Racism turned their neighborhood into 'Cancer Alley.’ Now they’re dying from COVID-19.

Rick Jervis and Alan Gomez, USA TODAY
·30 min read

RESERVE, La. – The doctor called on Mother’s Day with the news Karen Wilson had dreaded for weeks.

Your brother won’t survive the night, he told her. Expect another call soon. Don’t be alone.

Wilson’s younger brother, Jules Duhe, had been on a ventilator fighting COVID-19 since April. She hung up the phone and called her other brother, cried, showered and cried some more before finally falling asleep.

At 2:30 a.m., the phone call came, springing her awake. Duhe, 53, was dead. His magnetic smile, his love of food and travel, his spontaneous visits – all gone. Wilson sat up in bed, cold shivers running through her.

Just four years earlier, Wilson had buried her older brother, James Duhe, who died of liver cancer at age 61. The cancer had consumed his body in two months, stunning the family. In August, Wilson’s sister, Shirley Jacob, already suffering congestive heart failure and other ailments, also contracted COVID-19. She died within a week.

Children play in the residential streets of Reserve, La., just down the road from the Denka Performance Elastomer neoprene plant.
Children play in the residential streets of Reserve, La., just down the road from the Denka Performance Elastomer neoprene plant.

Three funerals in four years. It was nearly more than the family could handle, even in a place like Reserve, where the risk of cancer is the highest in the nation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“A lot of people around here were dying of cancer,” Wilson said. “Now, they’re dying of COVID.”

In the first half of the 20th century, Reserve was a mostly white small town on the east bank of the Mississippi River adjusting to life in post-slavery Louisiana. But in the 1960s, chemical plants arrived in force, drastically reshaping the region and transforming the racial makeup of the town.

White people moved out and African American families moved in at a time when Black Americans faced redlining and other discriminatory housing practices elsewhere but found easy access to home loans close to the plant.

Today, Reserve is majority Black, surrounded by a dozen petrochemical plants that provide some jobs while also releasing potentially harmful toxins into the air: ammonia, chlorine, hydrogen cyanide, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid and a little-known chemical called chloroprene.

The transition of Reserve from slave plantation to toxin-choked community shows what systemic racism looks like. Its residents once worked the local sugar cane fields; now they pray for medical help as they endure high rates of cancer, respiratory illness, diabetes and kidney disease. All are preexisting conditions that render people more vulnerable to COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As the U.S. continues to grapple with a virus that disproportionately attacks people of color, residents and activists in Reserve ask why Black Americans have been left in such close proximity to environmental hazards, making them vulnerable in the path of the virus.

Since the coronavirus emerged here in March, St. John the Baptist Parish, which includes Reserve, has consistently ranked among the top 30 U.S. counties with the highest COVID-19 death rates, according to data compiled by USA TODAY. Seven of the top 10 have populations where people of color make up the majority, the analysis found. More than 11% of residents in the top 20 counties – 4,883 people – don’t have health insurance, the data shows.

St. John the Baptist Parish, with a population of 43,446, had recorded 105 deaths as of Oct. 12. That’s nearly double the state death rate. Nearly 60% of the parish’s COVID-19 victims were Black and many came from Reserve.

“This is a result of historical racism,” longtime Reserve resident and activist Robert Taylor said. “We’ve gotten the worst of everything, and we’re getting the worst of this.”

Plants in the parish emit chemicals deemed likely carcinogens by the EPA. The largest of those, Denka Performance Elastomer, releases the highest amount – more than 75,000 pounds of chloroprene in 2018, or 42 times the amount of the next-highest emitter, EPA records show.

The 100-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is known as “Cancer Alley” because of its high number of petrochemical plants. The long line of racism – from slavery to decades of discrimination – entrenched along that riverfront territory is a key reason COVID-19 is spreading there so quickly, said Robert Bullard, a distinguished professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University who is considered the father of the modern environmental justice movement.

“It was like a heat-seeking missile that zeroed in on the most vulnerable populations,” Bullard said, “and the result was this death bomb.”

