Cancer Alley, Louisiana : a 100-mile stretch is home to numerous industrial sites-and many sick people.
People living nearest the factories and waste dumps are sick and dying. Clusters of asthma, stillbirths, miscarriages, neurological diseases and cancers have mushroomed. And residents have long claimed that the waste has poisoned domestic animals, wildlife and fish. Children, because they're still growing rapidly, are at greatest risk. Eight-year-old Caleb Thomas and his family know this well. Until he was 6, they lived in Gonzales (pop. 18,000), which sits in the shadow of five petrochemical plants and several waste dumps. One day just after Caleb's second birthday, he ran into a wall inside his house. He fell again and again, and threw up until there was nothing left. Soon, the right side of his face was paralyzed, his eyes were crossed and an ear infection raged. Within a couple of weeks, the sentence was pronounced: Caleb's small body was being ravaged by rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare childhood cancer. For two months, he was shot full of chemicals and irradiated daily, which burned his head, face, inner ear and mouth. The sores in his mouth were so bad he couldn't eat for a year and had to be fed through tubes.
Today, Caleb's therapy seems to have worked. The baseball-sized tumor in his brain disappeared, as did the cancer cells in his spine. He plays football, goes fishing and wants to be a baseball player, doctor or policeman. But the cure, if indeed it is one, has come dear. Radiation ruined Caleb's pituitary gland, so his father, Sam, must inject him daily with hormones or he won't grow. He is deaf in his right ear, which affects his speech. And radiation collapsed his jawbones, so he can't open his mouth wide enough even to eat a piece of fruit.
Caleb's type of cancer should hit just one in a million US children a year. But in Gonzales, cancer is no rarity. Two other boys were also diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, bringing to three the total who fell ill within fourteen months. In Zachary, forty miles away, four more had developed it a few years earlier. All have died. "Everybody knows someone whose child has had cancer," says Michele Thomas, Caleb's mother. Her cousin died of leukemia when he was 10. Today, five more children in or near Gonzales have leukemia.
The scene is the same all along the corridor and in parishes (counties) nearby. In Denham Springs and Walker (combined pop. 14,000), six children who lived within three miles of an oil and chemical waste dump that operated in the sixties and seventies developed neuroblastomas, deadly cancers of the central nervous system-a rate 120-200 times higher than the norm. Six children were diagnosed with leukemia from 1981 to 1990, while one developed a medulloblastoma (brain tumor) and another a chondrosarcoma (bone-cartilage cancer). In one household, besides the child with leukemia, four family members also died of cancer.
In Morgan City (pop. 14,000), pediatrician Anthony Saleme says five children were diagnosed with neuroblastomas in 1986-87 and a sixth in the early nineties (all have died), and one brain tumor and three leukemias were diagnosed from 1989 to 1993-more than he had seen in all the years since his practice started there in 1974. All the cases developed after Marine Shale opened in 1984.
And the cancers don't hit only humans. Biologist Florence Robinson, who lives just outside Baton Rouge, put three dogs to sleep in 1992, two with breast cancer and one with liver cancer. In 1996 her fourth dog died of breast cancer. No other dogs from the same litters developed cancer. Nor did they live in Louisiana.
Some doctors share the residents' concerns. Dr. Floyd Roberts, a Baton Rouge lung specialist, says many of his asthma patients never had the disease until they moved to the area. Moreover, most say their symptoms disappear when they leave Louisiana and reappear when they return. Dr. Judd Patten, an oncologist who moved to Baton Rouge in the early nineties, says he saw far more cancer than he expected. He also found that the preferred chemotherapy for treating lymphoma, which generally succeeds about 65 percent of the time on a national basis, didn't work with his Louisiana patients. Patten wonders if these were chemically induced lymphomas and thus resistant to chemical treatment.
Dr. Patricia Williams, director of the Occupational Toxicology Outreach Program at Louisiana State University Medical Center, says health officials downplay the importance of the childhood cancer clusters. She believes they function like canaries in a mine. "Children are very susceptible to pollution, so they're the first to get sick and are an early warning of what can happen wholesale if the course is not reversed," she cautions.
