On the last night of a recent trip to Minneapolis, I walked along the Mississippi River waterfront.
A young man, a worker with the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, asked if I had any questions. We spoke at length about the river and his job, which allowed him to talk about life as a Dakota Santee.
He shared that seeing the river was a daily painful reminder of the destruction of the area’s natural features, including islands and waterfalls, to facilitate commerce. “How do you process that?” I asked.
He shrugged and replied, “We fight Line 3.”
For seven years, Minnesota’s tribal nations, along with community and environmental groups, have fought to stop Canadian oil company Enbridge from building the Line 3 pipeline, which will take tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin.
The pipeline cuts “through our best lakes, wetlands, and wild rice beds, and the heart of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) treaty territory,” according to the coalition Stop Line 3, which includes Indigenous water protectors and environmental activists.
Enbridge is building this new line to replace the 60-year-old current Line 3, which activists say was built with defective steel. It has ruptures, spills, and suffers from severe corrosion. But rather than cleaning up the existing pipeline, in 2014 Enbridge proposed a $3 billion new line.
As designed, the pipeline violates three treaties and crosses 200 bodies of water, including the Mississippi River. Activists have filed legal challenges and used non-violent tactics to resist the pipeline, including protests, blocking roads, and locking themselves to construction equipment. Appeals to the Biden administration to cancel construction have gone unanswered.
Theirs isn’t the only struggle along the Mississippi.
In St. James Parish, Louisiana, nearly 2,000 miles south, Black activists are fighting to stop corporate polluters in the area known as Death Alley. Also known as Cancer Alley, it’s a dense corridor of petrochemical plants where cancer rates among the majority-Black population are shockingly high.
Louisiana activists are led by the African American community-based organization, RISE St. James. RISE recently commissioned Forensic Architecture, a research agency that investigates human rights violations, to create a new investigative film, “If Toxic Air Is a Monument to Slavery, How Do We Take It Down?”
In the film, scholar-activist Imani Jacqueline Brown and her colleagues used primary source materials, archival imagery, video footage, along with meteorological data, cartography, and archaeological reports to show “a 300-year-old continuum of environmental racism.”
Louisiana’s Petrochemical Corridor, they found, is built upon 200 sugarcane plantations that “formed a seamless mosaic straddling both sides of the lower Mississippi River.” By coupling research with advanced modeling techniques, Forensic Architecture has been able “to locate traces of lost and erased cemeteries of enslaved people.”
Federal law requires petrochemical companies to identify historic sites that their development would threaten. Armed with the new data, activists hope that the cemetery law will stop the Taiwanese corporation Formosa Plastics from building a massive new petrochemical complex.
In addition to revealing cemetery locations, the film’s simulations show the thick plumes of toxic chemicals. St. Parish resident Sharon Lavigne, featured in the film, says after decades of exposure, she “feels like we are being wiped out when we breathe.”
Along the Mississippi, corporations, with state and federal government, continue historic patterns of treating Black and Native rights “as unworthy of preservation, or worse, a threat to development,” according to Brown.
Despite these patterns, impacted communities across the country are leading fights against environmental racism and mobilizing to hold President Biden accountable to his environmental justice commitments.