Rise St. James Asks President Biden for Meeting This Week in Washington, D.C.

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Rise St. James President Sharon Lavigne, winner of the 2020 Goldman Prize, recently wrote a poignant letter to President Joe Biden requesting an in-person meeting this week. She talked frankly about what a home means, not just in terms of brick and mortar, but of the toil and sacrifice that goes into creating it and the sacred protection and peace of mind a family feels within its four walls. 

For decades the residents of St. James and six other river parishes in the 84-mile Cancer Alley corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge have been suffering from unconscionable health disparities because of unending industrial pollution to their air and water. More than 150 petrochemical plants line the Mississippi River. The federal government has always turned a blind eye to the impacts of the plants until now. With a new 2nd congressional district congressman who is committed to righting historical wrongs and a new environmentally-aware president, impacted citizens are hopeful that their voices might finally be heard.  

Hurricane Ida was just the latest disaster that has damaged citizens’ homes and lives. “The destruction and loss of material things has been great but if the hurricane force winds lasted just one hour more, many of us may not be here to tell the tale,” Lavigne wrote. “The unfortunate loss, volatility, and uncertainty that many are now experiencing has become all too familiar for residents in St. James, Louisiana and throughout the River Parishes. Are you able to imagine how we feel under the present threat of industrial businesses in our backyards?” she asked.

A retired school teacher, Lavigne lives five minutes down the road from a proposed controversial $95 million Formosa Plastics plant, currently on hold after the Army Corps of Engineers suspended an early permit. A Hurricane Ida came ashore, Lavigne explained, disaster capitalism started to rage. “Practices and political agendas that would normally be frowned upon have gone unnoticed. At Rise St. James, we continue to watch, fight, and pray. As a result of Hurricane Ida, the same communities are already burdened by pollution air quality due to power outages; nearly 350 oil spills; gas flares throughout the region; flares blown out allowing for chemical release; dock breached by a vessel, and more.”

Nucor Steel currently operates a monstrous $700 million facility located in St. James Parish. It’s the largest facility of its kind in the world. “Our communities get the spoils of the company’s success,” she said. The facility purifies iron ore of oxide to make metal for end use.  For almost a decade the company has released sulfuric acid mist and hydrogen sulfide among other permit violations without residents being made aware, Lavigne explained. “In several incidents, plant operators and state regulators were also not aware that these harmful releases in high concentrations could lead to severe injury and death.” Until Rise St. James and other applied pressure, the same company was planning an aggressive $100 million expansion. Nucor withdrew its permit application for a major expansion of the pelletizer plant in August, 2021.

“Rise St. James will not give up. When can we expect the support of the local government?” Lavigne asked. Residents, especially in minority districts, feel a great distrust of local government. Business and political leaders in the River Parishes to date have almost always supported industry because of the jobs and taxes they provide. 

As climate change increases, major storms are approaching faster with less time to prepare. According to Lavigne, Governor John Bel Edwards Climate Initiative Task Force recently announced that 66% of Louisiana’s carbon emissions come from industry – a greater percentage than anywhere else in the U.S. “This makes storms and climate change harder to bear.” Her organization echoed an August 15, 2021 statement by Congressman Troy Carter that “the collection of independent reliable data will allow federal, state and local governments to make informed decisions to better the public health of our community as a whole.”

Despite all the devastation and loss, Lavigne and her organization are committed to rebuilding resilient communities and look forward to continued relief. “We imagine an eco-rebuild in St. James and throughout the River Parishes,” she continued. In the letter Lavigne went on to ask Biden for specific assistance in several areas: public health and local government infrastructure; reinforcing the importance of democracy in local government; the design and construction of modern infrastructure resilient to climate change; climate change adaptation and education; funding for transit which will reconnect neighborhoods; funding for solar energy in public and emergency spaces; and protection of cultural and national heritage.

 “We appreciate you standing on the side of descendant communities and supporting environmental justice. It is our prayer that existing industrial businesses can operate cleaner,” Lavigne continued.  President Biden has yet to schedule the meeting requested. “I wish he would,” Lavigne said today from Washington.

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