Human Rights Advocates: Environmental Racism is Compounding the Pandemic’s Toll on Communities of Color

By Joshua Petersen and Ruhan Nagra, University Network for Human Rights


The University Network for Human Rights, based on Wesleyan’s campus, trains undergraduate students at Wesleyan and across the country in community-centered, interdisciplinary human rights advocacy. Read more about the University Network’s inaugural intensive summer training program here. Are you a Wesleyan student who is passionate about social justice? Email for more information about University Network programming at Wesleyan.



Recently, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took a vital stand in declaring environmental racism an “underlying health condition.” As COVID-19 continues to disproportionately harm Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities, our collective acknowledgment that environmental racism is exacerbating this pandemic is crucial. But we must go one step further. For the people of St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana — and for historically Black communities across Cancer Alley — we must attack environmental racism at its source. We must shut down the petrochemical industry. 


As you drive through St. John the Baptist Parish, winding along Louisiana State Highway 44, you first notice an eerie fluorescent glow peeking out behind a blanket of live oaks. Soon, the trees part, and a large industrial plant comes into view: Denka Performance Elastomer. For decades, the plant has silently emitted chloroprene, a likely human carcinogen — exposing predominantly Black Louisianans, young and old, to a toxic chemical associated with cancer, autoimmune disease, respiratory illness, and headaches


Today St. John is facing another silent killer — the novel coronavirus. Recent reporting shows that St. John residents are dying of COVID-19 at one of the highest rates in the country. Unfortunately, this community is no stranger to grim statistics. As human rights advocates, we’ve partnered with the Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish for nearly three years as they’ve fought back against the Denka plant, whose chloroprene emissions are putting the community at the highest nationwide risk of developing cancer from air pollution, according to the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment. In 2019, we published a study of the area around the Denka facility, finding that cancer and illness levels among those sampled are unusually high and correlated with proximity to the facility. Among the residents sampled within a mile of the plant, 54 had been diagnosed with cancer; national actuarial tables suggested that we would find only 36. We also found disturbing preponderance of chloroprene-associated symptoms — including headaches, rapid heart rate, chest pain, and difficulty breathing — in both adults and children.


The current pandemic is shining a spotlight on what the Concerned Citizens have long fought to make clear: the petrochemical industry bears some responsibility for racial health disparities and deaths in Black communities in Louisiana and across the United States. 


Having taken on this industry, we know their tricks. Oil refinery and petrochemical plant executives, their scientists-for-hire, and their lobbyists would have you believe that the alignment of race, pollution, and mortality is simply a coincidence. Even as new evidence accumulates to the contrary, industry continues to rely on diversions, denials, and pseudoscience. When the EPA released its National Air Toxics Assessment, Denka hired the consulting group Ramboll to challenge the EPA’s chloroprene risk assessment. When we released our study last year, Denka attempted to discredit our findings by misrepresenting data from the Louisiana Tumor Registry. Through it all, Denka has maintained that local residents’ “lifestyle” choices might be to blame for deadly cancers in the area surrounding the facility. Now, as COVID-19 wreaks havoc in St. John Parish, Denka continues to blame coronavirus deaths on “diabetes” and “obesity” while avoiding any responsibility for its own toxic emissions. 


This gaslighting isn’t just morally bankrupt. It’s unscientific. A recent preprint study from Harvard shows that long-term exposure to toxic air pollution is correlated with higher rates of COVID mortality. And while a Denka spokesperson quickly tried to dispute this study’s relevance, Tulane environmental scientist Dr. Kimberly Terrell has now demonstrated that most of the parishes in Louisiana with the highest COVID mortality rates — including St John — are in Cancer Alley, where fine particulate pollution levels are much higher than the national average. We know that oil refineries and petrochemical facilities disproportionately impact communities of color across the United States. We also know that air pollution is linked to a number of illnesses, like COPD, that are risk factors for severe COVID reactions. Finally, we know that COVID-19 won’t be the last pandemic of our generation. 


Air pollution, in its many forms, is clearly contributing to the slow death of Black communities around the country, whether or not industry will admit it — and this will continue, unless we stop it. 


While the story of St. John and Denka may seem extreme, it isn’t unique. Louisiana’s Cancer Alley is home to nearly one hundred and fifty plants, each of which releases chemical emissions virtually around the clock. Indeed, the entire petrochemical industry is built on top of an extractive economy designed to maximize its bottom line on the backs of the most vulnerable among us. As community members often say to us, “It’s all about a dollar.” 


We cannot dismantle this system by regulating just one plant at a time. Past attempts to punish even the worst polluters have failed due to weak governmental response. Moreover, the Trump administration continues to zap the EPA’s mandate while rolling back nearly one hundred crucial environmental rules. Our commitments to the tenets of human rights — to a clean environment, to health, and to life — require that we tackle this entire industry head-on. This will mean radically rethinking — if not completely halting — petrochemical production in the United States. 


This issue extends far beyond COVID-19 and racial health disparities. Analysis by the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass Amherst shows that eight of the ten worst emitters of toxic air pollution are oil or petrochemical corporations. Many of these same corporations contribute disproportionately to greenhouse gas emissions, and by extension, man-made climate change. If we don’t begin to shut down these industries, then we have no chance of addressing climate change — a phenomenon that will also disproportionately impact communities of color as sea levels rise and storms increase in both severity and frequency. 


The Trump administration commemorated last month’s Earth Day celebration by limiting the EPA’s enforcement powers, rolling back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards, and easing regulations on mercury and other toxic air pollutants after a prominent oil lobby recently sought exemptions. Meanwhile, Black, Latinx, and indigenous people across the country have continued to organize, resist, and fight the industries that are slowly destroying their communities. Let’s honor their fight by not just acknowledging environmental racism, but committing ourselves to tackling it at its very source. It’s time to shut down the petrochemical industry once and for all.