By: Anabelle Farnham, Communications Intern

When Darryl Malek-Wiley moved to New Orleans in 1983, the environmental justice movement was just beginning in the U.S. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts had been passed in 1972, and pollution was not yet at the forefront of the mainstream environmental movement. Wiley had joined the Sierra Club in 1972, which at the time was a mainly grassroots operation focused on the protection of wildlands and the conservation of America’s beauty. From this, he was familiar with environmental work. By the time Wiley had moved to Louisiana, however, he wasn’t focused on conservation and the maintenance of coastal wetlands; instead, he wanted to know what was happening on the Mississippi River.

Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Wiley first investigated what was along the river, expecting to find it bordered by plantations. Instead, he was surprised to discover petrochemical plants strung along in what seemed to be a never-ending line, creating an environmental and health crisis in their trail. Wiley, along with other activists in his area, would soon coin this stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where he was located “Cancer Alley,” and later on “Death Alley.”

“We can’t put no trespassing signs on our lungs. We can’t put no trespassing signs when we drink water. These companies are trespassing on our bodies and that’s not right and we need to stop it.”

His first project with these petrochemical plants came when Wiley discovered that one of them, Freeport McMoran, was planning to dump millions of gallons of radioactive waste into the Mississippi River every year. Wiley recognized quickly that this was an alarming and unsafe action for all of those affected by the water supply and surrounding environment. When he began to do more research into it, he found that just a 10% concentration of the pollution they were planning to dump would result in a 100% mortality rate of the fish in the river. 

The fight to hold Freeport McMoran responsible for this method of waste management lasted for two years. During this campaign, Wiley was appointed to the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel. When began working with the other appointees, he noticed that he was one of many older white men, an identity that did not reflect those diverse individuals of the communities for which they were advocating. Wiley made it a point to quickly find an African American community leader who could serve as a representative alongside him. This was only the beginning of his parallel fight to that of environmental justice: giving voice to those in the communities truly affected by these issues.

Wiley had always been a part of change in his community, so this initial fight was not too unfamiliar to him. Before arriving in New Orleans, he had helped to organize workers demanding fair wages at his jobs in North Carolina, co-created an anti-nuclear group named the Catfish Alliance, and been a part of the KKK Ally Response in Alabama. This prepared him by the time he made it to New Orleans to work with diverse people and connect within and across communities desiring change.

“Once you put yourself out, people call you” 

After they had succeeded in the fight against Freeport McMoran, the work Wiley was doing in the community continued to grow. Soon after, he received a call from Richard Leonard, who was an organizer with the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union. A BASF chemical plant along the Mississippi River was in the middle of a lockout, which functions like a reverse strike: the company was actively denying hours to the workers. Workers at the plant were looking for ways to put pressure on BASF to get their jobs and fair wages back, and they wanted Wiley’s help in this fight. 

In order to strike back, the workers found that their leverage was in their knowledge of pollution. Given a map of the chemical plant, they could point to places on the property where they had been instructed by their managers to bury waste rather than dispose of it properly. The union had one of the workers print out the evidence—for BASF, and 16 other chemical plants in the surrounding area—and together they did some addition. These 17 chemical plants, out of the 140 that lined the Mississippi River, were emitting an astonishing total of 19,347,000 lb. of pollution every year. Using this information, the group of workers and organizers was able to expose and pressure BASF to do what was right. To spread the word even more, they collectively bought a billboard and put on it “Welcome to Cancer Alley: Brought to you by BASF.” If you want to learn more about the BASF fight, Wiley recommends reading the book Forcing a Common Bond.

“I’ve always been driven by, you know, what is right? What is right for people? How do we make sure everybody gets to breath clean air and water and land? And that’s sort of what has driven my activism”

Wiley has been in many environmental battles since these initial ones in the 80s and continues to work with the communities in Death Alley today. This past year, many people have been hit harder from Covid-19, as the history of air pollution in the region has made residents more susceptible to death when they contract the virus, either directly or by causing pre-existing conditions. Besides this national crisis, Wiley is also working on multiple campaigns today still against the petrochemical plants that line the Mississippi River. Most notably, he is campaigning to stop a new Formosa Plastics plant from being built along the river, which is the largest single-use plastic manufacturing company in the world. The plant itself would emit more greenhouse gases than 3 coal-fired plants combined. To read more about these urgent campaigns and find out how you can help, check out the links below:

To learn more about what residents in Cancer Alley are fighting against, click here.

To read more about the campaign against Formosa Plastics Plant, click here. You can also click here and here.

To read about the City of New Orleans opposing Formosa Plastics Unanimously, click here