Grassroots campaign against industrial toxins hopes to win support in two-week trek during gubernatorial runoff election
For two straight weeks residents of southern Louisiana, will march, walk and ride between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in an attempt to win political and popular support for a grassroots campaign against toxic pollution in the region.
At a launch event in New Orleans on Tuesday, organizers sought to frame the fortnight of sustained activism in the context of a crucial gubernatorial runoff election next month, which will see the conservative Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards face off against Republican Eddie Rispone in a race already being closely observed by the White House.
The coalition of activists from the region known colloquially as Cancer Alley due to its high volume of petrochemical plants urged Edwards in a letter, shared with the Guardian, to assist in their efforts to curb toxic emissions and block the construction of new plants in the region while also assuring the governor of their support next month.
We call on all progressives to unite behind the only candidate that can move this state forward. You can depend on our Movement. We have differences that we will have to settle and work out after the election. It states.
The letter adds: Black voters need stimulation and understanding that their votes do count in state races and there is infrastructure to solve the myriad of problems we solve.
High turnout in African American communities in Louisiana is pivotal to the Democratic pathway to victory, a feat Bel Edwards pulled off during his first election victory in 2015. The governor campaigned extensively in black communities during the first primary earlier this month but did not win enough of the vote to avoid a runoff election under Louisianas jungle primary system, which sees candidates of all parties face each other on the initial ballot.
Many of the worst-affected communities in the Cancer Alley region are predominantly black, including Reserve in St John the Baptist parish, which has the highest risk of cancer due to airborne toxicity anywhere in America. Reserve is the focus of a year-long Guardian series, Cancer Town.
Marchers plan to visit numerous sites over the two-week period, including St John the Baptist parish and neighboring St James parish, and will be joined next week by the national moral revival campaigner the Rev William Barber, who visited Reserve earlier in the year as part of an event co-sponsored by the Guardian.
Last week Democratic presidential frontrunner senator Elizabeth Warren placed Cancer Alley and Reserve at the centre of an ambitious environmental justice platform aimed at addressing the racial inequality associated with toxic pollution in America.
But the issue of pollution in the region still fails to galvanize much of the local political scene.
Last weekend Larry Sorrapuru, a St John the Baptist councilman and the most vocal local political critic of air pollution issues in the parish, lost his seat following elections.
Edwards administration also has a mixed record on the issue. The state environment department, LDEQ, has repeatedly sought to downplay community concerns about air pollution, which are centered on emissions from the Pontchartrain Works facility, a synthetic rubber plant that emits the toxin chloroprene listed as a likely carcinogen by the EPA.
Following mounting concern and attention, however, the Edwards administration has committed to conducting a study on cancer prevalence rates in Reserve following the publication of an independent study showing highly unusual rates near the plant.
The governor has never communicated with us, said Bobby Taylor, president of the Concerned Citizens of Saint John. But we hope they will come in and work with us, be part of the community.
This march is about bringing as much attention as we can to this community and others on the route, because we need to bring more focus to this from local people.
Taylor plans to be present throughout most of the two weeks of activism.