Eco-tourism typically conjures up images of pristine forests and beaches. Now, some environmental groups are offering another type of trip—tours of places ravaged by pollution. Whether you’re after a glimpse of Texas’ Refinery Row or a journey through Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, there are sites to shock even the most intrepid traveler. We’ve collected “brochures” from a few toxic tourism destinations.

Mountaintop Removal Tour

Hazard, Kentucky

Run by: Catholic Committee of Appalachia

Sights to see: Father John Rausch leads a tour of vast coal mines created by blasting the tops off mountains.

Typical crowd: Religious eco-warriors

Kodak moment: Sing hymns just 200 feet from an exploding mountain. “It’s like an earthquake,” says Rausch. “It’s visceral!”

Take-home message: Some mines are the size of Manhattan, and their waste has clogged 1,200 miles of mountain streams.

Wilmington Toxic Tour

Los Angeles, California

Run by: Communities for a Better Environment

Sights to see: Visit neighborhoods overshadowed by massive port terminals and refineries.

Typical Crowd: College students and high school kids

Kodak moment: Watch flares rise from the refineries. “It’s kind of like candlelight,” says program director Yuki Kidokoro—although, the rotten-egg stench can spoil the effect.

Take-home message: Overdevelopment stinks, especially if you live next door.


Run by: Digital artist Brooke Singer

Sights to see: Log on for virtual tours of the country’s most contaminated spots—one for each day of the year. Or, take a self-guided tour to a local landmark identified on the site and post your own material.

Typical crowd: Green geeks

Kodak moment: View interactive flower charts of each site’s pollutants—one petal per contaminant.

Take-home message: Some sites are so filthy that you’ll be glad you stayed home.

Suncor Energy Plant

Fort McMurray, Alberta

Run by: Fort McMurray Tourism and Suncor Energy

Sights to see: Behold the massive machinery used to extract oil from oil sands—but don’t expect to hear much about the industry’s environmental toll.

Typical crowd: Plant workers’ parents

Kodak moment: Pose for photos in a bucket the size of a two-car garage. “We’ve put whole bus tours in there,” says tourism director Helen Daymond.

Take home message: Oil extraction can be fun! And our tractors are bigger than yours.

Matamoros Toxic Tour

Matamoros, Mexico; Brownsville, Texas

Run by: Local activist Domingo Gonzalez

Sights to see: Cross the Rio Grande to see poorly regulated Mexican factories making goods for US consumers.

Typical crowd: Hardcore environmentalists

Kodak moment: Watch children scavenge in burning garbage dumps just yards from the US border.

Take-home message: NAFTA isn’t good news for everyone.

Story by Ben Whitford. Illustration by Josh Cochran. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in August 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008