In Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley,’ a Black community battles an industry that threatens its health—and history

A proposed petrochemical complex from plastics giant Formosa could disrupt long-forgotten plantation graves.
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TK Marryam Moma

Around 11 in the morning on a 90-degree day in June 2020, a few dozen people walk across a field in Louisiana’s St. James Parish on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Tall grass brushes their waistbands as they head for a plot surrounded by a chain-link fence. They block the blazing sun with umbrellas and fan themselves with paper stop signs. Some hold bouquets of roses. With COVID-19 still a threat, all wear masks. When they reach their destination, they break out into song—”Oh, Freedom”—­accompanied by a lone trumpet.

It’s Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating emancipation in the United States, and the group is standing among what they believe are ­the ­­­graves of enslaved sugarcane plantation workers, discovered during Taiwanese plastics firm Formosa’s planning process for a new petro­chemical complex. In 2019 the company hired archaeologists to check for remains, a required step in obtaining federal permits. Though a previous assessment had determined that no sites of historic or cultural significance were imperiled by the planned groundbreaking, the excavators uncovered nails, coffins, and bones. The land had once been part of the Buena Vista estate, which had relied on hundreds of enslaved laborers—some of whom were likely buried there in unmarked graves. For­mosa’s archaeologists recommended a fence to protect the area from any disturbance during construction. Alternatively, their report concluded, the company could exhume the remains and rebury them somewhere else.

In the mid-1800s, this stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was home to the country’s highest concentration of millionaires. Their fortunes were made possible by the sweat of enslaved Africans and their descendants, whose lives—and deaths—went largely unrecorded, though they had a profound influence on American culture. They played music that laid the groundwork for blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll. They spoke of the trickster characters from West African folklore that morphed into Br’er Rabbit and Bugs Bunny. They cooked gumbo and jambalaya, which became essential parts of local cuisine.

Many were buried in plots that are invisible today, and the conflict in St. James Parish reflects a nationwide problem. Abandoned and overgrown Black cemeteries turn up during construction of highways, housing developments, and industrial plants, prompting calls for greater protections and new efforts at documentation. In add­ition to helping archaeologists study America’s hidden history, these sites are also sacred spaces for descendants. “Failing to show respect for the dead is in essence telling a community they don’t matter,” says Joe Joseph, former president for the Society of Historical Archaeology. “If we want to start healing the racial injustice in this country, we’ve got to recognize that places of the African American past are significant resources that need to be protected.”

The Juneteenth visitors are ­supporters of a coalition called RISE St. James, which formed in 2018 to oppose the Formosa complex on the grounds that it might harm community health. The discovery of the graves, however, opened a new front in the battle. “Formosa’s not gonna come here and dig up our ancestors,” RISE founder Sharon Lavigne tells her small audience from the microphone. The parish, she says, “is our home. We’re not going anywhere.”

Before closing the festivities with “Victory Is Mine,” ­Lavigne addresses the crowd once more. She had been praying over the site regularly until Formosa threatened legal action. A judge ruled that RISE could hold this celebration just hours before. “Well, I’m here today,” she says with a fist pump as the audience cheers. “I’m here today to put roses on the graves.”

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Over the past century, plantations have made way for facilities that process oil, natural gas, and petrochemicals. Marryam Moma

Lavigne has lived in St. James Parish all her life, and her eyes get dreamy when she talks about her childhood. Her family raised chickens, ducks, cows, and pigs, and picked their own figs and butter beans. Today ­Lavigne has six children and twice as many grandkids, but they ­haven’t grown up with the same reliance on the land. The fig and orange trees on her 20 acres have stopped producing. Her pecans are often hollow, fruitless shells. She sees very few birds. Some of ­Lavigne’s children have moved away, complaining of headaches and sinus problems. Over the past century, plantations have made way for facilities that process oil, natural gas, and petrochemicals. The resulting pollution and uptick in related illnesses have earned this 85-mile strip along the Mis­sis­sippi the nickname “Cancer Alley.” ­Lavigne has seen industry moving in and white people moving out, often with a check from a company in want of their land—and she believes quality of life is declining as a result.

