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Sugar plantations
Chemical Plants
Covid-19

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You can move through the exhibition by taking a guided tour or exploring the different sites on your own.

On every stop, the menu will provide further readings and supplementary teaching material linking the exhibition to the course Environmental Injustice.

Accessing the material

During the tour, you can click through to images, videos, photo essays and text artifacts for additional information. 

Note that the exhibit also includes links to outside sources, like newspapers, archives of environmental activists and video platforms.

If you are registered on the Disaster STS Network, you can annotate the artifacts using different sets of analytical questions.

The archive is lively and subject to change over time. If you would like to get involved or contribute material, contact Tim Schütz (tschuetz@uci.edu). 

Cancer Alley Stops

 

Backstories, by Kim Fortun

Bhopal Bayou NYT
View essay

Bhopal Gas Disaster 1984

Narration by Kim Fortun

"I started my research -- long ago -- at the site of the 1984 Union Carbide chemical plant disaster in Bhopal, India, which killed thousands in the immediate aftermath and left continuing, deadly pollution in the community’s water supply. Since my research in India in the early 1990s, when the Bhopal case was being heard by Indian courts, I have followed similar hazards in the United States, in the state of West Virginia, where the sister plant of Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant was located, near where I grew up around Houston Texas, and in the River Parishes of southern Louisiana -- a region environmental activists have called Cancer Alley, and, more recently -- Death Alley. 

In the early 1990s, as globalization intensified, there was momentum to connect communities around the United States and the world dealing with similar hazards so that they could share knowledge and work together for environmental protection"

Bhopal on the Bayou Highway Photograph

"One result of that activism was this sign on Highway 10 headed toward the River Parishes, warning of the potential for “Bhopal on the Bayou.” Concern about this has motivated my research and teaching throughout my career. It is why I teach the class titled “Environmental Injustice” at University of California, Irvine and why I am part of the collaboration behind this tour. As we’ll share, there is a renewed need today to connect polluted communities around the world because of a surge of plans to to build additional plants in already polluted communities. Communities in Southern Louisiana (and elsewhere) are fighting back."

How the Virus Won

"In April 2020, this region was in the news because it had the highest COVID mortality rate in the country (68.7 per 100,000 people, Laughland and Zanolli 2020). The region was in the news even before COVID-19, however, for having the highest cancer rates in the country, likely due to toxic industrial emissions from the over 150 nearby petrochemical facilities (James et al 2012). Many of the chemical plants are on the grounds of former sugar plantations. Many descendents of people enslaved on the plantations still live nearby; the population is 32 % African American (Kasakove 2020). The health and wealth indicators in the region are soberingly poor. Projections for the future are also sobering…, with predictions of rising heat, increased coastal flooding and extreme weather events.  

What connects these data points? This is our focus in this tour. 

The Cancer Alley case powerfully illustrates historically produced disadvantage and vulnerability. It also provides powerful examples of Black resistance and resourcefulness."

EiJ Key Concepts Slide

"The Cancer Alley case exposes many forms of racism -- institutional, structural, interpersonal and systemic -- and many forms of injustice -- health, reproductive, economic, procedural, media and others -- all combining to produce staggering environmental injustice and what scholars and activists have called a “sacrifice zone.” 

The Cancer Alley case also points to underlying knowledge problems: to the ways it is often difficult to characterize and act on the problems people face because of inadequate data, methods, analytics tools and research. This produces what we term “data divergence” -- different ways of seeing things, with some people recognizing problems and others discounting them. Often, what people see -- and don’t see -- is shaped by economic interests and deeply rooted, often unspoken racism and sexism."

Industrial Facilities along the Mississippi

"Community members, working with activists and researchers, are pushing back -- protesting plans to bring new chemical plants to the area, for example. One recent success has been a stay on further development of a new Formosa Plastics plant because activists were able to demonstrate that graves found on the plant grounds are likely those of people enslaved on the plantation once located there. Markers of death and dispossession are thus becoming more visible and actionable. There are openings for change and we need to move through them.'

This is our purpose of the tour: to tell the story of Louisiana’s River Parishes in a way that sets the stage for change. The project design has many moving parts and players to help with this. The project is designed to connect university researchers -- including student researchers -- to communities struggling to address environmental injustice. Research on the Cancer Alley case was done by researchers at the University of California Irvine, in partnership with environmental activists and cultural leaders in Louisiana’s River Parishes -- using a case study framework that allows us to compare and connect the Louisiana case to other cases of environmental injustice around the world. Our environmental injustice case study framework is also used by UCI student researchers studying environmental injustice in California communities, for example, and by student researchers at University of Mexico Tech. At UCI, we focused on explosive, slow pollution and climate change disaster in California communities. At University of Mexico Tech, student research focuses on radiation hazards, primarily from uranium mining. The environmental injustice case study framework thus also allows us to connect many different types of environmental hazards, supporting concerted action to address them. Perhaps most important is the way a shared case study framework allows us to connect people in different places, with different experiences and skills, who can work together to deepen understanding of why environmental injustice happens and what a “just translation” will entail. “Just transition” is the name given to a still not-yet-figured-out future in which all people will have access to clean and healthy jobs, homes and environments, and the education needed to build these. 

Our tour today doesn’t yet lead to a just transition. There is much work to do ahead. But we can get started, listening and learning from people in Cancer Alley."

 

EiJ Case Study Framework Slide 2

"The case study framework has ten questions, which together guide both characterization of places facing environmental injustice and identification of actions that would improve conditions in these places. These case studies are always a work in progress -- partly because of new hazards, but also because of the never-ending need to draw in more history, more textured understanding of stakeholders in the mix today, and more possibilities for protective action and inclusive prosperity going forward. 

