In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, the communities of the Louisiana region known as “Cancer Alley” were left to deal with destroyed homes, no electricity and polluted water — on top of the toxic air they breathe every day because of industrial pollution.
Sharon Lavigne, whose home was demolished by Ida, is the founder of RISE St. James and a 2021 Goldman Prize recipient for her work in organizing against a massive Formosa plastics plant. Lavigne lives along an 80-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as Cancer Alley, which is the site of some of 150 petrochemical plants — a notorious source of toxic chemicals for locals on a normal day.
After Hurricane Ida struck, communities in the region struggled with even more polluted air and water than usual. When a hurricane is about to hit the area, petrochemical facilities have the right, as part of emergency procedures, to emit unprocessed chemicals and gases through flaring, which is basically burning them in the air.
“The chemical plants are really having a ball with this hurricane. ... They think no one is watching them right now, so they're polluting us even more on top of the hurricane."
“The chemical plants are really having a ball with this hurricane,” Lavigne says. “They are out there polluting us even more. Before Ida, the flares were in the air, and it might have stopped; [they] might have vented it, like, on a morning or an evening. Now it's constant, all day long, and the reason why I know [is] I live 2 1/2 miles from it. And I pass there and other people pass there and they tell me. I did livestream for two or three days about this industry that’s with the flares.
I went out there for two days to take videos and to do livestreams to let the people know what's going on in St. James because the industry doesn't care. … They think no one is watching them right now, so they're polluting us even more on top of the hurricane. They are taking advantage of that and they are polluting us even more.”
Many residents of the Cancer Alley area are low income descendants of Black slaves who once toiled on the vast sugar plantations of the lower Mississippi. Their efforts to come up from slavery included the purchase of land passed down through the generations. Lavigne lives on old sugar cane plantation land bought by her grandfather in St. James Parish, on the west bank of the Mississippi River, north of New Orleans.
“Industry have bought a lot of the sugarcane land because they want that land for industry,” Lavigne says. “And a lot of people sold their land to industry because it's more money. It's more money than selling it to a resident.”
She retired as a special education teacher to devote herself full time to environmental advocacy, in an effort to stop even more toxic industrial development in Cancer Alley. Her organization and others sued Formosa, a Taiwanese company that planned to build an ethane cracking plant nearby. The suit prompted the Army Corps of Engineers and the courts to require an updated environmental impact statement of the facility.
The Formosa plant would have produced hundreds of tons of methylene dipehnyl diisocyanate (MDI) — a chemical that affects the respiratory system in humans and produces tumors in rats — along with other toxic, cancer-related pollutants such as benzene and formaldehyde. The plant would release these chemicals into adjacent residential neighborhoods.
We have people with asthma; we have people with all all types of respiratory illnesses; we have people with cancer all up and down this river. And they wanted to pollute us even more because I guess they figure that we're the area where they dump their garbage.”
“They are gonna pollute the air even more, even though we have twelve refineries and industries in the Fifth District where I live,” Lavigne says. “They don't care. They want to add some more to us. So, once they add this industry to us, we're not going to be able to live. It's going to be too much in the air for us to breathe and live. We are having trouble breathing now. We have people with asthma; we have people with all all types of respiratory illnesses; we have people with cancer all up and down this river. And they wanted to pollute us even more because I guess they figure that we're the area where they dump their garbage.”
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and even local parish officials approved the project.
“That's the part that hurt me, because they live here with us. But they think because it's in the Fifth District on the West Bank, they think it's not going to go to the other districts,” Lavigne says. “But it will go to the other districts, it will not get to them as fast as it is getting to us, but eventually, just like we would die off from this industry, they would die off, too.”
“It's a hurtful thing to think how people just want to throw something on us because we are Black and we are poor."
“It's a hurtful thing to think how people just want to throw something on us because we are Black and we are poor,” Lavigne continues. “And no one would speak up, no one would speak up against industry because industry have more money than we have. So, in some cases, money talks. But I don't care if I don't have any money. I'm going to fight for my community. And this is where I've been all my life. And this is where I want to stay. And I have people in this community that's backing me up.”
The new plant would be just two miles from Lavigne’s home and one mile from a church and a public school, Lavigne notes. When she discovered this she said, “No more.”
She attended a community meeting and asked some of her fellow residents why they weren’t fighting to stop the plant. The governor approved it, they told her, and the parish council is going approve it, too, and once that happens it's a done deal.
“I told them, ‘We need to do something about it because we have too many. [polluting industries].’ And they said, ‘Oh, Sharon, you are wasting your time. You can't fight industry.’ So that's when I prayed. I went to God,” Lavigne says. “I left them fools alone and I went to God and I prayed and I asked God what I should do. And he told me to fight. So that's when I started to fight. I didn't know what to do to fight. I didn't know how to do this type of thing because I was never involved in environmental issues, I was never involved in anything in the parish.”
Lavigne and others formed RISE St. James in October of 2018. Then they began meeting with other organizations in the region and formed the Coalition against Death Alley.
In 2019, the group marched for five days from Reserve to Baton Rouge to protest the plant. In October, they marched again, this time for 10 days.
“It was tiresome, but we went, we did it,” Lavigne says. “We lit candles for the loved ones who died of cancer. I still have those candles in my garage. Then we went to the Capitol to see the governor. He wouldn't even come out. And he knew we were there. … He never came out. I was told he went out the back door.”
On Nov. 1, 2019, the governor came to St. James Parish for a campaign event. Environmental advocates packed the building and Lavigne and two others wore their RISE Saint James shirts. “The other members said they weren't going to wear this shirt,” Lavigne says. “They want to go dress up for a governor. And I said, ‘I don't want to dress up for a governor. I want the governor to see me, to let him know who we are, and we don't like the idea that he wants to put this industry in our community.’”
When someone approached her and asked if she would speak to the governor, Lavigne agreed.
“I said, ‘Governor, I’m asking you, would you stop Formosa? Don't let it come into our neighborhood.’ And this is what he answered me: ‘I'm going to do a health study.' I was so hurt."
“I said, ‘Governor, I’m asking you, would you stop Formosa? Don't let it come into our neighborhood.’ And this is what he answered me: ‘I'm going to do a health study,’” Lavigne says. “I was so hurt. I was so let down because he just threw it off like it was nothing — I guess to let the people that called him know that he did speak to me. Then after that he walked away.”
Eventually, a coalition of organizations filed lawsuits against the Formosa plant. A district judge found that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality had used obsolete data to evaluate the project’s economic impact and ordered a new review using more recent data, including an evaluation of the industries already in the area.
The lawsuit did not stop the project completely, but it was a welcome victory for environmental justice in the region. And, despite the odds, Lavigne vows to keep fighting.
Listen to Part II of this story here.