Cancer Alley is a scientific and political reality

Cancer Alley is a scientific and political reality

When President Joe Biden referred to “Cancer Alley” in a speech earlier this year, some conservatives raised a small outcry, despite the long use of the phrase by residents and environmental justice advocates to describe a heavily industrialized corridor with cancer rates far exceeding those of surrounding areas. But as Tristan Baurick of reports, new research from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic finds that Cancer Alley is a medical reality, made far worse by poverty and choices by state government:

Many people who live near chemical plants and refineries have long maintained their communities suffer disproportionately from health problems that they say are rooted in chronic exposure to pollution. ‘While continually dismissed by industry, state decision-makers and local politicians, these concerns are not baseless,’ the clinic report says. ‘More pounds of industrial toxic air pollution are released each year in Louisiana than any other state in the nation. Our clients who live in industrialized communities have firsthand experiences with higher-than-normal cancer prevalence among their family members, friends and neighbors.’

The study also notes that Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) tends to favor industry over people when regulating pollution:

DEQ “inappropriately puts the burden of proof on the community rather than the polluter,” the study says. “In other words, there is no evidence that it is safe to locate industrial plants near communities, yet [DEQ] maintains there is no evidence that this practice is unsafe.”

Unemployment insurance needs reform
The Covid-19 pandemic, and the economic crisis it precipitated, has revealed deep dysfunction in unemployment insurance programs across the United States. Some states – like Louisiana – offer benefits too meager to meet basic needs. And many have great difficulty delivering benefits at all, as was the case in Florida. To resolve these issues, researchers from the Economic Policy Institute, the Center for American Progress and several other organizations propose a series of reforms to make unemployment insurance fairer and better equipped to meet the needs of unemployed workers: 

Dora Whitfield had worked for 30 years in the New Orleans hospitality industry. She’s not well-to-do, but as a union member she enjoyed a stable income—enough to purchase her first home in 2014. Then the pandemic pulled the rug from under her. Her employer reduced her hours to part time until she was furloughed this past September. Dora, a member of Step Up Louisiana, a community organization that organizes for economic and education justice, had never been on unemployment. She received the state’s maximum UI benefit of $247 a week, $221 after taxes. ‘$247 a week?! Do you know I make that much money in tips when I work on a weekend? That’s on top of my regular paycheck,’ she says. ‘When you have $221, it’s like you’re playing Russian Roulette. You have one bullet in your gun. And you have your light bill here, your water bill here, your car insurance, and then you might have your house note. So, wherever you shoot that bullet, that’s when you have to decide what bill you’re gonna pay.’

New Orleans getting creative to raise the wage
While the Louisiana Legislature continues to reject efforts to establish a state minimum wage, things are moving forward at the local level. The New Orleans City Council will soon be considering an amendment to the city’s “Living Wage Ordinance,” offered by councilmember Jared Brossett, that would require some city employees and contractors to be paid a minimum of $15 an hour by 2023. As Michael Isaac Stein of The Lens writes, this would allow New Orleans to raise wages for some workers without running afoul of state laws that stop local governments from setting a wage floor appropriate to local conditions:

Since Louisiana doesn’t have a state minimum wage, the minimum wage in New Orleans is currently set at the federal minimum — $7.25 an hour… But the law doesn’t preempt the city from setting minimum wages for its own employees or contractors. The city passed a Living Wage Ordinance in 2015 requiring all city contractors with contracts over $25,000 a year, as well as organizations that receive more than $100,000 in municipal financial assistance — such as grants or city tax incentives — in a year, to pay their employees at least $10.55 an hour. The law requires the city to increase that wage every year to match inflation, rising up to the current rate of $11.19.

Bipartisan infrastructure plan on track (for now)
Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, along with four other Republicans and five of their Democratic colleagues, appeared with President Joe Biden yesterday to announce a bipartisan bill to pay for some of America’s significant infrastructure needs. David Mitchell and Mike Smith of the Advocate write about the $1.2 trillion proposal, which awaits formal introduction and may still face a long road to passage. But Cassidy seems optimistic about the prospects of an infrastructure deal in a closely-divided Congress:

“‘I met with the president. We got a deal,” Cassidy said in a selfie video he posted on Twitter as he walked outside the White House Thursday. “The largest infrastructure package in the history of the American government. A bridge is coming near you. Not right away, not tomorrow, not next year, but we’ve begun the process.’”

Number of the Day
$14.8 billion – Louisiana’s transportation infrastructure “backlog,” according to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. This backlog includes repairs to 1,634 bridges and over 3,411 miles of highway in poor condition, as well as planned construction or reconstruction.  (Source: WAFB)