RISE St. James Has Full Agenda To Combat Environmental Racism in 2023

Photo Source: “Cancer alley” by GinesAlberto | License

In 2018 Sharon Lavigne was just an every-day special education teacher at St. James High School who was tired of the foul odors in her St. James Parish neighborhood when she decided to make the leap to environmental justice advocate. “When my daughter told me that a $1.2 billion plant might be built two miles from my home, I knew we had to fight,” said Lavigne who founded RISE St. James, a faith-based, grassroots environmental organization, in her dining room and has since become a nationally recognized environmental justice leader winning both the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize and the 2022 Laetare Medal from The University of Notre Dame.

After years of hard work, Lavigne and her allies have been able to slow down Formosa’s permitting process and look forward to an appeals court hearing in the spring of 2023 which could put the brakes on the project even more.   

Governor John Bel Edwards has always been a big promotor of Formosa Plastics Group (FPG) and their efforts to build a massive petrochemical complex on the border of Welcome, Louisiana. He offered FPG a hefty economic incentive package which would help finance a 2,400-acre complex that would manufacture chemicals used to produce plastics that go into making everything from plastic bottles and grocery bags to clothing and artificial turf. Welcome’s population is 99 percent minority. Many residents are descendants of people who were enslaved at plantations in the area including at the Buea Plantation with its unmarked cemetery.  

Edwards was able to facilitate permits for FPG through the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), but Judge Trudy White of the 19th Judicial District in Baton Rouge revoked air permits in September 2022. FPG is appealing.

Rise St. James scored their first success against FPG in 2020 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (U.S.A.C.E.) suspended the Clean Water Act permit that would have allowed the project to be built on wetlands. U.S.A.C.E is in the process of producing an Environmental Impact Statement which could lead to the Clean Water Act permit being reinstated within the next two years.

Residents are calling their campaign against FPG as a fight for their lives. Approximately 150 facilities such as oil refineries, plastic plants and chemicals facilities dot the 85-mile industrial corridor that is known as Cancer Alley and also includes seven of the nation’s ten census tracts with the highest risks of cancer.  

If the appeals court reinstates LDEQ’s decision, FPG would also be authorized to emit 13.6 million tons of greenhouse gases every year, equivalent to 3.5 coal-fired power plants. Yet Lavigne and her group are not willing to back down. In October, 2022, the EPA recommended that the state review the cumulative effect of pollution on people who live near existing and proposed plants in Cancer Alley. “For the sake of environmental and racial justice, we must keep up the pressure to ensure Formosa Plastics is officially defeated and the residents of what’s now called ‘Cancer Alley’ get the cleaner, healthier and safer future we deserve.”  

In addition to the ongoing battle against FPG, RISE St. James will also continue its popular RISE University where the next course is about water. Another initiative is the ongoing Chemical of the Month feature which most recently focused on sulfur-dioxide.

Chase Bank, which has been providing financing for FPG is also a target of RISE St. James will also fund a list of local projects in St. James Parish rather than fund FPG.  

At the local level, RISE St. James will try to convince St. James Parish officials to issue a moratorium against petrochemicals in the parish. “There is so much corruption in the Parish,” said Lavigne. “Our elected officials should want to make St. James a better, safer, healthier place to live.  We will continue to fight to make that happen.”

Lavigne is looking forward to working with new Public Service Commissioner Davante Lewis who was recently elected to replace long-time incumbent Lambert Boissiere. “Davante is going to be good for our area. Utility costs are high. Hopefully Davante can help reduce our utility bills plus work with us on climate change,” Lavigne concluded. 

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