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

Magical misery tours
These depressing "vacation" spots won't be offering a breath of fresh air.