Mississippi diary: Dead zone

By Nick Clark
November 2nd, 2009, AMERICAS BLOG

Photo by Getty Images

Less than 70 km from the Gulf of Mexico, huge industrial plants flank the banks of the Mississippi, making use of its water. Combine this with the run-off from farmers’ fields and you get perilous cocktail.

The Mississippi River helped build the United States, it made possible the giant agricultural expansion of the 19th century. It is still a crucial artery of industry.

Only from above do you get an impression of the scale of man’s impact. Less than 70 kilometres from the Gulf of Mexico, huge plants flank the banks – there are vast chemical, gas and steel works, all making use of Mississippi water.

The river also drains 40% of the USA and the run-off from farmers’ fields has taken it toll. Pesticides, herbicides and general agricultural run-off flows in to the Mississippi.

This perilous cocktail ends up in the Gulf of Mexico and has created a Dead Zone, nearly 10,000 square kilometres of water, where NOTHING lives.

“This is a huge tract of sea which has been totally de-oxygenated, absolutely nothing can survive,” said Marine Biologist Professor Ivor Van Heerden.

While many farmers are reluctant to change their methods, there are those who want to be part of the solution, not the problem.

These days Robbie Howard doesn’t plough his land, he grows crops continuously and that, he says, prevents sediments running off into the river.

“No sediments means no chemicals,” he said. “Agriculture must take its share of the blame but I believe the fix is in process.”

Many would disagree.


Downstream another problem.

Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans lies a stretch of river some call Cancer Ally.

More than one hundred industrial plants flank mainly poor or minority neighbourhoods. Residents say cancer rates in the area are above average.

A residents’ meeting is taking place in the shadow of an oil refinery, in a poor community virtually underneath the highway overpass.

“Many people have died of cancer in this neighbourhood,” Sonyja Thomas tells us. “Way more than normal.

“Sometimes the emissions from plants are overwhelming. One day I opened the door and it nearly knocked me backwards. The chlorine in the air just stung my eyes.”

Companies say their operations ARE clean and safe. They say cancer rates are no higher than the national average when you take into account the way people lead their lives and factor in habits like smoking.

Loud-speakers have also been installed in the street to warn residents of dangerous emissions. Every now and then locals are warned to stay indoors and turn off their air conditioners to avoid noxious fumes.

Sonyia says the one outside her house hasn’t worked for months.