1960s. Louisiana officials and the chemical industry have denounced the term, stating there isn’t a clear link between the plants and cancer rates.

The EPA has found that areas within the corridor face elevated cancer risks compared to the rest of the country.

Chairperson Verene Shepherd said U.S. government officials will have 48 hours to follow up on the committee’s request for more information.

Residents representing three advocacy groups – Concerned Citizens of St. John, Inclusive Louisiana and The Descendants Projects — cheered the international committee’s request and called their experience abroad validating during a livestream later that day. They had testified before the committee and U.S. officials on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“When we came here, we had hope,” said St. James resident Barbara Washington, a co-director of Inclusive Louisiana. “When we look at how they heard our cries and our pleas, we are confident that we will get something done.”

The groups traveled to Switzerland to call for a moratorium on industrial expansion with the help of the national legal nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights, who also submitted a report to the UN on their behalf. Vincent Warren, the executive director of the nonprofit, said they plan to continue the conversation with government officials when they return to the country.

Jo Banner, co-founder of the Descendants Project, said the groups also had conversations with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization about the possibility of creating protected heritage sites in the area to prevent further disruption of Black burial grounds. UNESCO manages a list of World Heritage Sites, or areas of great cultural significance in a country that the government pledges to conserve.

The Descendants Project has already entered talks with the U.S. National Park Service to make their stretch of St. John’s west bank a federally-recognized historic district that could offer similar protections.

The trip comes just over a year after a UN-appointed special rapporteur, or independent human rights expert, called the conditions in the River Parishes “a form of environmental racism” and stated federal regulations failed to protect residents. They asserted that continuing to build new petrochemical complexes would worsen pollution and disproportionately affect Black communities.

St. James resident Myrtle Felton, who also leads Inclusive Louisiana, said she felt like the fight has turned in their favor.

“I just thank god that he answered our prayers, that someone was really praying and he heard our prayer,” she said. “We’re almost at victory.”

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.