Battling racist polluters in Cancer Alley

Black women lead Louisiana fight against Formosa Chemical complex

A group of people with signs march on the side of a paved road. The central sign reads
Sharon Lavigne, founder of Rise St. James, (center right, holding banner) leads the March Against Death Alley and Formosa Plastics in October 2019. PHOTO: Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Center for Biological Diversity
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The 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans was once plantation country. Many people who live there are fifth-generation descendants of slaves who after emancipation managed to buy land and founded Black-run towns such as Freetown and Welcome.

But since the 1990s, international petrochemical corporations enabled by the state of Louisiana have turned this once verdant area into what is known as Cancer Alley. Koch Industries, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp. and others have built over 200 petrochemical factories and refineries here.

Plentiful water, cheap land, access to natural gas, huge tax breaks and lax regulation attract these international conglomerates with the prospect of immense profits. Seven huge complexes have been permitted since 2015 and five more are in process.

Black women in the affected communities are leading a fight to stop the plants and fossil fuel pipelines from multiplying and poisoning everything in their path. The current battle against a proposed Formosa Chemical installation is ground zero in the struggle. It is a microcosm of the worldwide fight against environmental racism that poor, Black and Indigenous people are waging.

Deadly tax breaks. Formosa Plastics Corporation announced in 2018 a project to build a 14-plant complex in St. James Parish, about 50 miles northwest of New Orleans. These factories will spew carcinogens including benzene, formaldehyde, and ethylene oxide into the air. They will produce the same throwaway plastic bottles and bags that are already generating a global garbage crisis.

If the Formosa complex begins operation, it will be allowed to pump 800 tons of toxic chemicals, 6,500 tons of air pollutants that cause respiratory ailments, and 13.6 million tons of greenhouse gases into the air every year. In addition, any wastewater or spills dumped into the Mississippi will further endanger sea life in the Gulf of Mexico.

Claiming the need for the 1,200 promised jobs to boost Louisiana’s economy, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and other state officials have given Formosa a ten-year tax break totaling $1.5 billion. This is a whopping $1.25 million per job.

A better idea would be to ban new plants and tax existing corporate owners to pay reparations to Cancer Alley families and clean up the air and water!

The proposed site is on 2,400 acres one mile from an elementary school in St. James. The parish is 91% Black and has an average income of $17,000 per year. Jobs are needed, but 85% of employment in the existing plants has gone to white workers.

St. James already has the second highest cancer risk in the country from air pollution — more than 50 times the national average. In another Cancer Alley parish, one in three pregnancies end in miscarriage, yet officials claim this is due to lifestyle — ­smoking and obesity — not ­pollution. Almost every family in St. James Parish has a member with cancer and has lost others to lung disease.

During his over five years in office, Gov. Edwards has permitted more installations and sacrificed the hardest hit people of his state.

In his ten years in the House, former congressman Cedric Richmond ignored the people dying in his Cancer Alley district. He was building his career by heading the Congressional Black Caucus. He co-chaired the Biden campaign and is now a senior advisor to the president.

Residents refuse to be forced from their homes and heritage. Some factories have even blocked access to ancestral burial grounds.

Wins against huge odds. Even if community members wanted to move away, they can’t afford to — no individuals would buy here. Some companies bought out white farmers in the area.

Black women and community groups like Rise St. James are continuing a decades-long struggle which has had significant victories. A planned Formosa Rayon factory was blocked as early as 1993, a Shintech plant in 1998, and a Wauhua chemical installation in 2019.

Many area groups like Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Healthy Gulf, and Coalition Against Death Alley have teamed up for protests, marches and rallies at the state capitol. They organized with catfish and shrimp fishers and got New Orleans restaurants (including the owners of the famous Brennan’s) to pressure the city council to pass a resolution against the new Formosa complex on April 8.

Sharon Lavigne, a founder of Rise St. James, spoke powerfully to a United Nations panel on environmental racism. She and other Rise St. James and Coalition Against Death Alley activists also travelled to Washington, D.C., for the 2021 Earth Day demonstrations. They carried banners declaring “Climate Justice = Economic Justice.”

These indomitable Black and poor women and their families are fighting for their air, water, land, and lives against massive corporate leverage over state government. They are trapped by pollution in a racist “sacrifice zone,” just as their ancestors were on the plantations.

But they are determined to keep fighting. At press time, the Formosa project was on hold. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers withdrew a wetlands permit and a lawsuit challenging 14 air permits is going to court.

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