By Sunita Sohrabji

‘The Formosa factory will never come here. We won’t let it.”

Environmental activist Sharon Lavigne, founder of Rise St. James.
(photo courtesy of Rise St. James)

St. James Parish, Louisiana is one of a handful of ‘free towns,’ communities built in the late 1800s by former slaves.

“My ancestors are buried here,” environmental justice activist Sharon Lavigne told Ethnic Media Services. “I have the names of my families who were laid to rest here,” she said, noting the rich historical legacy of her home town.  

Lavigne is the founder of Rise St. James, and a 2021 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. On April 17, Lavigne was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

Cancer Alley

Nestled alongside the Mississippi River, St. James Parish, a small town of 20,000 residents, is one of several historically black neighborhoods in the 85-mile stretch known as “Cancer Alley,” among the most polluted regions in the world. Yellow smoke billows up from the 200 fossil fuel and petrochemical factories allowed to be built there, with little regard for air quality. More than 80% of the factories in Cancer Alley are currently non-compliant with national Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Residents are exposed to 800 times higher levels of air pollution, resulting in lower birth rates, and higher levels of cancer and respiratory illnesses.

 In its 2024 report “We’re Dying Here: The Fight for Life in a Louisiana Fossil Fuel Sacrifice Zone,” Human Rights Watch documented the harmful health impacts faced by residents living in Cancer Alley towns.

Harmful Pollutants

“For decades, the state of Louisiana, and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality in particular, has repeatedly failed to address the harms of fossil fuel and petrochemical operations, to enforce the minimum standards set by the federal government, and to protect the environment and human health,” noted Human Rights Watch.

“The US Environmental Protection Agency has not adequately ensured that federal laws and mandates are enforced in Louisiana, and as such, is failing to protect the air, land, water, and health of Louisiana residents from harms caused by the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry,” said the organization in its report.

Ignored By Politicians

Environmental justice activist Sharon Lavigne. (Wikimedia Commons license)

“There are so many harmful pollutants we are exposed to every day. Benzyne, formaldehyde, you name it, it’s here. We are dying, and our politicians are just waving us off like we don’t matter,” said Lavigne. “They are supposed to be protecting the residents, but they’re on the side of these big polluters.”

Residents of Cancer Alley are largely unaware of the environmental hazards they live with, said Lavigne, 74, a former special education teacher, who — after retiring — began her battle against petrochemical complexes being built in the region, and to educate her neighbors about the pollutants that are killing them.

Formosa Plastics

Since 2018, Lavigne and St. James Parish have engaged in a new battle: to keep the Formosa Plastics Factory from being built in their town. The factory would triple toxic emissions in the area, including known carcinogens such as ethylene oxide.

“That plant is never going to come here to kill me off,” declared Lavigne, noting that the factory would be built about two and a half miles from her home, and on land where her ancestors are buried.

In 2018, Rise St. James began its fight to ban Formosa Plastics from encroaching on their town. They were largely ignored by local politicians, said Lavigne. The organization, along with the local Sierra Club and other plaintiffs, sued the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, seeking a denial of the permit LDEQ issued to Formosa. Rise St. James won their suit in 2022. However, the decision was reversed on appeals: this January, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana ruled that LDEQ could issue a permit to Formosa.

Dead Fish

Lavigne said the case will now be appealed at the state Supreme Court; a hearing date has not yet been set.

Formosa Plastics, headquartered in Taiwan, has a tarnished reputation for environmental concerns. In Vietnam, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a steel plant built by Formosa Plastics, was accused of discharging toxic industrial waste illegally into the ocean through drainage pipes. Formosa denied the allegations for months, but finally accepted responsibility for millions of fish deaths in 2016.

Earlier this month, the EPA announced new regulations to cut enough cancer-causing emissions to reduce cancer risk by 96% for people living near chemical plants. “This is a game changer any way you look at it,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan at a press briefing. “This is a game changer for health. It’s a game changer for prosperity. It’s a game changer for children in these communities nationwide.”

Related: Join the Poor People’s Campaign

Ethylene oxide and chloroprene are the two main pollutants targeted by the rule. Acute exposures to ethylene oxide gas may result in respiratory irritation and lung injury, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and cyanosis. Chronic exposure has been associated with the occurrence of cancer, reproductive effects, mutagenic changes, neurotoxicity, and sensitization, notes the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

New EPA Regulations Opposed

Repeated exposure to chloropene can result in liver, kidney, and lung damage.

But Jason Hutt, an attorney who represents Denka Chemicals, told NPR that the company plans to challenge the new EPA regulations. “It would be really nice if we could get back to the science and not the politics of the situation because there’s a lot of people’s livelihoods and jobs that are at stake in this outcome,” he said, pointing out the tax revenues that would be lost.

Lavigne has vowed to keep her fight going. “We didn’t know what was harming us, what was killing our babies and our people. But we know now. And we’re not going to allow any more chemical factories to be built here,” she said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.