Visualizing Cancer Alley

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Visualizing St. James Parish, Louisiana

Illustration by Kora Fortun (2020) 

Opportunity Index: St. John the Baptist

The Opportunity Index was developed in 2011 by non-profit Child Trends the Forum for Youth Investment to index communities on basis of their educational, economic, health, and other community-related indicators. The grade of C- hides layers of historical disadvantage in the region.

HARVARD STUDY: AIR POLLUTION IN RESERVE, LOUISIANA

This visual originates from a Harvard-led (Wu et al. 2020), investigating the relationship between exposure to PM. 2.5 and COVID-19 mortality in the US. After the onset of the pandemic in spring, St. John Parish, Louisiana saw one of the COVID-19 highest death rates in the country (Kasakove 2020); in August, the Louisiana Department of Health reported 1,1442 cases and 92 deaths. 

Kimberly Terrell, Outreach Director at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, further analyzed the data on request of the environmental justice group Concerned Citizens of St. John. Terrell particularly looked into the significance of underlying conditions. In her final report, Terrell notes low diabetes and high obesity rates. However, she emphasizes that the number of COVID-19 deaths in St. John is much higher than in parishes with similar obesity rates (Terrell 2020).

No Formosa Sign

Scott Lause took a photograph of this protest sign in St James Parish. Part of a digital gallery in The Tennesean: "St. James Parish residents fight against incoming industrial plant" (2020)

St. James Gypsum Stack

From a distance, you see a white mound rising over green fields. 960 acres and 960m tonnes of radioactive phosphogypsum, moving 0.7 inches per day. Owned by the fertilizer-producing Mosaic Company, the stack is located in St James Parish. Residents through their activist organization Rise St James have been alerting Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) for years about Mosaic. The Guardian reports that if the stack falls, those tonnes of waste would seep into nearby communities and remain there for millennia.

Meanwhile, company spokespersons deny claims that the stack is moving. Mosaic even proposed vaporizing gypsum and releasing it into the air.

Plantations and Industry in St. James Parish

Left: Plantations along the Mississippi in 1858. The visual is taken from a genealogical archive maintained by Jim Cox and Margie Pearce, zoomed-in to where St James Parish stands today.  

Right: Petrochemical industries in St James Parish. The visual was contributed by Wilma Subra, an environmental chemist-activist and technical advisor to Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN)

Together, they show how toxic legacies continue via the transfer of land from former plantations to present petrochemical industries.

Wilma Subra collecting air quality data

Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist, has been helping and organizing vulnerable communities in the Mississippi Delta by documenting and archiving the health effects of toxics for decades.

Ethnographies of Cancer Alley

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Uneasy Alchemy

Louisiana annually reports over eight tons of toxic waste for each citizen. Uneasy Alchemy examines the role of experts—lawyers, economists, health professionals, and scientists—in the struggles for environmental justice in the state's infamous Chemical Corridor or "Cancer Alley." This legendary toxic zone between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is home to about 125 oil and chemical plants; cancer and respiratory illness rates there are among the highest in the nation. The efforts of residents to ensure a healthy environment is one of the most important social justice movements of the post-civil rights era. Louisiana is an especially appropriate venue for the examination of race, class, and politics within an environmental justice framework because of the critical role the chemical industry has played in the economic development of the state, and the weak record of state agencies in controlling toxic chemicals and enforcing environmental regulations. But while Louisiana suffers from some of the worst chemical pollution in the nation, it has also been the site of important environmental victories. Using ethnographic analysis of interviews with citizens, activists, and experts, media accounts, policy reports, government documents, minutes of hearings, and company statements, Barbara Allen identifies the factors that contribute to successful environmental justice efforts. She finds that the most successful strategies involved temporary alliances between local citizens and expert-activists, across lines of race and class, and between local and national organizations. These alliances were not easy to achieve—local citizens tend to mistrust outside experts and want fast action in response to health threats—but once formed, these powerful combinations of local and expert knowledge were an important force for action and change.

COVID-19 & Pollution

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HARVARD STUDY: AIR POLLUTION IN RESERVE, LOUISIANA

This visual is from a Harvard-led (Wu et al. 2020), investigating the relationship between exposure to PM. 2.5 and COVID-19 mortality in the US. After the onset of the pandemic in spring, St. John Parish, Louisiana saw one of the COVID-19 highest death rates in the country (Kasakove 2020); in August, the Louisiana Department of Health reported 1,1442 cases and 92 deaths. 

