“Cancer Alley” in Louisiana’s St. John the Baptist Parish

“Cancer Alley” in Louisiana’s St. John the Baptist Parish April 9, 2024

Official Seal of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued new rules today that will protect designated neighborhoods around the country from certain chemicals that industrial manufacturers have been producing and spewing into the atmosphere for decades. These chemicals include especially ethylene oxide, chloroprene, benzene, vinyl chloride, 1.3 butadiene, and ethylene dichloride.

The EPA says over 100,000 Americans live within six miles of factories that have been churning out these airborne toxins that cause cancer. It is well known that poorer minorities, particularly Blacks and Hispanics, live predominantly in these regions. The EPA’s Administrator Michael Regan stated today in a news briefing, “This rule alone will reduce the cancer risk for people living in these communities by 96%.”

CNN is reporting about this today in an article entitled, “New EPA rules for about 200 US chemical manufacturers take aim at ‘cancer alleys.'” It says this is only the second time the EPA has required chemical and petroleum companies to monitor their air quality and that the first time was in 2015. The results are being posted on an EPA dashboard for the public to read.

I know about this. Texas is right next door to Louisiana. When I was young and newly married, my wife and I lived near the Houston Ship Channel. It had, and still does, many chemical plants and oil company facilities that belched out noxious fumes that were hazardous to health. After a few years, we purposely moved away from there, closer to the Gulf of Mexico where the air was fresher, and had our home built there.

One of the most notorious industrial areas with chemical manufacturers is St. John the Baptist parish in Louisiana. For decades it has had the nickname “Cancer Alley” since it is known for having a high incidence of cancer. Located a few miles west of New Orleans, it has a population of about 43,000. Established in 1807, the place got its name from the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church there. CNN reports, “In 2016, the EPA discovered that St. John the Baptist parish had the highest cancer risk in the country–about 15 times higher than it’s acceptable limit–largely due to emissions from that plant”–the Denka Performance Elastomer chemical plant.

If John the Baptist was living there in that Louisiana parish named after him, I wonder what he would be saying about this Cancer Alley. He loved the great outdoors with its fresh air, living off the land in the wilderness of Judea near the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. We read of him,

“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’… John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance'” (Matthew 3.1-7 NRSV).

I can imagine John the Baptist preaching in this parish–named after him and nicknamed Cancer Alley–a similar message to polluters of our environment, telling them to bring forth fruits of repentance by cleaning up the air. For, John the Baptist was an apocalyptic preacher who surely would have subscribed wholeheartedly to the following prophecy that will be declared in heaven to God at the end of the age:

“We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11.17-18).

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