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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hurricane Ida Adds Misery To Cancer Alley,’ Part 1

Air Date: Week of

Founder of RISE St. James and 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Sharon Lavigne speaks at the first annual African American Celebration at the gravesite of enslaved ancestors at the Buena Vista Cemetery. The land was purchased by Formosa for a proposed petrochemical complex. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, the communities of the Louisiana region known as ‘Cancer Alley’ were left to deal with destroyed homes, no electricity, and polluted water. That’s on top of the toxic air they breathe every day because of industrial pollution, and Black residents have been fighting for environmental justice there for decades. Sharon Lavigne is the founder of RISE St. James and a 2021 Goldman Prize recipient for her work in organizing against a massive Formosa plastics plant, and she joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss the hurricane’s impacts and the health effects of industrial pollution in her community.


CURWOOD: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

In a weird way it would be good news if the recent rash of mega-storms, floods, fires and drought are now the new normal. But the reality is the climate emergency is in a downward spiral, as President Joe Biden recently observed when he visited areas hit hard by Hurricane Ida and its aftermath.

PRESIDENT BIDEN: It’s just going to get worse and worse and worse because the storms are going to get worse and worse and worse. And so folks we have got to listen to the scientists the economists and the national security experts. They all tell us this is code red. The nation and the world are in peril. That is not hyperbole. That is a fact. They’ve been warning us the extreme weather would get more extreme over the decade and we are living in it in real time now. We can look around the wreckage the ruin and the heartbreak from so many communities to feel it you just understand it, you can feel it you can taste it, you can see it. Precious lives lost in Louisiana New Jersey and New York. Families in shelters. Subway stations flooded. Infrastructure pushed beyond the limits. Lives and livelihoods interrupted once again.

CURWOOD: The poor and disadvantaged are especially hard hit from big cities to places like former farmland along the Mississippi. This 85 mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is called cancer alley and it’s the site of some of 150 petrochemical plants, a notorious source of toxic chemicals for locals on a normal day. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida many plants released even more pollutants than average as they dealt with high winds, high water and as much as 15 inches of rain. Many residents of this region are low income, descendants of the black slaves who once toiled on the vast sugar plantations of the lower Mississippi. Their efforts to come up from slavery included the purchase of land passed down through the generations. Many of those black families were already living in a hellscape for health before the storm ripped open their homes and bathed them with even more toxic water and air. Sharon Lavigne lives on land bought by her grandfather in St James Parish. She retired as a special education teacher to devote herself full time to advocacy as founder of RISE Saint James, an environmental justice group working to stop even more toxic industrial development in cancer alley. Her organization and others sued Formosa, a Taiwanese company that wants to build an ethane cracking plant nearby. That prompted the Army Corps of Engineers and the courts to require an updated environmental impact statement of the facility and earned Sharon the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize for North America. Sharon Lavigne joins us now from Saint James Parish from her car, which is an air conditioned oasis in sweltering heat. Welcome to Living on Earth Sharon!

CURWOOD: Glad to be here with you all. I'm glad you can be. Thank you for taking the time with us. Where you are in St. James parish is one of the regions where hurricane Ida hit the hardest. Please take a moment to describe the situation there, your home and what's going on in your neighborhood.

LAVIGNE: Well, I live on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. James Parish, and hurricane Ida, it just, it has so much destruction. So many homes have their roof off. Some of the homes are totally demolished. And when it came, it stayed here while it didn't move fast like it normally moves like hurricanes normally move. So this one was the worst I have ever experienced.

2021 Environmental Prize winner Sharon Lavigne joins community members in adding flowers to a fence around the Buena Vista Cemetery, the burial site of enslaved ancestors. The fence was erected by Formosa when they purchased the land for a proposed petrochemical complex. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

CURWOOD: What about your own home, Sharon, how are you doing?

LAVIGNE: My home is just about demolished. Almost half of the roof was taken off by Hurricane Ida. And inside of my home is totally demolished it’s really damaged bad. The ceiling fell and it was raining but the night of the storm it rained in my living room. And I have to get buckets and pour the water out every so often. And then in my den, I heard something falling, that was the ceiling. Then I heard something fall again. So I went upstairs. That was my son's room when he was living here when he was single living here. The ceiling just collapsed and they had water all over a wood floor. Then that morning I woke up, I went upstairs to the third floor, you can see the sky. Because the beams were not connected, they were open like and the rain was just pouring down just it just poured down. And the ceilings in there collapse. Everything in there is gone, the furniture, everything is gone. And then a few days later, I went back in the master bedroom, over half a room, the insulation, and the sheet rock is all on the beat, the carpet is wet. Everything is, I hope, I hope I can salvage the furniture, because that was my mother's bedroom set. And I hope I can save it but we have to get all the stuff all insulation and sheetrock off of it first, to see how much we can save. But I haven't had anyone to come and help me yet to get rid of all that debris around my house. And all that stuff is in my house. Because I was waiting on insurance companies so they could see it for themselves. Even though I have pictures of it. But I wanted them to see it themselves.

CURWOOD: One of the temperatures there now and how are you dealing with that? What about air conditioning?

