Cancer Alley in progress
Cancer Alley inspirational reel, January 2022
This short video is the inspirational reel for a new poetry film in collaboration with poet Lucy English. As with our previous three poetry films with Lucy, The Shadow, The Names of Trees, and I Want to Breathe Sweet Air, the first step (after agreeing on a general topic) was an inspiration reel of footage to inspire a poem, along with some filmmakers' notes, which can be read below, along with the first draft of the poem, and some additional links to learn more about Cancer Alley. This film is a follow up to "I Want to Breathe Sweet Air," our first film poem with Lucy about climate change and environmental destruction, which Lucy suggested we undertake after reading an article about microplastic pollution being found in the Mariana Trench, the deepest oceanic trench on earth.
Now that we have the draft of the poem, we are planning what we hope will be the final round of shooting in Cancer Alley, and looking for grant funds to support that. We hope to finish the film and start submitting it to festivals some time in 2023. Once the film poem is completed, we are hoping to work with Lucy to create an immersive installation about Cancer Alley, using the poetry film as one element.
Cancer Alley notes for Lucy English
Three short articles that provide a good introduction to Cancer Alley:
The towns are generally small, the roads are often narrow, and the petrochemical installations are huge. The people living there are disproportionally poor and black, many the descendants of former slaves, with generally shorter life spans, more health problems, and higher rates of cancer. This is the Deep South, an 85 mile swath in Louisiana, near the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, colloquially known as Cancer Alley, or the Cancer Corridor. The oil industry is there because the land is cheap and convenient, near the river and ports in the Gulf of Mexico, and oil fields in Louisiana and Texas, but also because the economics and politics and are such that refineries have more power than the populace to sway the local, state, and national government.
My mother’s family comes from the now moribund coal mining and steel mills area of southwestern Pennsylvania, so I was well aware of the impact fossil fuels have on local communities long before Jack and I began to make films about climate change and environmental destruction, starting with the fracking boom in North Dakota. And I grew up in Rockford, Illinois, a now depopulating city whose bread and butter previously was machine tools, manufacturing, and heavy industry, so I’m well aware of what that looks like, and just how lax companies can be about the risks their businesses pose to nearby populations, who are often saddled with the many brown fields left behind as legacies when the companies sell assets or go bankrupt after having extracted massive profits, leaving remediation burdens that overwhelm local communities and end up becoming regional and national problems. Jack and I have seen and filmed many such places before — strip mines, oil fields, fracking installations, pipelines, petroleum refineries, power plants, and former factories — but neither of us has seen anything like the uncanny juxtaposition and concentration of the quotidian and the apocalyptic that can be captured from a camera car in Cancer Alley.
Some of refineries we filmed produce oil for gasoline and power generation, but many more make the petroleum distillates needed to produce plastics, especially single use plastics, which have become ubiquitous. The oil industry can see that cleaner sources are in the process of replacing oil for heating, power generation, and transportation, as the world becomes increasingly alarmed about climate change and and environmental pollution, and has responded by doubling down on plastics, which will be much more difficult to eradicate. Even if the entire world were to go beyond the European Union’s “ban” on single use plastics, which really are targeted reductions over time and only for items which have non-plastic alternatives, and then only for the most common single use plastic items causing marine pollution (because they collect in places like the Pacific garbage patch, become hazards to sea creatures, and break down into toxic micro plastics that are now being consumed by evolving bacteria and entering the entire food chain), the entire global supply chain depends on the plastic packaging that is now the cheapest choice … if you discount the environmental costs.
(On a personal level, even if you know the costs, you will find that you can reduce your use of it, but that it is very hard to refuse all plastic.)
Pollution from plastic waste is a complex issue, and beginning to take regulatory action is a good sign, but polluters are adept at using delaying tactics, greenwashing, and the allure of convenience to make it difficult to even slow the plastic juggernaut, particularly in the first world. A quick Google search reveals that China uses the most plastic overall, but the United States and the United Kingdom produce the most plastic waste per person.
Pollution from plastic waste is highly visible, indeed even viral, as social media and photojournalism attest, but pollution from plastic production and its human cost is hidden from most consumers, who seldom see the enormous installations necessary to supply the factories producing the convenient throwaway plastic packages that are a bedrock component of consumer culture. From a distance, these installations look like strange and exotic steam punk Kubla Kahn palaces dotting the landscape, but closer views reveal the ubiquitous warning signs and razor wire that are harbingers of the many dangers inside their proudly named but unfriendly perimeters, along with the enormous complexities of towers, chimneys, scaffolding, pipes, valves, tanks, vents, water intakes and and drainage systems that hint at the horrendous consequences of any catastrophic operational failure.
