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Anne Rolfes and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade,
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24/10/2009 09:00

Anne RolfesThe Lower Mississippi River Corridor is home to the greatest concentration of petrochemical plants and oil refineries in the US. In this landscape, where children play, learn, eat and sleep metres away from the production of toxic chemicals, a community project is attempting to empower local residents in their battle for clean air, water and soil.

Known by activists as 'cancer alley' - and nationally as the 'chemical corridor' - this stretch of Louisiana has been described as a toxic wasteland, where the presence of global conglomerates has reportedly damaged the health of the environment and the local population.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade was formed by Anne Rolfes in 2000 with the aim of assisting these communities in their campaigns to make industry accountable for its pollution.

Ms Rolfes outlined the nature of her work in the stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans on a tour organised as part of the Religion, Science and Environment Mississippi symposium.

"I work with people to help them document the problems they live with," she said. "They don't have any way to prove that what they experience is actually bad for them."

The environmental health and justice organisation provides residents with pioneering air sampling devices that fence-line neighbourhoods can use to monitor the release of toxic chemicals.

In the past these releases have had disastrous consequences, particularly after hurricanes Katrina and Rita when seven million gallons of oil was released by offshore rigs and coastal refineries.

Murphy Oil Plant, one of many refineries in Louisiana"You go in these neighbourhoods and they are such nice people and they have worked hard all of their lives and yet when they come home from work they cannot sit on their front porch, because it smells terrible," she explained.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the rate of cancer in the region is higher than the national average. A report commissioned by Ms Rolfes' group in 2004 - in collaboration with Dr Peter Orris, a toxicologist at Chicago's Cook County - discovered that the incidences of cancer symptoms were 6.6 per cent higher in Chalmette Vista than in a national control group.

"I went to a funeral last week of somebody who was 40 years old with a disease called scleroderma," she said. "I [had] never heard of it in the neighbourhood where I grew up. But in this neighbourhood there are ten people who have died [because] of it."

Ms Rolfes established the not-for-profit following spells working in the Niger Delta and has since pressured Shell into purchasing polluted properties in Norco, Louisiana so that residents could move to a cleaner environment.

However, the former member of the Peace Corps suggested that the plight of local ecosystems is as deserving of national attention as the local communities' struggles.

She said: "If you consider that people are getting these strange illnesses - what is happening to the birds, what is happening to the fish in the rivers?"

Addressing symposium participants under the gaze of the Murphy Oil refinery in Chalmette, which was submerged under 18 metres of water during Katrina, Ms Rolfes emphasised the important role that religion can play in securing environmental justice.

"It is appropriate to have all of us together to talk about religion and science and to recognise the beautiful faith of a handful of people who stood up to these huge companies," she said.