Living and Dying in Cancer Alley

oil refinery
Oil Refinery by Rob Weir (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Nothing comes easy in places like Standard Heights or St. Rose or Alsen. The streetlights turn yellow then red then green again. The trees lose their leaves then grow them again. The plant lights come on at night, the steam rises, the toxic flares flash, the heavy odor moves through the house like a thin curtain lifted off its rod, the brown dust falls on the cars. Even when you take a second to remember the smell or to see the rusting tanks through the fence, a hundred daily chores come ahead of picking up the slingshot and aiming at Goliath.

“You know yourself,” Spears tell me. “With a big company like Exxon, you can’t fight a case so you gotta go along with them. I’m not down on Exxon because I use their gas, so what can I say? We need it. I wish they could straighten up the odor thing, but I don’t know. The only thing I see, we gotta live with it till we die. I’ll be here till 5. Every day of the week except Sunday.”

— David Hanson, writing for the Bitter Southerner, helps residents of Standard Heights, Baton Rouge, tell their story of a town next to an Exxon plant — explosions, sinkholes, toxic sludge, and an everyday life that has to go on, regardless.

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