Secret Histories | “Petrochemical America” Examines the Nation’s Notorious “Cancer Alley”

Photo: Hazardous Waste Containment Site, Dow Chemical Corporation, Mississippi River, Plaquemine, Louisiana, 1998.

Cancer Alley stretches 150 miles along the Mississippi River, running from Baton Rouge to New Orleans across the River Parishes of Louisiana. Here, along the fabled River Road, more then 100 monstrous industrial plants that produce a quarter of the nations petrochemicals, including coal, oil, and natural gas. Those in the industry euphemistically call it Chemical Corridor; for the many communities in the area, it has become Cancer Alley.

Also: Secret Histories | Photographer Edward Burtynsky Reveals the “Essential Elements” Destroying Earth

Cancer Alley first got its name back in 1987, when 15 residents on a two-block stretch of Jacobs Drive in tiny town of St. Gabriel, Louisiana, were diagnosed with cancer. By 2002, Louisiana had the second-highest death rate from cancer in the nation.

a map of Petrochemical Landscape, courtesy of Aperture.

Kate Orff, Petrochemical Landscape

In 1998, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, invited American photographer Richard Misrach (b. 1949) to participate in their “Picturing the South” series. Misrach chose to document the communities of Cancer Alley, visiting the plantations and slave cabins, churches and trailer homes, playgrounds and forests of this eerie netherworld. The photographs were so evocative of the grim hazards of life in a toxic landscape that they inspired the aesthetic of the first season of “True Detective.”

PETROCHEMICAL_render_coverBut aesthetics alone could only do so much. Once awareness had been raised, when what?  In 2010, Misrach returned with collaborator Kate Orff, a Manhattan-based landscape architect and assistant professor at Columbia University, who has focused on regenerating contaminated landscapes and an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability. Together they put together a sequence of photographs with layers of maps, graphs, and illustrations to create a multidimensional study of place for Petrochemical America (Aperture). The book explores the issues at length, organized in Ecological Atlas that looks at the subjects of oil, infrastructure, waste, displacement, ecology and economy, food, and landscape in order to examine the problem and search for solutions that we as a nation face. The problem extends well past Cancer Alley, but the solutions can be carried forth.

Swamp and Pipeline, Geismar, Louisiana, 1998

Swamp and Pipeline, Geismar, Louisiana, 1998

Orff writes, “Intentionally and not, we have designed a new nature. Vinyl and wallboard have generated an artificial geology of indestructible garbage mountains. Plastic bags and bottle caps have created a new non-composing detritus, clogging waterways, choking animals, and forming a lifeless layer on ocean floors that will not degrade for thousands of years. Land that is not covered with waste or asphalt is likely one of two kinds of highly managed, mechanized chemical landscapes: suburban lawn or five-hundred-acre farm. An additional landscape of ornamental exotic plants irrigated by PVC pipe and accented with red-dye mulch fills in the intermittent spaces. There is little habitat left for North America’s native amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.”

—To say nothing of its peoples. Though most of us are not native to these lands, we have inherited the custody of them by virtue of our citizenship. With Petrochemical America, Misrach and Orff provide the literal and figurative blueprint, one that speaks to the awareness that we all have a very specific and critical role to play in the salvation of the environment. It all begins with awareness in order to ensure a permanent disruption to the harmful practice of cognitive dissonance. We are all complicit in taking the benefits of “progress” without offsetting the harm, but now that the balance has switched, that responsibility is finally coming home. Petrochemical America shows us no problem is to great to be solved—provided we act in time.

Trailer Home and Natural Gas Tanks, Good Hope Street, Norco, Louisiana, 1998

Trailer Home and Natural Gas Tanks, Good Hope Street, Norco, Louisiana, 1998

All photos: from Petrochemical America, photographs by Richard Misrach, Ecological Atlas by Kate Orff (Aperture 2012). © Richard Misrach, courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn Gallery, Los Angeles.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.