The case study framework is designed to see all these aspects of environmental injustice together.  It is also designed to allow us to work together, thus working more quickly and drawing in different experiences and forms of expertise. UCI students, working in groups, produce quite extensive case studies in a week or two. We’re also running workshops with community activists to help them draw their different experiences and insights together, interlaced with knowledge of university researchers like us.'

EiJ Case Study Slide

"Lastly, the case study framework provides a structure -- what we call an architecture for preserving our research and knowledge over time so that others can use and build on it giong forward. As I know the community activists with us now are aware, there are many dimensions of environmental injustice that call for analysis and action, and floods of related documentation.  It is hard to keep up with. The digital archive we are building provides a place for this documentation, and ways to focus both on particular places -- like Southern Louisiana -- and also on cross-cutting themes -- so that we can compare sites and work together on shared problems.  Think of it as a house with different doorways, allowing for us to see environmental injustice from different angles. 

The tour we’ll take you on now enters through one among many doorways into the material -- moving through a number of stops that will help you understand Louisiana’s River Parishes as a site of both environmental injustice and resistance. We’ll only be able to show you a little of the material at each site: you can return for further exploration later. You can also suggest material for us to add to the collection for a particular site. Our archive needs to continue to grow. 

After the tour we’ll invite you to enter through a different doorway, moving through our case study questions. You can do this just after our tour, or later, on your own time or in a class or workshop we can help set up. 

There are also other doorways into the material -- moving through it to produce creative writing or picture books for kids, for example, or to produce Instagram stories.  Let us know what you think is important and what talents you have to share.  

Let’s go now, though to the tour that follows the lead of organizations like the Whitney Plantation Museum and LEAN."

Geismar, Louisiana: the longest lockout of workers in US history

Locked out! 1988 Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW)

QUESTIONING QUOTIDIAN ANTHROPOCENES

DEUTERO: What capacity (and incapacity) is there to recognize and attend to “the Anthropocene” in this setting? How might academic projects contribute to or scaffold this capacity?

META: How is “the Anthropocene” – by this, or some other name – talked and worried about in this setting? What modes of communication carry and occlude engagement with anthropocenics? What discursive histories shape contemporary articulations?

EXDU: Who is imagining and planning for anthropocenic futures in this setting, with what modes of expertise, cut by what vested interests? What educational programs -- environmental, civic, media, STEM and so on -- are addressing anthrhopocenics?

MACRO: What economic activities have contributed to anthropocenics in this setting? How are future economies imagined and planned? What laws and policy have addressed anthropocenics?

MESO: Who are stakeholders in this quotidian Anthropocene and how do they relate to each other? What forms of political organization have emerged to address and weather the Anthropocene?

MICRO: What labors have contributed to and go on within this quotidian Anthropocene? What practices (for flood management or controlling toxic contamination, for example) have anthropocenics provoked?

NANO: What psychologies have anthropocenics produced in this setting and how is this refiguring what people want and consider possible? What thought styles and language ideologies are in play?

BIO: How are bodies in this setting laced and burdened with anthropocenics? How are anthropocenic bodies racialized bodies?

DATA: What data infrastructure supports recognition, characterization and response to anthropocenics in this setting? Who has access to relevant data and sense-making tools?

TECHNO: What industries and infrastructure have produced anthropocenics in this setting? What infrastructure has been built in response? How, for example, has energy transition and climate change adaptation been pursued?

ECO-ATMO: What ecosystems in this setting are depended on, protected, or compromised, and how is this recognized (or not)? How are global warming and other atmospheric currents stressing local landscapes?

GEO: How has intensive human activity marked, transmuted, destabilized and harmed this setting? What levels of lead and other metals are in the soil? Where are hazardous waste stored?

Ethnographies of Cancer Alley

View essay

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.

Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges

Residents of a small Louisiana town were sure that the oil refinery next door was making them sick. As part of a campaign demanding relocation away from the refinery, they collected scientific data to prove it. Their campaign ended with a settlement agreement that addressed many of their grievances—but not concerns about their health. Yet, instead of continuing to collect data, residents began to let refinery scientists' assertions that their operations did not harm them stand without challenge. What makes a community move so suddenly from actively challenging to apparently accepting experts' authority?

Refining Expertise
 argues that the answer lies in the way that refinery scientists and engineers defined themselves as experts. Rather than claiming to be infallible, they began to portray themselves as responsible—committed to operating safely and to contributing to the well-being of the community. The volume shows that by grounding their claims to responsibility in influential ideas from the larger culture about what makes good citizens, nice communities, and moral companies, refinery scientists made it much harder for residents to challenge their expertise and thus re-established their authority over scientific questions related to the refinery's health and environmental effects.

Gwen Ottinger here shows how industrial facilities' current approaches to dealing with concerned communities—approaches which leave much room for negotiation while shielding industry's environmental and health claims from
critique—effectively undermine not only individual grassroots campaigns but also environmental justice activism and far-reaching efforts to democratize science. This work drives home the need for both activists and politically engaged scholars to reconfigure their own activities in response, in order to advance community health and robust scientific knowledge about it.

Maher, N.M., 2004. Forging a Common Bond: Labor and Environmental Activism During the BASF Lockout . Journal of Social History, 38(1), pp.251-253.

Multinational Monitor. 1986. Locked Out Workers Go Public to PressureBASF. March 15, 1986 - VOLUME 7 - NUMBER 5

Swoboda, Frank. 1989.5 1/2-year Labor Lockout Ends, December 16, Washington Post.