The only neoprene plant in the US

Highway 44 in St. John the Baptist Parish runs parallel with the Mississippi River and winds alongside squat, red-bricked homes, church chapels and roadside BBQ joints. As the road approaches Reserve, the sprawling tangle of tubes, steel pipes and smokestacks of the Denka plant emerges to the north. Exhaust pipes steadily belch plumes of white smoke from several locations around the plant.

The facility was expanded in 1968 by DuPont to produce neoprene, a synthetic rubber used to make tires during World War II and now used for wetsuits, laptop sleeves and other products. In 2015, DuPont sold the neoprene production part of the facility to Japanese firm Denka. Today, the entrance to the plant reads: “DUPONT/DENKA.”

The EPA classified chloroprene as a likely carcinogen in 2010 and has been closely monitoring air quality near the Denka Performance Elastomer neoprene plant since 2016.
The EPA classified chloroprene as a likely carcinogen in 2010 and has been closely monitoring air quality near the Denka Performance Elastomer neoprene plant since 2016.

To make neoprene, the plant emits chloroprene, classified by the federal government as a "likely" carcinogen. It’s the only site in the U.S. that still produces neoprene.

Over the years, residents in Reserve dismissed the constant headaches, shortness of breath and widespread cancers as a part of life in the riverside township. But recent studies are starting to reveal what’s happening, and many signs point to the Denka facility.

Data clearly show that Black Americans in Louisiana, especially those living in St. John the Baptist Parish, suffer from higher rates of cancer when compared to state and national averages.

A report from the Louisiana Cancer Control Partnership, part of a national cancer prevention program created by the CDC, concluded that Black men and women in Louisiana "bear an unequal burden of cancer" compared to their white neighbors. A 2018 report from the Louisiana Department of Health zeroed in on St. John residents, finding that its residents got cancer at "significantly higher incidence rates" between 2006 and 2014.

Last year, the University Network for Human Rights went even deeper, surveying residents living within a mile of the Denka plant. It found that 40% of respondents regularly experienced chest pain, heart palpitations or both; one-third experienced wheezing or difficulty breathing; and more than half regularly reported headaches or dizziness.

And now, studies are finding those sickened St. John residents bearing the brunt of COVID-19’s wrath. Researchers at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic reviewed nine parishes along the river and found that St. John ranked No. 1 in coronavirus deaths. Even factoring in the 28 deaths attributed to the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Home, a nursing home in Reserve ravaged by the virus, the parish’s COVID-19 death rate remained alarmingly high, said Kimberly Terrell, the study’s main author.

"These are communities that for decades have been breathing air that harms their lungs," Terrell said. "And it's pretty clear that people who have damaged lungs are more susceptible to COVID-19."

Denka officials dispute any connection between the chemical plant and the high death rate from COVID-19 in the surrounding neighborhood. In a statement to USA TODAY, Denka spokesman Jim Harris said St. John the Baptist residents exhibit "country-leading rates" of preexisting conditions and were likely spreading the virus before testing was widely available.

"We are unaware of a study suggesting chloroprene exposure could cause COVID-19, but there is absolutely no basis for that link," Harris said.

DuPont and Denka have challenged the government's classification of chloroprene as a likely carcinogen, arguing that there's no proven link between chloroprene and high levels of cancer in St. John. But internal company documents show that its scientists knew for decades about the dangers posed by the toxin. In a technical manual prepared in 1956 by DuPont, the company warned that chloroprene could enter the body through inhalation, causing a weakening of the central nervous system and “damage to vital organs.”

“Exposure to only a small dose may be severe enough to cause death,” read the document, which is stored at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware, where DuPont is headquartered.

More recent studies of workers at neoprene plants in other countries have come to similar conclusions.

"In studies of occupational workers, there is evidence that chloroprene causes an increased risk of liver cancer, while other studies in humans show the possibility of an increased lung cancer risk," according to an internal 2016 EPA memo.