Until now, those who believe Louisiana's toxic gumbo creates the cancers that kill their children haven't been able to prove it. Their nemesis is the state's Tumor Registry, which is supposed to record all cancer cases and which officials tout as something akin to the Bible. According to its figures, only Louisiana's white male lung cancer rates are significantly higher than those in other states; white females' lung cancer rates are a bit higher.
Dr. Vivien Chen, the registry director, admits that Louisianans die from cancer at a higher rate than do people in other states, but she attributes this to poverty, which prevents many residents from getting timely medical care. She also blames lifestyle-insisting that residents along the corridor smoke earlier and more over their lifetimes and eat a Cajun diet heavy on fats and short on fruits and vegetables. However, in 1997 the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta placed Louisiana in a tie with two other states for fifteenth place, among all fifty, in the number of residents who smoke. And since lung cancer is most often fatal, the issue of early and reliable treatment is almost irrelevant. As to the lifestyle line, residents don't buy it, since much of the state's population is either rural or in small to medium-sized towns, and most homes have vegetable gardens. Regarding the cancer clusters, Chen says: "Purely random. If you toss five coins and they land heads up, this doesn't mean they only have sides with heads. Similarly, five neuroblastomas in a small town doesn't mean they are linked to pollution."
Soon after the movie A Civil Action was released, articles discrediting the validity of the link between pollution and cancer clusters ran in the New York Times, The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal. "The problem is that reporters mostly rely on industry-supported scientists, who naturally take this line. Clearly, these articles are related to the movie's release, which raises the cluster specter," says Bill Ravanesi, the Boston project director of Health Care Without Harm, a coalition of 185 health professionals, unions, environmentalists and others.
Critics, however, claim the clusters are hardly chance occurrences. Six former state Tumor Registry employees and current registrars at local hospitals insist that the way the numbers are collected and combined dramatically conceals the facts. None agreed to be identified, and a seventh refused to talk, even off the record. "I have to live and work here, so the subject is closed," she said, hanging up the phone. The biggest problem is that the registry divides numbers from various parishes, some industrial, some rural and some mostly uninhabited swamp, among ten regions. What this means, says Williams, is that it's impossible to see what happens close to the most polluted sites. "This is what we need to do to make the link between pollution
and the diseases," she says. Moreover, the six registrars question the registry's accuracy, citing sloppy recording techniques.
Williams contends that the clusters develop as they do because people's exposure to chemicals varies greatly. This level of exposure depends not only on the distance they live from the waste dumps or petrochemical plants but also on where they work and where their children play, the direction of the wind, the types of chemicals emitted, the length of time the wastes accumulate, the flow of underground or surface water, whether local creeks flood into vegetable gardens, how often residents eat local fish and game, and whether drinking water comes from wells or the Mississippi.
Sam Thomas knows this firsthand: When his children and cousins swam in a creek near their home, he says, they all got earaches. When they swam in a different one, nothing happened.
Chen says it would be too costly to report the numbers by smaller geographical areas. However, one current and one former regional registry director say that until recently their units, which funnel numbers to the central unit, collected data by census tracts (which are smaller than postal zones), but then the state lumped the numbers into larger, regional units. Williams says the registry also makes it tough to expose clusters, because instead of listing cancers by the type of cell involved-which scientists need to know to document the cancer's incidence-it records only the body sites where tumors appear, such as the lung or spine.
Another issue is the way researchers study the clusters. Williams stresses that unless they look at the small picture, they will never understand the link between disease clusters and chemical exposure. Until now, health studies in Louisiana have done exactly the opposite. Thus, as in a 1988 LSU and state Health Department study of Morgan City's neuroblastomas, researchers always find "nothing conclusive." Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist and adviser to the National Commission on Superfunds who recently won a MacArthur fellowship, says the Morgan City study never investigated how Marine Shale, the waste-processing company, disposed of its chemicals from the time the children with neuroblastomas were conceived until they were diagnosed. Nor did researchers interview former employees, who admitted in a federal case against the company (for violating emissions regulations) that Marine Shale officials instructed them to remove the incinerator scrubbers at night and "feed heavy." Subra says this reveals that Marine Shale, to save on costs, burned its waste without filters and discharged far more than it recorded. She adds that it got away with this because equipment that monitors emissions operates only in daylight.