Data released in 2014 by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that many area residents are more likely to get cancer tied to air pollution than 95 percent of Americans. And a 2012 University of Memphis study found that the risk of disease is as much as 16 percent higher in Cancer ­Alley’s Black-dominant areas than in its whiter ones. Public records reveal that in 2014, the parish council rezoned St. James’ 4th and 5th Districts, both majority Black, as “Residential/­Future-­Industrial.” Many locals say they were not informed of the change, which eased passage for companies like Formosa.

These potential health effects spurred ­Lavigne to learn about the threats of industrial pollution, and she got involved with activists opposing the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, which ends in St. James’ wetlands and is the last leg bringing crude from the Dakota Access Pipeline to Louisiana’s oil refineries. They lost that fight—it went into operation in 2019—but she found another cause.

In April 2018, Gov. John Bel ­Edwards smiled behind a podium as he announced that Formosa had purchased 2,400 acres in St. James to build a $9.4 billion complex to make the precursor chemicals for manufacturing plastic, potentially creating more than 1,200 permanent jobs and 8,000 temporary construction gigs. Lavigne was shocked: The site would be just two miles from her property. Many assumed the plan was irreversible, but ­Lavigne felt differently. “I know something can be done about anything in this world,” she says. She founded RISE St. James and retired from her job as a special education teacher when it became clear that fighting Formosa would be full-time work.

As RISE saw it, the plants’ noxious emissions would be untenable. The complex would discharge carcinogens like benzene, formaldehyde, and ethylene oxide into the air. In January 2020, Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality approved permits that would allow Formosa to release 800 tons of pollutants annually, along with 13.6 million tons of greenhouse gases. A month later, RISE joined several groups in filing an appeal, claiming the agency had underestimated the facility’s potential output and that it would in fact violate federal and state air quality standards. The groups cited a 2019 ProPublica investigation that suggested Formosa would triple the level of carcinogens in St. James. The report’s analysis indicates that the zone around the complex would have a greater concentration of cancer-causing chemicals than 99.6 percent of industrialized areas of the country.

State and local officials who back the project cite employment in their reasoning, but RISE members doubt they’d see much of this benefit.

Moreover, some industry analysts are skeptical the plants will prosper. As renewable energy becomes more affordable, oil and gas companies face a global decline in extraction profits, and they have increasingly turned to plastic production over the last decade. Those investments are unlikely to pay off, contends Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a sustainability think tank. At a virtual Energy Finance conference panel in July 2020, Sanzillo explained that demand for plastic has dropped thanks to oversupply, improved recycling, and economic downturn. “The industry is in severe distress,” he said.

But RISE’s mission now extends beyond environmental concerns. In December 2019, a public records request by the facility’s opponents revealed that Formosa’s archaeologists had uncovered slave-burial sites at the Buena Vista plantation. Lavigne’s fight transformed into one not just for the future of her home, but also for her community’s past.

Historians note that funerals were a source of anxiety for US plantation owners. Gabriel’s Rebellion, led by an enslaved Virginia blacksmith in 1800, was partly born out of a meeting of mourners. After preacher Nat Turner’s deadly 1831 insurrection, Virginia officials made it illegal for Black spiritual leaders to speak at burials without supervision. Some enslavers outlawed such rites entirely, or desecrated the dead as a form of punishment. Simply burying loved ones could be an act of resistance. Usually the graves were marked not with headstones, but with more ephemeral offerings like wooden sculptures, broken pottery, fieldstone, and plants—items less likely to survive the decades.

