By Nicole Greenfield for NRDC (St. James Parish, Louisiana) – When Sharon Lavigne first uttered the phrase “Stop Formosa Plastics,” she didn’t know it would become a rallying cry heard around the world. Or that four years after she first spoke out against the construction of a proposed $9.4 billion petrochemical plant two miles from her home in the majority-Black Fifth District of St. James Parish, Louisiana, her demand would actually be met (at least for now). In September, Judge Trudy White of the 19th Judicial District Court canceled the air permits for the Formosa Plastics plant. Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also finally recognized this environmental racism and called on Louisiana regulators to analyze the cumulative impacts of polluting industries on nearby residents.
“I feel like I’m on top of the world,” says Lavigne, who started RISE St. James, a faith-based grassroots environmental justice group, in October 2018. “I feel like we did the impossible.”
Back in 2018, Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics began looking to build a 2,400-acre complex on the western bank of the Mississippi River, the largest of its kind. St. James Parish is already home to a dozen petrochemical plants that are concentrated in the district where Lavigne’s family has lived for generations. So when news came in that yet another company had plans to move in and pollute, despondency set in with many residents.
Lavigne felt differently. “I sat on my porch, and I spoke to God,” she says. “God answered me, and he put this fight in me that no one could take.” From there, the retired special education teacher set her sights not only on stopping Formosa Plastics but the petrochemical industry’s expansion in St. James Parish more broadly. She learned all she could about toxic chemical and greenhouse gas pollution. She attended community meetings. She organized protests. And, eventually, she says, she ditched using notes when speaking in public, preferring instead to just “let God’s words flow through her.”
“I was told when the governor approved this plan, it was a done deal, and there was nothing I could do about it,” Lavinge says about the proposed plant. “Well, look at me now. Look at it now.”
The battle over the Formosa plant, however, is just one in a larger war to transform the region into a place where more sustainable industries and healthier communities can thrive. To that end, companies are eager to build solar farms in the area, but as too often is the case in a place dubbed “Cancer Alley,” change is hard-won.
Cancer Alley: A sacrifice zone
Sharon’s daughter Shamyra grew up surrounded by the chemical plants. White smoke constantly billowed from tall metal towers—”the closest thing to skyscrapers in our community,” Shamyra says. She remembers wondering as a young girl if that might be where Santa Claus made toys. To her, this scene was normal. She never knew anything different. “I didn’t think that it was harmful because it was right there in our faces,” she says.
But soon, Shamyra put the pieces together. First there was the yellow dust, a byproduct of the plants’ chemical releases, that covered their cars and yards. Then there were noxious smells, and the breathing problems and other health issues experienced by family, friends, and neighbors. “If you do not have cancer yourself, you know someone who has cancer,” Shamyra says of fellow St. James Parish residents. After learning in college of her region’s unfortunate nickname, the sheer number of cancer patients she knew finally made sense. “We feel lost. We feel rejected,” she says. “We feel like people have just left us out to die.”
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