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Activists celebrate environmental review of chemical plant project in area called ‘Cancer Alley’

environmental justice
Posted at 4:23 PM, Aug 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-23 16:23:55-04

When you meet Sharon Lavigne, it’s clear she doesn’t back down from a fight.

“They’re not going to build. Trust me. They will not build. Not 2 miles from me. I do not think so. No indeed. Don’t even say that word. If they’re going to build, that upsets when somebody says, ‘It’s coming. It’s not coming,” she said of plans to build a $9.4 billion chemical plant not far from her home in St. James Parish, Louisiana.

Since 2019, Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics has wanted to build the plant on an industrially zoned lot and had received approval from the local council to do it, calling it The Sunshine Project.

Lavigne and her group, Rise St. James, have been raising concerns about the environmental impact the project could have on those already exposed to high levels of pollution. The area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is home to dozens of chemical plants. According to the EPA, the area has one of the highest cancer risks from exposure to toxic air in the country.

From politicians to environmental activists, the area has been dubbed by many as "Cancer Alley."

On April 18, the U.S. Army ordered a full environmental review of the project. The review could put plans for the plant on hold for years.

In their statement, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army Jaime Pinkham said, “environmental justice implications,” were a main point of concern.

The proposed site of the project is in part of St. James Parish, which consists of mostly Black residents.

A recent study from Tulane University found higher levels of air pollution were linked to high cancer rates among Black or high-poverty communities in Louisiana.

“It sends the message out, ‘Don’t mess with Rise St. James.’ That’s the message they should get, because they know Rise St. James mean business and we’re not going to allow any more industry into St. James," Lavigne said of the announcement.

According to a spokesperson for The Sunshine Project Janile Parks, "Major construction on The Sunshine Project in St. James Parish has been on hold since November 2020 pending reevaluation of the project’s permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in September 2019. FG LA LLC’s unwavering commitment to the parish and to Louisiana has remained constant as the company continues to invest in community needs and build meaningful community partnerships. The tweet and accompanying letter from the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army posted today online provide little detail on EIS procedure the Corps intends to use in its additional evaluation of the project. As a result, the company will continue to work with the Corps as we receive more guidance on the additional evaluation and has no further comment at this time."

Formosa Plastics has said the project will create hundreds of good-paying jobs and previously said any claim the plant will greatly increase toxic emissions in the area is a misrepresentation and inaccurate.

“Our lives are worth more than a chemical plant," Lavigne said.

While the fight isn’t over, Lavigne says this victory can send a message that no matter how big the opponent, protecting your home is worth the fight.

"To stand up for our beliefs to stand up for our rights, to stand up for our community to stand up for our lives. Because this is a life and death situation, and if we don’t fight for it, nobody else will," Lavigne said.