­Even the remains of Black people who died after the Civil War were imperiled by legal segregation, a lack of resources, and gentrification. In Houston’s Sugar Land suburb, historians recently fought to protect the graves of prisoners forced to work on 20th-­century plantations in a ­convict-leasing system. In Tampa, Florida, a local reporter documented how the city’s first Black cemetery, established in 1901, had been built over in the 1950s with whites-only housing. Since the Tampa Bay Times published the investigation in June 2019, University of South Florida archaeologists and local researchers have revealed another eight potential sites nearby. “I think if there was a reporter in every city researching where African American burial grounds were, we’d see this time and time again,” says archaeologist Joe Joseph.

Examples stretch beyond the South. In 1991, Black New Yorkers voiced outrage when they learned that hundreds of graves were being excavated from a 17th- and 18th-century African burial ground to make way for a 34-story federal office building in lower Manhattan. Many felt they hadn’t been properly consulted, and the controversy led to a redesign of the project with more Black scholars included. Among those spearheading the research was Michael Blakey, an anthropologist who was then leading a lab at Howard University and is now director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William and Mary. “There were ethical obligations to allow the community its rights to determine whether there would be research or not,” Blakey recalls. The local descendant communities he conferred with felt the remains had an important story to tell, and came up with the questions that would guide the work: Where did the deceased come from? What were their lives like? In the absence of archival records, the anthropologists were able to reconstruct the geographic movements of ­individuals—­learning which were born in New York and which in Africa or the Caribbean, for ­instance—based on signatures of elements like strontium in the bones, then a novel application of isotopic analysis. They also docu­mented that enslaved people in the North suffered just as much physical stress as those held on Southern plantations.

Blakey led the type of collaborative study that regulations governing cultural resource management are supposed to encourage. Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, any construction project on federal lands or that requires federal permits must involve an archaeological assessment. The process is intended to ensure that “the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation” are “preserved as a living part of our community…to give a sense of orientation to the American people.”

The survey Formosa initiated in 2017 concluded that the St. James project wouldn’t put any historically valuable sites at risk. Then an anonymous researcher notified the Louisiana Division of Archaeology about a map from 1878 indicating that below modern fields, there might be hidden cemeteries for the former Buena Vista estate and neighboring Acadia Plantation, which the long parcel also included. Formosa hired archaeologists to examine the property in 2018; they concluded that little remained of those sites and suggested the fence around the Buena Vista plot. But the independent researcher again notified authorities that For­mosa’s search relied on outdated marks of latitude and longitude from old maps, and may have been directed at the wrong locations.

Over 10 days in May 2019, archaeologists from the private firm TerraXplorations reexamined the area on Formosa’s behalf. They scraped away long trenches of soil across two target locations and found at least four burial plots, along with grave shafts. Due to the lack of headstones and historical references to the site, they wrote in their report, it was most likely a slave cemetery. The researchers concluded that whatever ­remained of the neighboring Acadia plantation’s graves must have been destroyed by previous owners.

At that point, Formosa was legally required to share its discovery of human remains only with law enforcement and the Louisiana Division of Archaeology. In January 2020, a month after learning about the excavation results through a public records request, RISE and other advocacy organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade filed a lawsuit against the US Army Corps of Engineers. The activists accused the agency of wrongly granting Formosa its permits, partly on the grounds that the company failed to properly identify possible burials on the complex and inform the community. The Center for Constitutional Rights commissioned an archaeological report from a third firm, Coastal Environments, Inc. That analysis, released in March 2020, found anomalies that could indicate an additional five gravesites. It also revealed that Formosa’s consultants had likely dug in the wrong spot when they examined the former Acadia plantation.

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Many burial plots may lie ­untallied beneath Cancer Alley. Marryam Moma

Janile Parks, director of community and government relations for Formosa’s Louisiana subsidiary, FG LA, says the company has “always taken great care to respect, protect, and not disturb this recently discovered unmarked burial area” on the former Buena Vista plantation. She adds, “FG is, and has been, fully transparent and fully cooperative with the St. James Parish Council and with all state and federal agencies, including those charged with oversight of cultural resources and burial sites.” Parks also says that none of the additional anomalies in the Coastal Environments report have been conclusively proven to be cemeteries. “It is important to note that, despite ­assertions made by outside groups about ancestral ties to the site, no archaeologist has been able to confirm the identity, ethnicity, or race of the remains.”

