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'Cancer Alley' residents sue parish over cramming industrial plants into Black communities

St. James Parish activists and residents Barbara Washington, Gail Lebouef and Shamyra Lavigne (left to right) hold a fist up after their groups filed a lawsuit against their local government on Tuesday, March 21, 2023 outside of the U.S. District Court of Eastern Louisiana in New Orleans.
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
St. James Parish activists and residents Barbara Washington, Gail Lebouef and Shamyra Lavigne (left to right) hold a fist up after their groups filed a lawsuit against their local government on Tuesday, March 21, 2023 outside of the U.S. District Court of Eastern Louisiana in New Orleans.

Residents in one of Louisiana’s most heavily-industrialized parishes sued their local government in federal court on Tuesday, accusing officials of cramming petrochemical plants into Black communities.

In the scathing lawsuit, two local groups and one church alleged that the St. James Parish Council and Planning Commission have used the parish’s land use plan and zoning to encourage the plants to build in predominantly Black areas in the parish. At the same time, they argued the land use plan has prevented those plants from being built in St. James’ white communities.

“Lacking the imagination to develop safer, smaller and more durable forms of economic development, the Parish continues thus to trade in the health and safety of Black residents in exchange for the financial largess and tax benefits industrialization purportedly provides for the rest of the Parish,” stated the lawsuit.

Neither the St. James Parish Council nor the planning commission responded to a request for comment.

An aerial image of an oil refinery situated along the Mississippi River.
Kezia Setyawan
/
WWNO
An aerial image of an oil refinery situated along the Mississippi River.

St. James Parish is located in one of the country’s largest hotspots for toxic air, nicknamed Cancer Alley. It’s home to more than 150 chemical plants, concentrated along an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

The lawsuit, filed by Inclusive Louisiana, Rise St. James and Triumph Baptist Church, called the land use plan discriminatory and argued that it violates the residents’ rights under the 13th and 14th amendments, as well as the state constitution. They also claimed the plan violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and their property rights under the Civil Rights Act.

Gathered outside the U.S. District Court of Eastern Louisiana, St. James residents and their lawyers rallied, stating they felt the lawsuit was the only way to force change. Local activists have called for a moratorium on the development of petrochemical plants since 2019, but no action has been taken.

“Enough is enough,” said Shamyra Lavigne, one of the members of Rise St. James.

Gail Lebouef, a longtime community activist who leads Inclusive Louisiana, said she was recently diagnosed with liver cancer and has begun chemotherapy. She emphasized the potential health impact and stress that comes with living near so many facilities.

“Though I cannot say with certainty that any one carcinogen caused my cancer, no one can tell me without a certainty that any one carcinogen did not cause it,” Lebouef said.

Several studies have shown that Black communities, like those impacted in St. James Parish, disproportionately suffer from air pollution. In 2020, a Tulane University study linked exposure to air pollution to disproportionate COVID-19 death rates among Black Louisianians in Cancer Alley.

St. James holds 11 plants releasing chemicals dangerous enough to require them to report their emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency. Of those plants, the vast majority are located within the parish’s 4th and 5th districts – the same areas that contain the parish’s largest Black population.

In the lawsuit, the residents asked the judge to step in and ban any new proposals for industrial facilities in the 4th and 5th districts, and to appoint a third party to enforce the collection of environmental data, like air and water monitoring.

Currently, there's only one major industrial project planned in St. James — the controversial $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex sited in the 5th district. But that project has been delayed after pushback from environmental justice groups, and it is now undergoing a more intense review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

As local opposition has increased, a de-facto moratorium on petrochemical expansion has settled over St. James. But the groups have still requested for a judge to invalidate the parish’s approval of two proposed industrial facilities — including Formosa — and the land use plan as a whole in the lawsuit.

The parish’s current land use plan zones several residential areas in the two districts right next to areas slated for industrial or emerging industrial use, without providing a buffer for the community.

The lawsuit traces the uneven distribution of plants back to slavery. In the present day, the same communities located near plants often began as settlements by newly freed African Americans near the plantations where they were enslaved.

The groups also want the court to create a community board charged with crafting a plan to preserve unmarked cemeteries in the parish, as some have been destroyed due to industrial development.

The lawsuit comes as the state has faced more scrutiny from federal environmental officials over possible civil rights violations against Black residents by failing to incorporate environmental justice concerns when permitting industrial projects.

The groups expect to be assigned a court to hear their case in the coming weeks.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.