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Cancer Alley Rises Up
An overburdened community unites against Big Oil’s next big play.
Sharon Lavigne fighting to keep a petrochemical plant out of her Louisiana community.
Sharon Lavigne fighting to keep a petrochemical plant out of her Louisiana community.
Julie Dermansky
Sharon Lavigne, foreground, is fighting to keep a petrochemical plant out of her Louisiana community.
Sharon Lavigne, foreground, is fighting to keep a petrochemical plant out of her Louisiana community. Julie Dermansky

April 8, 2019

When Sharon Lavigne was growing up in St. James Parish, Louisiana, her family lived off the land. There were fig and pecan trees to harvest, vegetables that flourished in the rich, dark soil, and fish that practically jumped out of the Mississippi River flowing just feet away from her home.

Now, all of that is disappearing.

Update Aug. 12, 2019 Earthjustice submitted comments on behalf of RISE St. James to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality on Aug. 12 urging the state to consider the significant health and environmental impacts of pollution from the proposed Formosa petrochemical complex.
Julie Dermansky for Earthjustice

“Now the land and everything that grows on it is poison,” says Lavigne, who lives on her grandparents’ land in the small, close-knit community of Welcome, Louisiana, which is part of St. James Parish’s Fifth District. “We are boxed in from all sides by petrochemicalWhat are petrochemicals? The petrochemical industry makes plastics, paints, solvents, fertilizers, and more from oil and gas. plants, tank farms, and noisy railroad tracks.”

Lavigne and her neighbors are fighting what many believe to be the largest proposed industrial facility yet — one that represents Big Oil’s toxic survival strategy in a future where dirty energy is finally dead.

Beginning in the 1980s, the massive influx of polluting industries ushered in a wave of severe health problems for residents of St. James Parish’s Fifth District, a hamlet of predominantly African-American communities that dot the west bank of the Mississippi River, where sugarcane plantations once stood. The area, still home to some 20,000 people, became known as part of “Cancer Alley” — an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River known for having a high concentration of industrial plants and high rates of cancer for local residents.

Sharon Lavigne of RISE St. James is an Earthjustice client and partner in a case against the “Sunshine Project” -- a plant proposed by the Formosa Petrochemical Corporation.
Alejandro Dávila Fragoso / Earthjustice
Sharon Lavigne of RISE St. James is an Earthjustice client and partner in a case against the “Sunshine Project” — a plant proposed by the Formosa Petrochemical Corporation.
Sharon Lavigne of RISE St. James is an Earthjustice client and partner in a case against the “Sunshine Project” — a plant proposed by the Formosa Petrochemical Corporation. Alejandro Dávila Fragoso / Earthjustice

“We are sick. So many people are dying of cancer, upper respiratory diseases, asthmatic conditions and on and on,” says Lavigne.

“We have huge medical bills. We have to plan our final resting place. They have plans for us to die. Some call where we live ‘Cancer Alley.’ It’s more appropriate to call it ‘death row.’”

Lavigne recently founded RISE St. James, a local community organization, to stop the $9.4 billion petrochemical complex proposed by a Taiwanese company, Formosa Petrochemical Corporation.

Dubbed the “Sunshine Project,” the plant will include 14 facilities that will emit more than 13 million tons of carbon pollution each year, according to Formosa’s air permit application. That’s as much as 2.8 million passenger cars.

The plant will process ethane from fracked gas and turn it into various chemicals used to create everything from throwaway plastics to drainage pipes and antifreeze.

St. James Parish, Louisiana
St. James Parish, Louisiana.

Community members have been in this fight before. For decades, they have fought back as elected officials and industry have tried to push them out — in 2014, local officials went so far as to adopt a new land-use plan that changed the Fifth District from “residential” to “existing residential/future industrial.” Since then, existing industrial plants have expanded and new ones have been built. Right now, in addition to Formosa’s proposed plant, there are two new petrochemical facilities under construction. The community fought one of those plants, and with few resources they won a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order forcing the state agency to fix important problems associated with the facility’s air permit.