The uncertainty surrounding the St. James site isn’t unique. Many burial plots may lie ­untallied beneath Cancer Alley. In the last decade, the Shell Oil Company identified more than 1,000 plantation graves as it surveyed land for its Convent refinery west of New Orleans. Some praised Shell for its efforts to document and avoid the sites, but the outcome doesn’t sit right with everyone. Residents whose ancestors lie in Shell’s property now need permission to visit.

Lavigne isn’t interested in seeing a memorial for the Buena Vista gravesite sitting in the shadow of a massive petrochemical complex. For her, the plants pose too much of a threat to the living for such a gesture to hold any meaning. “There won’t be anybody here,” she says. “They’ll come put their facility here and watch us die off.”

Efforts to document and raise awareness about long-neglected Black gravesites have so far sprung up only from local communities. And without a database of such cemeteries, it’s unclear how many unmarked burial grounds exist across the country. But archaeologists, historians, and politicians are starting to advocate for a more coordinated approach.

In February 2019, US representatives Alma Adams of North Carolina and Donald McEachin of Virginia introduced a bill to establish an ­African-­American Burial Grounds Network within the National Parks Service. The measure would provide federal recognition for these locations and help collect information on them, which would be useful for descendant communities and developers alike. It could keep sites like the Buena Vista cemetery from being missed during compulsory digs. It could also help right disparities in how the US preserves its history. There are nearly 100,000 entries on the National Regi­ster of Historic Places, but only 2 percent are devoted to the heritage of Black Americans, according to a 2020 investigation by The New Yorker.

“It ultimately will be a huge undertaking,” says Angela Thorpe, who testified in support of the bill before a House hearing in May 2019. In her position as director of North Carolina’s African American Heritage Commiss­ion­­­, ­Thorpe constantly fields requests for help maintaining abandoned burial grounds. “I think that this work has the opportunity to build and heal communities in ways that I’ve never seen before,” she says. The issue represents a clear way to push against systems of racism and oppression, she adds, and can help preserve cultural traditions. In her state, that includes the coastal Gullah Geechee practice of covering graves with shells, a symbol of the water that brought them to the Southeastern US and the hope that it would bring them back to Africa in death.

“Of course a bill to protect African American cemeteries is a good thing,” William and Mary anthropologist Blakey says, but he thinks more is required. “What we need is the empowerment of descendant communities.” He notes that the legislation isn’t as ambitious as the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which recognized Indigenous tribes’ rights to determine what happens to human remains and sacred objects found in excavations and held in museum collections.

A few weeks after the Juneteenth ceremony, RISE and its partners sought an injunction to block the facility’s construction while court battles over permits continue. Formosa agreed to delay work, at least near the Buena Vista cemetery and other possible graves, until February 2021. Gov. Edwards has said he thinks the company will prevail, but Lavigne considers the pause a small but significant victory. She celebrated another win on November 4, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would suspend and reevaluate its permit for the complex rather than attempt to defend it. A letter to Formosa from the Corps’ New Orleans District Commander said the suspension was “in the public interest.”

“We’re keeping the faith,” Lavigne says. She’s determined to continue her work until the Army Corps permit is revoked. The Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has also joined the cause, arguing in a recent amicus brief that the Corps should withdraw its permit because it “gave at best only cursory consideration to the underlying issue of environmental racism” and disregarded Black history in evaluating the case. “Slave cemeteries, graveyards, and memorials help remedy a profound absence in our collective memory,” the ACLU lawyers wrote, noting that the lack of physical reminders has allowed slavery to become abstract.

Lavigne has felt firsthand the power that comes from filling such a historical void. Though she doesn’t know what the future holds for the cemetery, she recalls how on that hot June day, she felt deep happiness standing at the site—”like the ancestors were rejoicing that we did this, that we found them, that we discovered them.”

This story appears in the Winter 2020, Thrive issue of Popular Science.