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Gulf Coast residents sound alarm over pollution linked to cancer: 'We're being attacked'

This fear and frustration have led some residents to take matters into their own hands.

This fear and frustration have led some residents to take matters into their own hands.

Photo Credit: iStock

People living on America's Gulf Coast, including in a region known as Cancer Alley, are worried that time is running out for federal regulators to act on toxic air pollution. 

What's happening?

Though the Biden administration has vowed to help improve conditions for people living on the Gulf Coast, including in Cancer Alley, little progress has been made, as reported by the Washington Post. As such, many local residents say that they feel left behind.

Lake Charles, Louisiana, resident Lois Malvo believes that exposure to these toxic chemicals caused her to develop cancer. Three of her siblings have also been diagnosed with cancer, and her sister died from it.

"Our health lets us know that something isn't right," 77-year-old Malvo told the Post. "We're being attacked by the industry because we're vulnerable people and really, nobody cares about us."

Why is pollution on the Gulf Coast concerning?

Per the Post, eight facilities in the region release "high levels" of benzene, which has been linked to leukemia. All but one of these are located near disadvantaged communities in Texas and Louisiana. A federal probe in September 2023 found that, for years, the Environmental Protection Agency did not enforce the federal "action level" for this carcinogen. 

A public health watchdog group recently revealed that companies have been hiding the evidence of the dangers of benzene for years. In addition to cancer, exposure can lead to other ailments like anemia, irregular menstrual cycles, and increased risk of infection due to a lowered immune system.

Benzene is not the only pollutant endangering residents, however. Among others is chloroprene, another cancer-causing toxin.

What's being done about pollution in Cancer Alley?

EPA administrator Michael Regan toured the region in 2021, but the agency has struggled to enforce the kind of regulations needed to protect residents, the Post reported. The EPA only recently started cracking down on benzene pollution, according to former employees who spoke with the publication anonymously.

That said, the agency added 300 new enforcement and compliance staffers, and the regional field office in Texas increased its number of inspections across five states from 516 in 2022 to 740 in 2023. 

Still, advocates are worried about the slow issuance of citations, fearing that cases are progressing so slowly that they might be dropped altogether if Donald Trump wins the 2024 presidential election. 

This fear and frustration have led some residents to take matters into their own hands. 

In 2022, people in St. James Parish in Louisiana — located along Cancer Alley — celebrated legal victories that stopped two petrochemical facilities from being built. Grassroots environmental justice group Rise St. James led the charge to fight the new plants. 

Rise St. James founder Sharon Lavigne engaged in community activism by leading marches and rallies, speaking with government officials, and working with regional and national environmental groups. 

Similarly, two sisters in St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana forged a legal battle against industry, winning a court case that stopped the construction of a grain export facility. 

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