Earthjustice fights for as long as it takes to defend the health of local communities and the future of our planet.

Formosa has purchased a 2,400-acre site for the proposed Sunshine Project plant that directly abuts Welcome, and the company is working to secure air and water permits. Despite vehement opposition from local residents, the local parish council recently approved Formosa’s land-use permit, after state and local governments offered an estimated $1.5 billion in subsidies and tax breaks.

“[The project] is heralded by our state officials because it’s a $9 billion project that they claim will bring jobs,” says Anne Rolfes, founding director of the statewide environmental health and justice group, Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “In my opinion, there’s also an unspoken companion plan to wipe out the Fifth District. They are very clearly eliminating the black community. I’ve been working on the river for 20 years and this is the most egregious I’ve ever seen.”

  • A road view from Cancer Alley.
    Alejandro Dávila Fragoso / Earthjustice
    A road view from Cancer Alley — an area filled with oil refineries and petrochemical plants, where people have higher rates of disease.
  • Shell Convent refinery in St. James Parish, Louisiana.
    Alejandro Dávila Fragoso / Earthjustice
    Shell Convent refinery in St. James Parish, Louisiana.
  • In the distance is a part of the National Strategic Oil Reserve -- where oil is stored to be used in petrochemical processing and oil refining.
    Alejandro Dávila Fragoso / Earthjustice
    In the distance is a part of the National Strategic Oil Reserve — where oil is stored to be used in petrochemical processing and oil refining.
  • Sharon Lavigne leads a tour of St. James Parish, Louisiana.
    Alejandro Dávila Fragoso / Earthjustice
    Sharon Lavigne leads a tour of St. James Parish, Louisiana.
  • Sharon Lavigne, left, at a RISE St. James meeting.
    Alejandro Dávila Fragoso / Earthjustice
    Sharon Lavigne, left, at a RISE St. James meeting.
  • Earthjustice attorney Adrienne Bloch at a RISE St. James meeting.
    Alejandro Dávila Fragoso / Earthjustice
    Earthjustice attorney Adrienne Bloch at a RISE St. James meeting.

Formosa’s proposed goliath is a harbinger of what’s to come from an oil and gas industry that is pivoting away from energy production and toward a renaissance of plastics and toxic chemicals. Right now, industry is touting the construction of more than 300 new or expanded petrochemical facilities in the U.S. over the next seven years — mostly in low-income communities on the Gulf Coast and in Appalachia.

The implications for climate change are staggering. In 2015, 44 new, expanded, or proposed petrochemical projects in the U.S. were expected to emit 86 million tons of greenhouse gases into the air each year, according to the Environmental Integrity Project. That’s nearly equal to the 2016 greenhouse gas emissions for the entire state of Arizona.

Earthjustice attorney Adrienne Bloch speaks with a community member at a RISE St. James meeting.
Alejandro Dávila Fragoso / Earthjustice
Earthjustice attorney Adrienne Bloch speaks with a community member at a RISE St. James meeting.
Earthjustice attorney Adrienne Bloch speaks with a community member at a RISE St. James meeting. Alejandro Dávila Fragoso / Earthjustice

“Formosa’s so-called Sunshine Project would not only sicken the surrounding community with its dangerous pollutants, but it would also make St. James Parish and the Gulf Coast that much more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” says Earthjustice attorney Adrienne Bloch. “Petrochemical plants are the next frontier in our climate fight. We don’t need more plastics, and we certainly don’t need more pollution. The oil and gas industry must not be allowed to sacrifice our future for yet another dirty industry.”

“We’re not going to dwell on what we can’t do — we’re going to dwell on what we can do.”
Sharon Lavigne Director / Founder of RISE St. James

Earthjustice is representing RISE St. James and Louisiana Bucket Brigade in their continued fight against the Formosa plant. This is just the beginning of a growing effort to stop industry’s newest pernicious threat to the health of local communities and the future of our planet.

“We plan to continue doing marches and writing letters. We plan to go to the governor’s mansion,” Lavigne says. “We’re not going to dwell on what we can’t do — we’re going to dwell on what we can do.”