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Two Ogden Honors, LASAL students awarded grant to tell the stories of Louisiana‘s infamous Cancer Alley

Ogden Honors students Claire Sullivan and Ria Salway received a $5,000 grant from the Coypu Foundation to make a documentary about the people fighting to protect fenceline communities in Cancer Alley. Sullivan is double majoring in coastal environmental science and political communication and Salway is majoring in biological sciences. 

Cancer Alley, which stretches for 85 miles along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is dominated by petrochemical plants, which emit toxic chemicals, putting 46 people per 1million at risk of developing cancer, compared to the national average of about 30people per 1million.

"The issues of Cancer Alley have been understated and miscommunicated by politicians and the people benefiting financially from the plants," said Sullivan. “After researching what we could, we both think it’s hard to hear the stories and not feel a sense of urgency around the issue,” followed Salway.

As first-year students, the pair made a documentary about the CMA CGM Group nurdle spill that took place in New Orleans in August 2020. Nurdles are tiny plastic pellets used in a variety of industrial processes and are toxic to the environment, fish, and animals. Salway and Sullivan loved making the film and wanted to continue to use the medium to explore their passion for environmental issues and social justice. Cancer Alley was something they discovered while doing research for their first film and became convinced it needed more attention after reading Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Like Hochschild, they wanted to capture the personal stories of Louisianans who live in Cancer Alley and are affected by environmental pollution.

The grant has allowed the pair to invest in audio and visual equipment and make more trips to Cancer Alley to interview members of the community. “We are still learning about what goes into making an impactful film, and we wanted to elevate this project from our last one. We needed better equipment and more access to the voices we are trying to center in this project,” noted Salway.

So, how are two out-of-state students from distant majors inspired to come together to act on an issue plaguing Louisiana? Through the Louisiana Service and Leadership (LASAL) Scholars Program. The program offers select Ogden Honors College students a way to engage with, and potentially solve, chronic social and environmental challenges facing Louisiana. The LASAL curriculum emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving, research applied to real-world challenges, workplace experience and discovery, and a senior honors thesis focused on researching and solving a specific long-term problem facing the state.

Granger Babcock, co-director of the LASAL Scholars Program, is the PI for the grant and has supported Sullivan and Salway on their journey to fund this project. “It's nice to be in an environment where people are willing and want to support you. A lot of the time you want to do something big, but it feels far away when you’re an undergraduate student, so knowing that people believe in you is empowering,” said Salway.

Babcock, with the help of Linda Hooper-Bùi, a professor in LSU’s College of the Coast & Environment and research mentor for the pair, helped Sullivan and Salway pursue the Coypu Foundation grant for funding.

“Coypu is interested in funding projects that focus on environmental issues that impact people. And even more than that, their mission is to train students to be leaders of the future, so I knew that Ria and Claire would get the funding they needed,” said Hooper-Bùi. “They produced this idea independent of any faculty input, showing true leadership around this issue.”