Many of the petroleum distilleries in Cancer Alley are located near the Mississippi River, across from the levees that help prevent flood waters from inundating the low lying land when flooding from heavy rains and strong winds occurs. If the storms or hurricanes are violent enough, the water table rises catastrophically, floodwater spreads faster than it can drain, and at worst overtops the levees, overwhelms water purification and sewer systems, and causes widespread flooding. Nevertheless, the strip of land just beyond the levees is still a convenient location, with easy and inexpensive access to water, both for cheap and convenient barge transport, and for production processes, which must be enormous, based on the complexity and size of the visible piping.
My grandfather, who became a scientist managing municipal water works in Southwestern Pennsylvania after working in his youth as a coal handler, was worried in the 1930’s and 1940’s about the long term consequences of runoff from coal mines, especially strip mines, polluting ground water, which he saw as a public resource. He felt that the coal companies needed to remediate after extracting the coal, but it would be many more years before any such environmental protections were put in place. I remember him telling my sister and me, around 1960, when we were still small, not to play in the streams in the fields behind his house, or drink water from them, not because of agricultural runoff, but rather heavy metal pollution leaching from mine tailings (the coal, by then, long gone). But I don’t think he could have imagined the exponentially worse threats posed to people and the environment from the mass refining and production of petroleum products that is now business as usual in places such as Cancer Alley.
Our footage reveals the systems of water pipes that run over the roads, which are situated between the levees and the plants, as well as the massive plumes of smoke that steam out of them. Here the refineries’ need for alarming amounts of water are undisguised, but only because so few people actually see them, and even here the actual consequences remain mostly invisible, except in studies that attribute elevated respiratory, cardiac, and cancer cases to air and water pollution in the area, whose causation is then contested by industry analysts, who blame poor lifestyle choices and poverty in the area for the bad numbers.
The footage we shot in November was filmed shortly after violent thunderstorms with straight line winds hit the area. The strong thunderstorms are less dangerous than hurricanes, but cover much more vast swaths of land and produce much more widespread destruction. Both storms and hurricanes will become more prevalent and more violent as climate change intensifies. The blue tarps seen in residential areas in our footage, which was shot many days after the storm passed through, testify to the shortage of materials and manpower that make it difficult to clean up even after what was a relatively modest storm, albeit during a pandemic that has strained supply chains and availability of labor everywhere. Still, the tarps are a sinister harbinger of what would happen if the area were struck directly by a massive hurricane, where the destruction that would result would be unimaginable, and presumably, highly toxic. Cancer Alley is in a hurricane prone area, which has been struck by hurricanes before, most recently by Hurricane Ida in the spring of 2021, although not yet by a category five direct hit.
But the routine pollution from the petrochemical industry and the infrastructure that supports it is already quite dangerous to residents, most of whom are families with roots in the area, which used to be largely rural and agricultural, with a lot of sugar cane fields dotted with small towns that now find themselves among behemoth industrial installations. When new refineries are constructed, the companies involved sometimes make buyout offers on nearby residential property, but many residents have multigenerational ties to the area, sometimes going back to the immediate post Civil War years, and many do not want to be relocated. The result is increasing battles between the plants and the local governments who are grateful for the tax revenues from the oil industry, and local residents who are worried about the health impacts of pollution from the oil industry on themselves and their children.
Despite the dangers, new facilities are still being planned.
What would environmental justice for Cancer Alley look like?
Recently, the new Biden administration has acknowledged the problem, and sent administration officials to the area to meet with residents and local organizations. Acknowledgement and sympathy is far easier than strict new regulations or costly remediation, especially since Biden does not have enough support in in either the House or Senate to pass needed strengthening of the Voter Rights Bill, let alone any of his Climate Change agenda, which was blocked by two members of his own party.
When I came here in forty two
I walked from the train and saw the plantation corn
bend in the fields like the road to paradise.
Our tin roof was rusty but we had a good meal each day.
The night air smelled like dry grass and sugar.
A sky of stars wheeled over my porch.
I miss the gravel roads and those quiet nights.
I don’t sit outside now. The chemicals fall
like yellow raindrops. I can’t hear the cicadas
over the hum of the machines.
The water tastes like oil. The air burns my throat.
In the morning on my lawn were three dead birds.
There’s thirty petrochemical plants outside St Gabriel.
One hundred and fifty between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
We get sick, we move away, or we die.
My mother, sister, brother all died of cancer.
The chemical chloroprene makes fancy wetsuits,
but on bad days I put my head in the fridge to breathe.
The Great River Road was built on the bodies of slaves.
This chemical corridor is now the new burden.
They promised us jobs but we never saw them.
The pollution’s in our eyes and the air smells plastic.
Surely we should all have clear water, and clean air?
My peach tree died and the leaves went black.
Everything that lives has its own rules.
The living forest is the world of dreams.
The natural world is only one half.
We understand the world through our living dreams.
We need to dream a different future.
We need to fight to dream a fairer life.
Technology tells us we are alive.
If we are aware why do we do nothing?
The past, the present and the future.
We have to align ourselves to all of these.
We are the forest. We are the future.
The living forest is the world of dreams.