President Joe Biden’s recent utterance of “Cancer Alley” has raised the hackles of Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy.
The Baton Rouge Republican said the president’s use of the term, rooted in longstanding concerns about toxic air pollution in the industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, was an insult against Louisiana.
“I’m not going to accept that sort of slam upon our state,” Cassidy said in a call with reporters Tuesday. “It sounds like great rhetoric. But again, I don’t accept that slam.”
Biden mentioned Cancer Alley in a speech about several executive orders he signed late last month to combat climate change and pollution.
He said “environmental justice” will take center stage as his administration works to improve the health and well-being of communities of color, especially “the hard-hit areas like Cancer Alley in Louisiana or the Route 9 corridor in the state of Delaware,” Biden said.
While the executive orders didn’t specify how the Biden administration plans to address Louisiana’s petrochemical belt, local environmental activists said the president is clearly concerned about the disproportionate impact of pollution on the state’s mostly Black and low-income communities — a matter they say is rarely discussed by Louisiana politicians.
Cassidy, a physician specializing in digestive ailments, acknowledged Louisiana does have higher rates of cancer than other states, but rejected industrial pollution as a major cause. Instead, Cassidy put the blame on lifestyle choices, like smoking and overeating, and other factors.
“We have a higher incidence of cigarette smoking, of obesity, of certain viral infections, and other things which increase the incidence of cancer in our state,” Cassidy said. “So whenever you speak of Cancer Alley … you have to do what is called a regression analysis to separate out those factors … and several others that could be an alternative, and a more typical explanation for why some folks may have cancer. When you do that, the amount of cancer which is left unexplained is pretty marginal.”
Gail LeBoeuf, an environmental and civil rights activist in St. James Parish, said Cassidy is “blaming the victims.”
“We hear it a lot down here — that we can’t be trusted to know what’s hurting us,” she said. “It’s always ‘blame the folks’ – the poor, Black folks – for their own demise.”
In response to Biden’s remarks, the Louisiana Chemical Association echoed Cassidy, noting that the state’s tumor registry has shown no clear cluster of cancer in the industrial corridor.
LCA President Greg Bowser said Biden’s use of the term was “inflammatory” and “beyond disappointing.”
“Propagating the myth of Cancer Alley is not only dangerous, but is an affront to the people of our great state who work tirelessly to make the industry cleaner, safer and more efficient on a daily basis,” he said.
While the tumor registry hasn’t proved higher rates of cancers near polluting plants, it hasn’t disproven them either. The data is based on large and irregularly sized census tracts, across which toxic emissions can vary widely. For privacy reasons, the registry doesn’t publish cancer data for areas with low populations, including many of the small and rural communities where chemical plants began cropping up after leaving urban areas in the 1950s.
Air pollution is rising in Louisiana, and the burden isn’t being shared evenly, with many new plants taking shape in predominantly Black and poor communities that already have some of the most toxic air in the country, a recent analysis by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate found.
In an effort to address the region’s gaps in health data, LSU launched a cancer study focused on the census tracts around the Denka Performance Elastomer plant in LaPlace, an area that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 determined has the highest cancer risk from airborne pollutants in the nation. The study was supposed to have included a door-to-door survey, but concerns about coronavirus has switched the focus to a phone-based survey. Past phone-based surveys of the corridor have been criticized as failing to capture large segments of the population.
LeBoeuf said it’s “common sense” that breathing air with high levels of cancer-causing chemicals would lead to cancer and other health problems.
“To say there is no ‘Cancer Alley,’ Senator Cassidy is just cutting off his common sense,” she said.
Staff reporter Mark Schleifstein contributed to this report.
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This article was produced in partnership with The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, which are members of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.