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RISE St. James joins lawsuit on cancerous emissions in South Louisiana

The faith-based nonprofit is responding to years of hostile treatment from the civil government of St. James Parish, Louisiana.

RISE St. James president Sharon Lavigne sits inside her home parish, St. James Catholic Church in St. James, Louisiana. (James Bruggers)

RISE St. James, the nonprofit fighting to stop cancerous emissions in Southeastern Louisiana, has joined several organizations to sue the civil government of St. James Parish, which they say is approving contracts for dangerous petrochemical plants in Black neighborhoods despite documented risks.

The plaintiffs include RISE, led by the Goldman Prize-winning Black Catholic activist Sharon Lavigne, Inclusive Louisiana, and Mt. Triumph Baptist Church of Donaldsonville. They are being represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic; their 152-page suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana on March 21.

“The St. James Parish Council has made the 4th and 5th districts sacrifice zones for corporate greed and single-use plastics,” said Lavigne in a statement.

“Our request for a moratorium was denied by the Parish Council while we struggle to live with the negative health impacts of carcinogenic chemicals spewing from petrochemical plants.”

The 72-year-old retired schoolteacher has long been an outspoken opponent of governmental and corporate mismanagement in “Cancer Alley,” a stretch of significantly Black civil parishes in Louisiana lined with petrochemical factories producing manifestly carcinogenic fumes. As a result, the area suffers from a cancer rate well above the national average, which is exacerbated by a high incidence of poverty.

The conditions have been condemned by the United Nations as environmental racism, and President Joe Biden signed an executive order in 2021 that mentioned Cancer Alley as an area of concern. RISE has since maintained pressure on the administration with a petition calling for Biden to revoke the relevant petrochemical plant permits, as well as calls for him to declare a state of emergency in Cancer Alley.

On Thursday, the Biden administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency, proposed new regulations that would reduce hazardous air pollutants from chemical plants. The move came roughly a year and a half after EPA chief Michael Regan visited Louisiana, among other Southern states, to assess environmental risks. His announcement this week came in St. John the Baptist Parish, which neighbors St. James.

A Black Catholic, Lavigne founded RISE St. James as a faith-based nonprofit in 2018 to combat the construction of new chemical plants in and around her native region. Its efforts have resulted in the halting of a number of new projects in the area, including in September 2022 when a district judge ruled in favor of RISE and other plaintiffs in a landmark lawsuit against the Taiwanese firm Formosa Plastics—once named the worst corporate polluter in the world.

This year’s new court action from RISE follows years of pressuring St. James Parish officials to heed the advice of environmental experts and the opposition of local residents, who have at times been blocked from visiting their own ancestral cemeteries due to planned petrochemical projects on the grounds.

“This lawsuit is our notice to the St. James Parish Council and St. James Planning Commission that we will not be silenced, and we will hold them accountable for failing to protect us,” said Shamell Lavigne, Sharon’s daughter and the COO of RISE.

“We are exposing the systems of environmental racism that continue to ravage communities of color.”

In a separate statement, Sharon Lavigne asked for prayers and noted that there are currently 12 factories in St. James Parish known to be emitting toxic fumes near residents’ homes, schools, and churches.

“We have prayed, cried, protested, been violated, attended public meetings, hosted various meetings, and tried everything imaginable. Our humanity has yet to be realized by the local government in St. James Parish,” she said.

“We were left with no other choice in order to save our community.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

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