Other studies were equally faulty. In 1993, when the state investigated cancer clusters near the Denham Springs/Walker dump site, it concluded that exposure to the chemicals at the site was too low to cause adverse health effects. The study identified only eight leukemia cases, including just one in a child (which it said was not unusual), plus one neuroblastoma and five other cancers in adults. Williams, who studied the case for 9,000 plaintiffs suing the companies that used the dump, found six children between 1981 and 1990 and eleven adults between 1968 and 1994 diagnosed with leukemia. From 1970 to 1993 six neuroblastomas, as noted, a medulloblastoma and one chondrosarcoma were diagnosed in children under 18. While the state relied on the registry numbers, Williams used the plaintiffs' documents and medical records. Also, she interviewed families and found striking similarities in what the children ate and where they played or went to school. She concluded that the much larger number of cases, plus the sources of exposure, were enough to connect the site to the cancers. In 1997 the companies settled for $131 million.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to proving the pollution-cancer link is the industries' immense wealth and influence. In 1998 oil, petrochemical products and gas extraction accounted for $28 billion of the state's $110 billion gross state product. Some of the worst polluters donate lavishly to all sorts of institutions and are particularly generous to environmental causes. According to press reports, Freeport McMoRan, one of the world's largest manufacturers of chemical fertilizers and the major discharger of toxic waste into Louisiana waters in the early nineties, donated $5 million to the Audubon Institute to build a wilderness park for endangered animals, $2.5 million to LSU to create the Institute for Recyclable Materials and another $1 million for the university's cancer center, $1.6 million to the University of New Orleans Center for Environmental Modeling and $350,000 to the Nature Conservancy to preserve wetlands, to name a few, over a time period during which the administration of Governor Buddy Roemer was prosecuting it for illegal dumping. In 1998 Shell gave $5 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation "for conservation of the Gulf ecosystem." Exxon gave $30,000 to protect 425 acres of hills, while Texaco sponsored volunteer tree planting.
Most troubling, however, are the massive gifts these industries make to the universities and medical centers, which, together with the State Health Department, run the cancer studies. According to press accounts, oilman C.B. Pennington gave LSU $125 million in the eighties to build a Bio-Medical Research Center, whose main task is to study nutrition; and Lod Cook, chairman of Arco, footed most of the bill for LSU's three-story alumni center, which opened in the mid-nineties. In August of 1997, when Pennington died, he left about $250 million to be shared among the LSU center, the Pennington Foundation and his grandchildren.
Tulane has also thrived, according to Earl Bihlmeyer, senior associate vice president of the university. Texaco donated a twenty-year free lease for a building that houses its Public Health School facility. And because the lease will soon expire, Tidewater Industries, which services oil rigs, has given it a twenty-four-story building that will also be used by Tulane's medical and hospital departments. In 1996 Freeport donated $1 million to the university's Bio-Environmental Research Center and, along with Shell and Exxon, pumped another $2 million into its Environmental and Waste Management Program. In fact, dollars flow for countless projects, such as endowed chairs, which cost donors $600,000 each, matched by $400,000 from the Oil and Gas Trust Fund (financed by gas and oil royalties). Since the early nineties, Ethyl, Texaco and Claiborne Gasoline have each endowed an LSU chair, Freeport has endowed one Tulane chair and two LSU chairs, and Pennington has given two chairs to Tulane.