Kimberly Terrell, Outreach Director at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, further analyzed the data on request of the environmental justice group Concerned Citizens of St. John. Terrell particularly looked into the significance of underlying conditions. In her final report, Terrell notes low diabetes and high obesity rates. However, she emphasizes that the number of COVID-19 deaths in St. John is much higher than in parishes with similar obesity rates (Terrell 2020).

The visual was altered by Terell, adding geographic information (location of the Parish) and adjusted transparency to identify air pollution "hotspots" for fenceline communities along the river.

This visualization is part of the Formosa Plastics Archive and Visualizing Formosa Plastics Essay in the Visualizing Toxic Places project run by the Center for Ethnography.

Racism is a Pandemic too

COVID-19 adds another layer of injustice to Black, Latinx, and low-income communities in the US. From forcing communities to live in sacrifice zones to prison pandemic, racism compounds vulnerability to COVID-19 by denying people the right to life. This visual is from a Black Lives Matter demonstration in London in June 2020. Read the Roundtable on the Pandemics of Racism, Environmental Injustice, and COVID-19 in America to learn more.

Pollution and Pandemics: COVID-19's Disproportionate Impact on Environmental Justice Communities

On 9 June 2020, the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a live-streamed public hearing on Pollution and Pandemics: COVID-19's Disproportionate Impact on Environmental Justice Communities.

Witnesses were Mustafa Santiago Ali (Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization, National Advocacy Center at the National Wildlife Federation), Jacqueline Patterson (Environmental and Climate Justice Program, NAACP), and Shay Hawkins (Opportunity Funds Association). 

Lead Poisoning

The pandemic has reduced the critical testing of toddlers and kids in the US for lead poisoning. This disproportionately influences low-income communities of color as they are more likely to live in housing contaminated with lead. Stay-at-home orders mean that kids will encounter indoor environments more frequently, compounding toxic exposures. 

The visual is from Wikimedia Commons, a canister from the Dutch Boy Paint company of Cleveland, Ohio.

Ohio has one of the highest lead poisoning levels in the US. 

Creative Community Archiving

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Nurdle Patrol

Nurdle Patrol is a citizen science project run by the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve (Reserve) to collect, report, and archive nurdles that wash up on beaches and rivers across the world. Nurdles are plastic pellets, the raw material for manufacturing plastic products. They degrade riverine and oceanic ecosystems and livelihoods, entering our food chains and water supplies. 

Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project

Undergraduates at Emory University examine unsolved and unpunished racially motivated murders in Jim Crow American South, relying on primary evidence and secondary readings. In their words: "Emory students have focused their attention less on figuring out who-done-it (because in most cases, the assailants were known) and more on exploring why"

Paradise Papers

The Paradise or Panama Papers are 13.4 million leaked documents--emails, financial spreadsheets, passports, and corporate records-- from Panama Law Firm Mossack Fonesca that show how businesses, politicians, and public figures hide their assets in offshore shell companies to avoid paying taxes. In 2017, the European Parliament debated about how some member countries made it easier for corporations to avoid paying taxes, arguing for a more transparent EU-wide tax policy. 

Tax avoidance and aversion in the United States is tied to slavery in the American South. Present-day colorblind federal tax policies that undermine working-class communities of color have deep historical roots in debates about whether enslaved people were property or persons.

Jerusalem, We Are Here

Jerusalem, We Are Here is a digital storytelling project about the Kotamon neighborhood in Jerusalem from which Palestinians were expelled in 1948. An instance of participatory mapping, the project raises ethical questions about collecting sensitive and painful data, and how that data lives on in a digital public space. 

Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair

Anthropologist Deborah Thomas writes about the decade-long project Witnessing 2.0, using archival material for reparative accountability in Jamaica. This book (2019) scaffolds the project's stakes by tracing how rebellious Black bodies were expelled and disciplined from life and the archive since the 18th century. 

Historical Disadvantage

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Redlining in Portland Neighborhoods

Black communities experience more extreme heat events in cities due to redlining--systemic denial of services --in Portland and elsewhere in the US. The visual is from The Grist list of resources for understanding the effect of redlining on how Black communities experience heat.

Neighborhood Pride Mural, Los Angeles

The Social and Public Art Resource Center since 1976 preserving and documenting public space for and of marginalized Los Angeles communities. Their Digital Mural Lab is a leading community-based research center for public digital art productions. The visual is a photograph by Joey Zanotti, of a mural that shows how white people used police brutality to racially segregate Los Angeles

LA Freeways

Construction of freeways, including much of state-sanctioned public infrastructure in South California, is rooted in racism. Freeways destroyed unsegregated and Black neighborhoods just so white and affluent people could commute between city centers and burgeoning suburbs of Los Angeles and Portland, for example.