In its report this year, Terrell’s team at Tulane concluded that residents in several river parishes surrounded by chemical plants were seeing disproportionately higher cases of COVID-19. Particulate matter from the plants suppressed immune systems, particularly in Black Americans who live closer to the plants, according to the study, which was requested by activists in Reserve.

Researchers at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health came to similar conclusions in a report earlier this year, that coronavirus patients in areas with high levels of air pollution were more likely to die from the virus than patients in places with less pollution. The study, which reviewed data from more than 3,000 U.S. counties, revealed that high levels of PM2.5, tiny toxic particles in the air, contributed to higher death rates.

The Denka Performance Elastomer neoprene plant sits just a few hundred yards from the residential streets of Reserve, La. The EPA classified chloroprene as a likely carcinogen in 2010 and has been closely monitoring air quality near the plant since 2016.
The Denka Performance Elastomer neoprene plant sits just a few hundred yards from the residential streets of Reserve, La. The EPA classified chloroprene as a likely carcinogen in 2010 and has been closely monitoring air quality near the plant since 2016.

Researchers concluded that "our results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis."

The neighborhood closest to the plant is more than 90% Black. That’s no accident, residents and activists said. After DuPont moved in, favorable zoning and buyouts of white families altered the racial makeup of the community and left mostly Black American families to live with the airborne toxins.

“There were no definitive zoning laws," said Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, or LEAN, which coordinates environmental and citizen groups across the state. "These giants started moving in and there was nothing in place to protect the communities.”

Residents fall sick from 'Smoke of Progress'

When Louisiana Gov. John McKeithen had to travel from the state capital of Baton Rouge to New Orleans, he often told his driver to skip the freeway and take the river road instead.

The car sped past rows of sugar cane fields, former slave plantations just a few generations earlier. By the 1960s, the river parishes were filled with descendants of slaves and other Black Americans moving in looking for higher ground and cheap land during the era of Jim Crow, said Ashley Rogers, executive director of the slave museum at the Whitney Plantation.

“You had huge communities of Black workers, then you had very large-scale white landowners,” she said. “That’s where the deals were made.”

A historical photo shows the Godchaux's Belle Point Dairy, part of the plantation which became Reserve.
A historical photo shows the Godchaux's Belle Point Dairy, part of the plantation which became Reserve.

Sitting in the backseat of his black Cadillac limousine, McKeithen, who held the post from 1964 to 1972, and his press secretary, Mary Brocato, would review speeches or the day’s agenda. The governor’s attention would inevitably wander out the window, and he’d be lost in thought as the car zoomed alongside the Mississippi River, Brocato said.

“He would say, ‘You know, Mary, this is going to be all industry and all plants and factories within 10 years.’”

McKeithen stepped into the governorship as Louisiana roiled with civil rights turbulence: Black activists clashed with Ku Klux Klan members in some towns and Black students ventured into desegregated schools in New Orleans. McKeithen was known as a segregationist with ties to the KKK, but his views on race shifted as governor, and he intervened to quell racial violence in the city of Bogalusa, according to “Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972.” Years later, FBI records revealed McKeithen was behind secret payments to KKK members to suppress the violence.

But one of his top policy goals was drawing business and industry to Louisiana. McKeithen – also known for helping to bring the Superdome to New Orleans – took recruiting trips around the country and ran full-page newspaper ads urging industrial plants to “Fill The Air With The Smoke of Progress.” By the late 1960s, his dream was largely fulfilled: More than 200 chemical facilities operated in Louisiana, most of them in the corridor.

Risks to people’s health or the environment rarely, if ever, came up, Brocato said.

“They just wanted the plants there so people would have jobs,” she said. “The owners were really happy because they had the Mississippi River right there. They could dump, dispose and there just wasn’t any thought given to protecting the marshes and the environment.”

By the late 1950s, DuPont was one of the companies eyeing Louisiana’s lax regulation and proximity to the river as an ideal environment in which to open its elastomer plant. The firm zeroed in on the former Belle Pointe Plantation in what today is Reserve, a sprawling property on which 141 slaves once harvested corn, wool and sugar. The company bought more than 600 acres of the plantation and began to build.

