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Sharon Lavigne, Rise St. James win in court against Formosa Plastics

A protracted court case against a petrochemical giant seeking to build in Southeast Louisiana has come to an end in favor of environmental activists.

Sharon Lavigne of Rise St. James during a protest in October 2021 against Formosa Plastics' proposed petrochemical plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana. (Jamie Henn/Twitter)

A Louisiana judge has nixed air permits for Formosa Plastics, a Taiwanese corporation that has faced opposition for years from climate activists in the state’s majority-Black “Cancer Alley,” chiefly including Goldman Prize winner Sharon Lavigne and her Rise St. James nonprofit.

The news, coming from Judge Trudy White of the 19th Judicial District Court, was announced on Wednesday by Earthjustice, which represented RSJ and six other advocacy organizations in the case.

“Stopping Formosa Plastics has been a fight for our lives, and today David has toppled Goliath,” said Lavigne in a statement.

“The judge’s decision sends a message to polluters like Formosa that communities of color have a right to clean air, and we must not be sacrifice zones.”

The victory likely marks the end of a four-year battle waged by Lavigne, RSJ, and others against Formosa—which, like similar companies in the area, had been given a sweetheart deal by the state and local legislatures. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) initially issued air permits for the company in January 2020, after which the seven-pronged environmental coalition sued. Judge White subsequently delayed the permits in November of that year.

In her 34-page decision this week, White cited the LDEQ’s failure to adhere to national air quality standards and its reliance on conjecture rather than scientific evidence. She further said their errors “prejudice substantial rights” of the plaintiffs under the Louisiana Constitution.

St. James Parish, the site of the proposed project, is part of an 85-mile stretch of land in Southeast Louisiana known for its high incidences of petrochemical waste and cancer. As such, plants in the so-called Cancer Alley have been the subject of multiple lawsuits and political controversies—spurred in large part by Lavigne and her team, who with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LBB) have stopped several from being built.

LBB was one of the litigants in the case against Formosa, which planned to build a $9.4B 10-plant complex just one mile from an elementary school and on property allegedly containing the burial sites of enslaved African Americans.

“This decision is the nail in the coffin for Formosa Plastics. They won’t build in St. James Parish, and we will make sure that they won’t build this monster anywhere,” said LBB director Anne Rolfes.

Perhaps fortuitously, the news of the activists’ victory comes during the Season of Creation, an annual celebration instituted by the World Council of Churches to celebrate the cause of environmental justice between September 1 and October 4, the feast of St Francis of Assisi.

The 72-year-old Lavigne, a Catholic who received the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame this past spring, founded Rise St. James as a faith-based nonprofit in 2018.

Just one day before Formosa lost their permit case, Lavigne gave a talk at Loyola University New Orleans “centered around Pope Francis's call for an Integral Ecology that sees the interconnectedness of environmental, economic, political, social, cultural, and ethical issues.”

LBB, a longtime partner with Lavigne and RSJ in their fight for environmental justice in Louisiana, echoed the latter’s spiritual focus in their celebration of the court’s decision against Formosa.

“Thank God for the people of St. James who stood up and provided real leadership, for the judge who made this decision, and for the incredible team of lawyers.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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