Cancer Alley Residents Decry ‘Environmental Racism’ in Louisiana

CONVENT, La. (CN) — Environmental groups and Louisiana residents of a rural, majority-black area on the Mississippi River filed a records request Monday seeking answers to why St. James Parish officials “basically changed the black district into the petrochemical district.”

A store in St. James Parish. (Photo from St. James Parish’s 20-Year Plan)

The primarily residential stretch known as District 5 has been designated by the parish as “Residential-Future Industrial” since 2014. St. James Parish, pop. 22,100, is midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River called “Cancer Alley” because of the many petrochemical factories that call it home. Louisiana has parishes instead of counties.

St. James Parish officials “basically changed the black district into the petrochemical district,” Anne Rolfes, Founder of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a health and justice organization that works with communities near the state’s oil refineries and chemical plants, told Courthouse News Monday.

In a previous era, Cancer Alley was a site of “fabulous plantation life in St. James. Acreage was counted by thousands and slaves by hundreds,” according to 148-page document compiled by the parish in 2011, titled Comprehensive Plan 2031, a 20-year plan.

The plan states its goal is “to articulate a vision of future growth within the Parish in a manner that will sustain the values of its citizens,” and says it was developed over a period of 18 months, with public discussion involving many St. James Parish residents.

“Residents grappled with many issues impacting the parish such as: ensuring quality education for St. James’ children, developing environmentally safe neighborhoods, protecting existing residential communities from negative impacts from industrial neighbors …”

But residents of District 5 say they have no idea when it was decided that their district would house giant industrial plants.

“I would like to know how they went about making where I live industrial,” Sharon Lavigne, president of RISE St. James, said in an email. “Parish officials say that people of the 5th District — my district — were in favor of the land-use plan, but everybody I talk to who lives here is against more industry coming here.”

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Gulf Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity, RISE St. James and 350 New Orleans asked St. James Parish to provide records and communications related to the land-use change.

The changed designation was discovered, the groups say, as they were fighting proposals to build some of the country’s largest plastics factories that will, if built, turn fracked natural gas into plastic feedstocks for throwaway plastics.

Many St. James Parish residents call the industrial plan environmental racism. (Photo from St. James Parish’s 20-Year Plan)

District 5, a longtime residential community that is 87 percent black, had no formal land-use designation before 2014. Residents say they are concerned about the millions of tons of air and water pollutants the plants would emit each year, as well as the process that placed the factories in their community.

“We are concerned about St. James, and we are also concerned with the larger picture,” Rolfes said. “It’s a battle in a small town. But this battle has ramifications for the whole world, and that sounds like an exaggeration, but it isn’t.”

The records request relates in part to a southern Louisiana methanol project that has been proposed within the re-designated residential district. The district abuts a 2,400-acre agricultural property on the Mississippi River that St. James Parish designated “Industrial” in 2014 and where Formosa Plastics has proposed a plastics plant it calls the Sunshine Project.

“Formosa and South Louisiana Methanol are part of the fossil fuel industry’s plan to increase plastic production by 40 percent over the next decade, converting natural landscapes for dirty industry, fouling the air and water of local communities and contributing to plastic pollutions now accumulating in our oceans, landscapes and landfills,” the groups said in an email Monday, citing a Dec. 27, 2016 report in The Guardian.

“We are asking for the records because it’s like the 1930s around here,” Rolfes said in the email. “The parish is running roughshod over the black community and the state is letting it happen. Parish officials and Governor [John Bel] Edwards are facilitating the destruction of an historic Louisiana community just so foreign companies can make plastic that no one needs. It’s appalling.”

Julie Teel Simmonds with the Center for Biological Diversity said in a telephone interview Monday: “It’s hard to discern what happened. The residents are really concerned … and this brings up issues of industrial land use as a nation.”

Simmonds said that seeing giant industrial complexes, such as the methanol plant, proposed for residential areas “definitely set off alarm bells.”

“It just doesn’t look right,” she said, “and we think there is cause for alarm.”

Simmonds said in a statement Monday: “We want to know more about how these residents were sold out to the fossil fuel industry. This is environmental racism, driven by the glut of cheap fracked natural gas in this country. Fossil fuels are destroying our climate, polluting neighborhoods and filling our oceans with plastic.”

She expressed concern that many people do not realize that plastics are made almost exclusively from fossil fuels. 

Not just that, but the companies coming into St. James to make the plastics and chemicals are foreign, receive tax incentives to pollute our communities and are “turning our fracked gases into things we don’t need,” she said.

“What this is showing us is that communities and environmental groups should become better versed in local zoning planning,” Simmonds said. “There should be safeguards for turning farm land into industrial zones.”

Eight million tons of plastic wind up in the ocean every year. An estimated 80 percent of plastic ends up in our landfills, oceans and natural world, and that number is expected to increase now that China will no longer accept our plastic recyclables. 

By 2050 it is estimated that the oceans will have more plastic than fish.

Blaise Gravois, director of St. James Parish operations, replied to an email request for comment on the environmental groups’ record request late Monday. 

“The 5th district does not have ZONING,” Gravois wrote.

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