White families closest to the plant began moving out. Black families snatched up discounted homes and moved in, thinking they were getting a great deal at a time when it was otherwise difficult for Black Americans to secure home loans because of redlining and other discriminatory practices. Reserve went from being 60% white in 1960 to 61% Black in 2010.

Taylor, the Reserve resident and activist, worked as an electrician in 1968 with a wife, three small children and another on the way. He yearned to move his family out of their small apartment in Reserve but had trouble securing a traditional bank loan. When the U.S. Farmers Home Administration offered him a low-interest, no deposit loan on an empty lot on which to build a home in east Reserve, he jumped at the offer. He helped build his 920-square-foot, three-bedroom home and moved in with his growing family.

“It was the American dream,” Taylor said. “We were homeowners.”

Sculptures of children made by artist Woodrow Nash at the Whitney Plantation Museum, across the Mississippi River from Reserve.  The sculptures stand throughout the Antioch Church built in 1870 by formerly enslaved people.
Sculptures of children made by artist Woodrow Nash at the Whitney Plantation Museum, across the Mississippi River from Reserve. The sculptures stand throughout the Antioch Church built in 1870 by formerly enslaved people.

By then, DuPont was newly operating its plant just a few blocks away. As he finished construction on his home, Taylor noticed white families leaving and Black residents moving in. One Black neighbor told him he also had struggled to secure a home loan but was quickly approved for a house in Reserve.

“They were dumping the property because they knew DuPont was coming,” said Taylor, 79, who founded Concerned Citizens of St. John in 2016. “We didn’t know.”

These days, Reserve is a working-class township with a per capita annual income of $20,600. One-fourth of its population lives in poverty – more than double the national poverty rate.

A study in the 1990s by the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice found that 80% of Black people living along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge lived within 3 miles of a polluting facility.

Beverly Wright, executive director of the center, said that started a downward cycle that weighed on the wealth and health of Black people who remained.

“As people began to realize that these chemicals are dangerous, they were making people sick, their property values started going down,” she said. “And they’re being exposed to hundreds of chemicals that lead to heart disease, acute respiratory ailments, kids with whooping cough.”

A community consumed by cancer and now COVID-19

Allen Belvin raced around his parents' house in Reserve, cleaning up after his barely moving parents and coaxing them to eat a few bites of food. Nearly simultaneously, his father, Lee Belvin, Jr., and mother, Mary Belvin, had come down with debilitating symptoms: lack of appetite, high fever, trouble breathing, uncontrollable diarrhea.

On March 24, he sent his mother to the hospital. Three days later, an ambulance took his father, as well. Both tested positive for COVID-19.

One of seven slave dwellings sits beside a drainage canal at the Whitney Plantation Museum in Wallace, La. The plantation originally had 22 such dwellings.
One of seven slave dwellings sits beside a drainage canal at the Whitney Plantation Museum in Wallace, La. The plantation originally had 22 such dwellings.

Just a few weeks earlier, the pair had been going about their lives. Lee Belvin, 76, had retired after working for years at various petrochemical plants. He mowed lawns for neighbors and delivered meals to seniors. Mary Belvin, 74, kept active at her local Baptist church. Each had hypertension and diabetes, Allen Belvin said.

The couple had moved to Reserve in the 1960s for its high ground and easy access to the river. It seemed a quiet, idyllic place to raise a family. When hurricanes battered the area, they would help organize food drives from church parking lots. “They were both giants when it came to the community,” Allen Belvin said.

The virus struck fast and mercilessly. By the end of March, both were in separate ICU units at Ochsner Medical Center in Kenner. Lee Belvin died April 1 while on a ventilator. A few days later, a nurse used an iPad to launch a Zoom call between Mary Belvin and her son and a few other family members. Mary was unresponsive, sleeping gently on her hospital bed. The family members said their goodbyes, told her they loved her.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID, racism kills Black Americans living near toxic plants