A quarter of all petrochemicals produced in the United States are manufactured in one hundred fifty chemical plants and refineries that line an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as Cancer Alley (fig. 2 and ref. 1). The oil industry alone generates $65 billion annually in the petrochemical corridor, but few benefits transfer to the fence-line communities living immediately adjacent to these highly polluting facilities (ref. 2). Instead, these predominantly majority Black communities include seven of the ten United States census tracts with the highest cancer risks in the nation.
After Emancipation in 1863 many formerly enslaved Americans remained in the South, making homes on fertile plots of land in the vicinity of the plantations where they had been forced to labor (fig. 3 and ref. 3). Their descendants now find themselves surrounded by sprawling petrochemical refineries and waste dumps in one of the most heavily polluted areas in the United States (figs. 4, 5).
‘Cities like Morrisonville, Diamond, Mossville, Sunrise, and Revilletown, all founded by formerly enslaved Americans, have all been erased by environmental racism. Each town was devastated by the toxins emitted into the air, water, and soil surrounding their communities by multinational petrochemical companies like Shell and Georgia Gulf Corp. that inevitably seeped onto their land, into their homes, and poisoned their bodies. Those who didn’t fall ill and die were eventually bought out or moved.’
Talk Poverty. Luna Reyna, ‘Environmental Racism is Killing Black Communities in Louisiana’
The state of Louisiana has a long history of providing sizable tax exemptions and regulatory relief to the oil and gas, and petrochemical industries (fig. 8). Three notable subsidies are property tax exemptions, energy price subsidies and the cost of cleanup being substantially paid for by state and federal taxpayers. Louisiana is also a national leader in corporate welfare (fig. 9), handing out more in corporate development subsidies per capita than any other state: Ten times the national average, eighteen times the southern average and thirty-two times the amount of Texas (source: Together Baton Rouge).
In 1998 photographer Richard Misrach was commissioned by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta to produce a body of work for the museum’s ‘Picturing the South’ series. Misrach focused on Cancer Alley, documenting the environmental devastation caused by the petrochemical industry (figs. 10, 11, 12, 13, 14). In 2000 he invited Lindy Roy to collaborate in an attempt to further understand the factors underlying the ongoing human and ecological disaster.
The data and diagrams on this page are representative of research conducted in the early 2000s that included conversations with residents and activists during visits to fence-line communities. While the scope of collaboration with Richard Misrach anticipated design speculation about abandoned toxic industrial sites after extractive resources are ultimately depleted, the urgency of the status quo in parish school districts prompted a more immediate proposition.
‘This basketball court is surrounded by an African-American community on one side and the sprawling Shell refinery on the other. Noise and gasoline stench permeate the area. According to a 1993 study, two hundred thousand pounds of carcinogens were emitted into the air that year. The basketball court is all that remains of an all-black elementary school. In 1968, on the eve of the school’s integration through federally court-ordered bussing of the area’s white children, it was burned to the ground and never rebuilt. In 2002, Shell, prompted by decades of complaints and lawsuits, was forced to relocate most of the residents.’
Richard Misrach, in reference to ‘Playground and Shell Refinery, Norco. Louisiana, 1998’ (fig. 14).
About nine miles upriver from Norco another community fights for justice. In LaPlace, Louisiana, the Japanese-owned Denka Performance Elastomer Plant produces neoprene, a form of synthetic rubber used in manufacturing wetsuits. The Denka facility is the only industrial site in the United States that emits chloroprene, a toxic byproduct of neoprene manufacturing. About 1,500 feet from the Denka plant is Fifth Ward Elementary School where 75% of the four-hundred students are Black. In a 2022 story ‘EPA finally calls out environmental racism in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley’, Grist in collaboration with ProPublica reported:
‘In 2010, the EPA released a report classifying chloroprene as a “likely human carcinogen.” Chloroprene is a mutagen, meaning it causes cancer by attacking and mutating DNA. Mutagens are particularly dangerous for children and infants, whose cells divide more rapidly than those of adults. Recent air monitoring data from Denka, collected about 1,000 feet from the school, showed average concentrations 11 times what EPA considers acceptable. …At times over the past few years, air samples collected by the EPA on school grounds showed concentrations as high as 83 times the acceptable guideline.’
The EPA’s 2016 National Air Toxics Assessment exposed that residents living near the Denka Performance Elastomer plant were eight-hundred times more likely to get cancer. An area once nicknamed Cancer Alley by residents and the media for its high incidence of cancer, is now called Death Alley. There is not one family living in the River Parishes that has not lost loved ones to cancer and other pollution-related illness (source: Talk Poverty. Luna Reyna, ‘Environmental Racism is Killing Black Communities in Louisiana’).
Recognizing that the deep historic, economic, ecological, and political entanglements converging on fence-line communities far exceed the scope of an architectural problem, we asked: Could an industrial barge – ubiquitous unit of the petrochemical economy – be appropriated for new service?
Industrial hull-type barges (ref. 4) are programed with resources for underserved school districts including sports fields, swimming pool, landscapes for play and relaxation, community vegetable gardens, basketball courts, a library, and power generating solar arrays. Repurposed barges are tethered together and maneuvered by tugboats away from airborne toxic petrochemical plumes (fig. 18). They form recombinant landscapes mixed in with barges repurposed as jazz venue, motel, and drive-in movie theater transporting tourists from New Orleans to Baton Rouge (figs 1, 20 and 21).
85-mile Petrochemical Corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge
Educational, recreational and horticulture resources for fenceline communities
systems and materials:
Repurposed industrial barges
Lindy Roy with Albert Angel, Pomdet Chandamanich, Yolanda de Campo, Barbara Ludescher, and J. Christopher Whitelaw
related projects :
Okavango Delta Spa, Hotel QT, Alaska Rendezvous Lodge, VHouse
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, ‘New Hotels for Global Nomads’
SFMOMA, ‘ROY Design Series 1’
Henry Urbach Architecture, ‘X-Roy Projects’
selected press and publications:
The New York Times (November 1, 2002)
I.D. Magazine (May 2002)
ROY Design Series 1 (2003)
Modern Painters (Winter 2003)
ROY Architecture of Risk (2003)