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David Suzuki: Profit obsession inflames environmental racism

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A mountain of damaged oil drums near a refinery in Louisiana's Cancer Alley. Photo by John Messina / National Archives at College Park.

Pancouver primarily focuses on underrepresented artists. However, it also publishes a column by David Suzuki to advance education about critical issues, including this one about how a profit obsession ignites environmental racism. Without a habitable Earth, there will be no arts and culture.

Pollution is so bad along the 137-kilometre industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that it’s been dubbed “Cancer Alley”. Cancer rates among the area’s predominantly Black residents are far higher than in the rest of the United States. A 2023 study in Environmental Challenges found they’re exposed to seven to 21 times the toxic emissions as predominantly white communities.

“In St. James Parish, there is a 10-mile radius where a dozen petrochemical facilities operate near the homes of Black residents,” said Sharon Lavigne, founder of Louisiana-based environmental group Rise St. James. “This is environmental racism.”

The good news is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a new rule requiring about 218 chemical plants, including 51 in Louisiana and around 80 in neighbouring Texas, to clean up their acts.

It will lower by nearly 80 percent the more than 5,600 tonnes of pollutants emitted every year, including ethylene oxide and chloroprene. Long-term exposure to these can damage DNA and cause lymphoma, leukemia, and breast and liver cancers. The chemicals are especially deadly for children. The regulation will also reduce smog-forming volatile organic compounds. The EPA estimates it could slash elevated cancer risk by 96 percent for people living near the chemical plants.

Rational people would celebrate this move to improve health and lives. But those who value money and profit above everything are not entirely rational.

Desire for profit prompts backlash

Chemical company executives are squawking. A statement from Denka, a Japanese rubber company formerly owned by DuPont, called the rule an “attempt to drive a policy agenda that is unsupported by the law or the science”. In 2016, regulators found that the Denka plant’s chloroprene emissions were contributing to the highest cancer risk of any place in the U.S. Air monitors showed chloroprene concentrations were as much as 15 times the levels the EPA considers safe.

Denka produces chloroprene, used to manufacture neoprene synthetic rubber for products such as “beer koozies and wetsuits”, according to NPR.

It’s appalling—but somewhat understandable under our current economic system—that company executives would put financial gain and shareholders above human health. But what about the people elected to represent their constituents’ interests?

Fortunately, some are sane. Troy Carter, a U.S. congressman whose Louisiana district includes the Denka plant, told reporters that “Communities deserve to be safe,” adding, “It must begin with listening to the people who are impacted in the neighbourhoods, who undoubtedly have suffered the cost of being in close proximity of chemical plants—but not just chemical plants, chemical plants that don’t follow the rules.”

Another Louisiana representative, Clay Higgins, doesn’t see it that way. He called for EPA administrator Michael Regan, who is Black, to “be arrested the next time he sets foot in Louisiana”. In a tweet, he added, “Send that arrogant prick to Angola for a few decades.”

David Suzuki by Jenniifer Roessler. transforrmation journalism carbon pricing
Pancouver publishes a regular column by David Suzuki. Photo by Jenniifer Roessler.

A pervasive problem

That most of the polluting plants disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic communities illustrates the pernicious pervasiveness of environmental racism. Higgins’s statement is outright racism.

It’s also a disturbing illustration of the mindset of those who oppose rules and regulations designed to make life better for people—especially those in systemically marginalized communities—so that large corporations can continue to reap obscenely excessive returns while polluting air, land and water.

The EPA opened a civil rights investigation to determine whether state officials were issuing permits that led to disproportionate harm to Black communities, but it was shelved after Louisiana Attorney General (now Governor) Jeff Landry sued the EPA—even though the agency found evidence of racial discrimination and state noncompliance with regulations.

The problem isn’t unique to Louisiana and Texas. It’s pervasive throughout the U.S., Canada, and other countries. From Grassy Narrows in Ontario to the Alberta oilsands to Cancer Alley, Black, Indigenous, and other historically marginalized people have suffered from the deadly effects of everything from mercury contamination to bitumen pollution to chloroprene emissions.

We need to find ways to live without polluting what humans need to survive and putting all life at risk. Addressing environmental racism is a necessary first step. To succeed, we must reject the destructive ideas and systems that put profit above people and that encourage wasteful consumerism to line the pockets of a greedy minority at the expense of everyone else.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with David Suzuki Foundation senior writer and editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at davidsuzuki.org. Follow Pancouver on X (formerly Twitter) @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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David Suzuki

David Suzuki

David Suzuki is Canada’s best-known environmentalist.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.