The problem, say critics, is that contributions profoundly affect the kinds of studies designed: Until the mid-nineties, for example, scientists investigating lung cancer limited research to the link with smoking, says Ben Fontaine, executive director of Louisiana's American Lung Association. Efforts by journalists and others to get the universities to reveal their funding sources (apart from data about endowed chairs) have been stonewalled: Tulane's status as a private institution allows it to remain silent, and although LSU is a public university, it created a private foundation through which it funnels its grants.
The industries and firms servicing them also contribute heavily to politicians on both sides of the aisle. For example, oil and gas companies contributed just under $342,000 to the 1990 campaign of Democratic Senator J. Bennett Johnston, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In the early nineties, the committee again exempted oilfield waste-which contains carcinogens, heavy metals and radioactive materials- from federal hazardous-waste laws (the first time it was classified as nonhazardous was in 1970). Thus, oil companies can inject it underground or just dump it into pits, with far fewer controls. Similarly, Louisiana state legislators got $294,000 in 1993-94 from the industries. Soon after, the lawmakers killed a bill that would have sharply hiked industry taxes.
Sometimes, the links between industry and government are even closer: Republican Mike Foster, the current governor, who owns prime oil and gas land, earns $200,000 in annual royalties from Exxon, along with smaller sums from Quintaine Petroleum, Meridian Oil and others, according to his campaign disclosure form. Moreover, according to press reports, firms such as Chevron, Occidental, Ciba-Geigy, Freeport and Cryptopolymers were among a long list of industry contributors to Foster's 1996 gubernatorial campaign. Edwin Edwards, who held the governor's chair in 1972-80, 1984-88 and 1992-96, earned, in the years he was out of office, at least $100,000 a year in oil and gas royalties from Exxon, Superior Oil and others, and large legal retainers from several oil corporations, including Texaco and Texas International.
Some legislators are even employed by the industry at the same time they hold office, while others belong to law firms that represent the corporations. Also, top civil servants shift easily from the public to the private domain. For example, Jim Porter, who from 1984 to 1988 was the director of the state's Department of Natural Resources, which promotes the oil industry, took the top slot at its trade association, the Mid- Continent Oil and Gas Association, a year and a half after leaving public office.
Such investments appear to have paid off. When geologists at a state agency testified in the early nineties that lands owned by officials' friends should not be used for underground-injection wells or landfills because they were too close to groundwater sources, they were told never to testify again. Soon after Edwards regained the governorship in 1992, he cut off the unit's funding. After Tulane's Environmental Law Clinic agreed in 1996 to represent the mostly poor and black residents in the already highly polluted St. James Parish who were trying to block Shintec from building a large polyvinyl chloride plastics factory, Governor Foster blasted the clinic on television, threatening to reduce its tax breaks.
Indeed, the state does all it can to hide the extent of pollution. Instead of banning fishing in contaminated waters, it erects a few warning signs. It also publishes a brochure instructing pregnant women on how to cook contaminated fish and to eat no more than two servings of certain species a month. Such avoidance techniques should worry non-Louisianans, too, since about 20 percent of oysters and 7.5 percent of shrimp consumed in the United States come from Louisiana waters. (The shrimp figures were far higher before foreign imports increased over the past decade.)
Toxic emissions declined dramatically from 1988 through the early nineties, as a result of the tightening of regulations during Governor Roemer's administration, but they rose soon after industry helped defeat Roemer in the 1992 election. By 1995, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state was number one among all fifty states in dumping into waterways and second only to Texas in its combined discharges into water, air and land, and into underground-injection wells. But because Louisiana is only a sixth the size of Texas, the pollution here is far more concentrated.
During the Roemer years, Dr. Paul Templet, an environmental scientist and then head of the state's Department of Environmental Quality, got the companies to clean up their acts. For example, he introduced an environmental scorecard: Firms that did not reduce emissions lost their property-tax exemptions, which had been routinely approved. "It's naive to think the industries will control pollution voluntarily," Templet says. Firms also had to submit environmental assessments when they wanted to expand, those injecting oil waste into wells had to find other ways to dispose of it, and waste processors were heavily taxed on what they imported into the state. When companies refused to comply, the DEQ got serious about penalties: These jumped from $1.5 million in 1988 to $7.6 million in 1989.