LAVIGNE: None of that’s working. We don't have electricity right now. We don't have anything. We have somebody brought me some ice last night and we have bottled water, we have to put the bottled water on ice in our coolers. So the water is cold. But we had a time to get the ice. Our public officials I don't know what they are doing. I really don't know because nobody come to us and let us know what's going on. And first of all, we don't have the phone service where we could look at our phone and see what's going on because we don't have the service.

CURWOOD: Sharon, I understand you're the founder of RISE St. James. That's its a grassroots environmental organization. You mobilized against this twelve and a half billion dollar plastics manufacturing plant. Now what kinds of toxic pollutants where they go into release? What were the chemicals involved?

LAVIGNE: Benzene, benzene is one and that's cancer causing. Formaldehyde. There's a whole bunch of chemicals, a whole lot of greenhouse gases that they're going to release in the air and into the water.

CURWOOD: I understand that that plant was going to make something called MDI.

LAVIGNE: Yes, they make throwaway plastics, straws, cutlery, like the plastic forks and spoons and plastic plates, all of that a whole lot of plastic. But in the meantime, doing it, they want to pollute us to get it to be made. They are gonna pollute the air even more. Even though we have twelve refineries and industries in the fifth district where I live. They don't care. They want to add some more to us. So once they add this industry to us, we're not going to be able to live. It's going to be too much in the air for us to breathe and live. We are having trouble breathing. Now we have people with asthma. We have people with all all types of respiratory illnesses. We have people with cancer all up and down this river. And they wanted to pollute us even more because I guess they figure that we're the area where they dump the garbage. And our governor approved this industry. Our parish officials approved this industry and they live here in St. James. That's the part that hurt me, because they live here with us. But they think because it's in the fifth district on the West Bank, they think it's not going to go to the other districts. But it will go to the other districts, it will not get to them as fast as is getting to us. But eventually, just like we would die off from this industry, they would die off too. It's hurting. It's a hurtful thing to think how people just want to throw something on us because we are black and we are poor. And no one would speak up, no one would speak up against industry, because industry have more money than we have. So in some cases, money talk. But I don't care if I don't have any money. I'm going to fight for my community. And this is where I've been all my life. And this is where I want to stay. And I have people in this community that's backing me up.

CURWOOD: What about the location of this plant that does the MDI and the other chemicals? Where is that in your neighborhood?

The Dow Chemical Company facility near the Mississippi River in Hahnville, Louisiana. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

LAVIGNE: This plant would be two miles from my home. It would be one mile from a church and a school, public school. And that's when I said no more. Because I didn't know that all of these industries, I didn't know how many we had to be honest with you. Until I went to a community meeting. And when I went to that meeting, I found out so many things that were going on, and all the chemicals and the people that were sick. One lady was on oxygen and she had cancer and she not even try to fight industry. So I said, I asked them, “Why don't we fight from Formosa?”. And they said, Oh, the governor appproved that. And they said the parish council is gonna approve it too and once they approve it, it's a done deal. There is nothing you could do about it. And I told them, we need to do something about it because we have, we have too many. And they said oh Sharon you are wasting your time. You can't fight industry. So that's when I pray now with the god I left them fools alone. And I went to God and I prayed and I asked God what I should do. And he told me to fight. So that's when I started to fight. I didn't know what what to do to fight. I didn't know how to do this, this type of thing because I was never involved in involved in environmental issues, I was never involved in anything in the parish. We formed RISE St. James in October of 2018. Then we started meeting other organizations in New Orleans and different places, in that we formed a coalition and we called it Coalition against Death Alley.

Then we had a march in 2019 May, the end of May to the beginning of June, we marched for five days, from Reserve to Baton Rouge. Then in October, we had a march for 10 days, it was tiresome, but we went, we did it. We lit candles for the loved ones, who died of cancer, I still have those panels in my in my garage. When we went to the Capitol to see the governor, he wouldn't even come out. And he knew we were there. And the Secretary would come out and say oh, he's got to come, all this, giving us lies and stuff. He never came out. I was told he went out the back door. That's what I was told. I didn't see that but I was told that. And then when the governor came down here in 2019, November 1st a Friday, I wasn't teaching school because I retired in October. So I went to this event, because he was soliciting votes. He needed the African American votes. So we packed that building and I had my rice and gym shirt on me and two other people. The other members said they weren't gonna wear this shirt. They want to go dress up for a governor. And I said, I don't want to dress up for a governor, I want the governor to see me to let him know who we are. And we don't like the idea that he want to put this industry in our community. But they don't think like that. They want to take a picture with the governor. I don't want a picture with the governor. So when somebody came to me, and asked me if I will speak to the governor, I said, Sure, I sure would. They didn't have a problem finding me because they saw me with their shirt on.

I said governor I would like you to stop Formosa. Don't let it come into our neighborhood. And this is what he answered me. I'm going to do a health study.

CURWOOD: A health study. He is going to study the problem. He's not going to take action.

LAVIGNE: I was so hurt. I was so let down because he just threw it off like it was nothing. So I guess to let the people that called him know that he did speak to me. