Hurricane Ida left areas of southern Louisiana with crumbling homes and infrastructure, in a region that already suffers from pollution, as well as some of the highest cancer and COVID-19 death rates in the United States.
Sharon Lavigne, founder of the environmental justice nonprofit RISE St. James, says Ida added even more misery to the toxic environment she and her fellow residents endure along the petrochemical corridor in Louisiana known as "Cancer Alley.”
Lavigne is the 2021 North American Goldman Environmental Prize recipient for her work that so far has blocked construction near her home of a major ethane cracking plant proposed by Taiwanese plastics maker Formosa. But a lifetime of exposure to toxic chemicals has already killed some and sickened many others in the region, including Sharon herself.
“In 2016, I was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis, and I found out that it came from industrial pollutants,” Lavigne says. “And then, in 2018, I was diagnosed with aluminum in my body. And this year, I was diagnosed with lead in my body.”
The area known as Cancer Alley is home to some 150 petrochemical plants. Two of these, American Syrinix and Mosaic, a fertilizer plant, are within 2 1/2 miles of Lavigne’s home. “They have sulfur sitting up there and you could smell it when you pass by,” Lavigne says.
As part of the emergency procedures in preparation for a hurricane, industrial plants are permitted to emit unprocessed chemicals and gases through flaring. In addition, Marathon Pipeline acknowledged a release of crude oil the day after Hurricane Ida.
"One lady came from Lake Charles, she came to bring supplies, and she was gonna jump across the ditch to go on top of the levee and she stepped in some oil. They put the oil in a ditch. They don't care."
"One lady came from Lake Charles, she came to bring supplies, and she was gonna jump across the ditch to go on top of the levee and she stepped in some oil,” Lavigne says. “They put the oil in a ditch. They don't care. They put oil in Burton Lane.”
“You have poor Black people, you don’t have no white people in Burton Lane,” she continues. “People are dying. Two people died over there, one guy with respiratory problems because he can walk a few steps and go touch the tank. That's how close one of the tanks are to his house, and he died. And this other lady that was fighting with me, she died, too; she had all kinds of problems, all kinds of illnesses. … And they have this noise all day long. And they have this fuming air all day long. And these people were bombarded with all of that all throughout the day. They call me and complain. And the lady that was helping me, she died.”
Recent studies show that people who are exposed to high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are not. Not surprisingly, residents of Cancer Alley are dying five times more often than the national average. Lavigne has seen this up close.
"We have so many people with cancer, so many people. I would have to take a long tablet to write down all the names of the people that I know that died of cancer and the people who have cancer right now."
“I’ve seen a lot of people that died with COVID,” she says. “I've seen more, in fact, in St. John Parish. I heard about more over there than over here in St. James. St. James have a lot, too, but St. John the Baptist have the most that I know of. And the cancer rates are very high in Cancer Alley, in St. James. We have so many people with cancer, so many people. I would have to take a long tablet to write down all the names of the people that I know that died of cancer and the people who have cancer right now. I have relatives with cancer. I have a sister-in-law that died with cancer. Two neighbors died, one on each side, died with cancer. … And one man was working in a plant, he died with throat cancer. I don't understand it. I really don’t."
“It’s sad, it’s really sad. It’s hurtful, it’s really hurtful, and our children have to grow up in this,” Lavigne says. “And when you move to the next town, it's not much better. From Baton Rouge to New Orleans. That's what they call Cancer Alley. It’s sad, it makes you want to cry. I've cried many days. When I found out about all these industries, I didn't know it was that bad until I started doing this work. When I found out, I said, 'How can the people sit in here and let this happen?' They didn't even try to fight to try to stop it. A lot of them are afraid, a lot of them have people that work in industry. I had two brothers that worked in the industry, I have a daughter that worked in industry, but it doesn't mean you have to pollute us and kill us and poison us.”
"I'm afraid that we’re going to die of all these chemicals and nobody do something about it. And it hurts. It hurts so bad, it really does."
"It hurts me to know that people are afraid to speak up,” she continues. “Some of them speak without the camera. I don't care if I have a camera, I don't care what it is, I’m gonna speak up. And they’re afraid for me. I'm not afraid for me. I'm afraid that we’re going to die of all these chemicals and nobody do something about it. And it hurts. It hurts so bad, it really does. And I’m gonna keep on speaking up, I’m not gonna stop. The industry will tell you they’re stopping, but they lie. And they still pollute you. They do it a different way without you knowing, but you could smell that stuff. And I'm gonna fight.”
Listen to Part I of this story here.