Templet says that while fines this size are minuscule to such corporate giants, they harm their reputations, which counts when they want to locate facilities in other areas. As a result, during his tenure firms upped their pollution-control spending by 600 percent, recycled more of their waste and cut their imports of toxic waste by nearly half. Emissions dropped by 50 percent.
But the gains were brief. Once Edwards returned in 1992, his administration scrapped the environmental scorecard, slashed the tax on imported waste and whittled penalties down to under $2 million-all within the first year. Beginning in 1996, Governor Foster finished the job where Edwards had left off. Among other actions, he limited the requirement for environmental assessments, which now need to be made only for "major" facilities-and the DEQ decides what's major. Penalties dropped even lower: Although Tim Knight, administrator of environmental technology, insists that the DEQ levies up to $50,000 a day on firms that have not complied with the laws within the time allotted, Bob Kuehn, former director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, says DEQ penalties in 1997 totaled just $736,000, the lowest since 1988, with fines averaging about $17,500.
Chemist Subra says that to make matters worse, refineries and petrochemical plants whose waste was labeled hazardous in the eighties applied to the DEQ to have the waste "de-listed," which would mean that they could dump it in solid and industrial-waste landfills at a cost two to four times less than in hazardous dump sites. "In the mid-nineties, I looked at de-listing applications from 100 firms, and all 100 were approved," she notes. The results of such actions were predictable: From 1995 to 1997 emissions jumped 7 percent (an additional 11 million pounds), a time when they dropped in most other states, says Templet.
Further, reprisals for whistleblowers are severe and certain. Templet says that to punish him for his activism at the DEQ, his promised salary at LSU was cut by $10,000. And according to Dr. Marise Gottlieb, a former researcher at Tulane's medical and public health institutions, she lost her research funding not long after she published findings about the connection between cancer and pollution in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and the American Journal of Epidemiology. One article linked rectal cancer to drinking water from the Mississippi, while the other revealed the existence of clusters of lung cancer among those who lived within one mile of large petrochemical plants. When the legislature allotted Patricia Williams $1.1 million to hire physicians for a clinic to treat patients exposed to toxic chemicals, Governor Foster and Dr. Mervin Trail, chancellor of the LSU Medical Center, blocked the funds, and the clinic never opened. When asked why the clinic was torpedoed, Trail said the medical school had the right to spend its funds as it saw fit.
Dr. Janette Sherman, an internist-toxicologist and author of Chemical Exposure and Disease, says that although Louisiana has no monopoly on pollution, the difference is in how its officials respond. "When I testify about health conditions in other states, they sometimes take steps. In Louisiana, they don't even listen," she says.
Templet compares Louisiana to many developing countries, in which a few industries and their political allies do well while most ordinary citizens do poorly. Based on 1990 census figures, roughly 30 percent of Louisianans live beneath or just above the poverty line, second only to Mississippi's 32 percent. Templet says that instead of educating and training the poor or creating jobs, the state gives massive subsidies to attract and retain industries-some $900 per resident in 1989, the year he studied this. Just as important, he insists that firms don't have to pollute to profit. Citing recent research, he says they could reduce emissions massively: In 1995 US chemical plants emitted 935 pounds of waste per job, while in Louisiana, the figure was 5,000 pounds. He contends that since companies manage to meet stiffer rules in other states, they could do the same in Louisiana. Elected officials argue that corporations would flee to greener pastures if the rules got too tough. But Templet disagrees: "They have everything they need here-the gas and oil, water transport and pipelines. And chemical firms spend just 1 percent or less of their total revenues on pollution controls."
Given the current climate, however, business will continue as usual. And Louisianans will continue to wonder whose child will be next.
Barbara Koeppel is a Washington, DC-based investigative reporter. Amy Rose Dinges, a former Nation intern, assisted with research. The Fund for Investigative Journalism, Essential Information and the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute provided research support.
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|Date:||Nov 8, 1999|
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