Saving St. James: In the nation's most toxic region, one woman is seeking justice for herself and her overburdened community.

AuthorRossi, Marcello
PositionSt. James Parish, Sharon Lavigne

That's why, a few years ago, when she heard that the Taiwanese manufacturer Formosa planned to build yet another hulking petrochemical plant in the parish's 5th District, a mile and half upriver from her house, she decided to retire early from her job as an educator and start RISE St. James, a grassroots organization to push back against industry expansion in the area.

"These plants have popped up around here for decades and it's always the same story," Lavigne says. "They come to the parish, promise us jobs and economic growth. Instead they pollute and make us sick, like we're not human beings. And that is why I am fighting back"

Named the Sunshine Project, the $9.4 billion operation is set to comprise sixteen separate facilities that would produce ingredients for products we use every day like plastic bottles, grocery bags, and antifreeze. Slated to cover 2,400 acres, the sprawling complex would be the largest in the parish, which already hosts more than thirty industrial plants and several oil and gas terminals and pipelines. It would also put a further burden on the health of Lavigne's community.

St. James Parish, a patchwork of farmed fields and small communities encompassing a little more than 21,000 people, sits in the middle of an eighty-five-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where more than 150 petrochemical plants dot the banks of the lower Mississippi River. The area has been known, since the 1980s, as Cancer Alley.

The designation stems from the prevalence of cancer among the area's residents, which many in the state have been arguing for years has been caused by the toxic chemicals released by the region's plants--a link that the state Department of Health and other official bodies have yet to prove exists.

Seven of the ten US. census tracts with the highest cancer risk in the nation reside here. None of those tracts are in Lavigne's parish--six are in neighboring St. John the Baptist Parish, and one is in St. Charles Parish. But Formosa's proposed megacomplex would singlehandedly double the amount of cancer-causing chemicals currently being released into St. James's air.

The Sunshine Project is among a raft of petrochemical developments that are pushing into the 5th District after the Parish Council quietly rezoned much of the area from "residential" to "residential/future industrial" in 2014.

Lavigne, who was born in St. James during the Jim Crow era, views the siting choice as "a sheer example" of the...

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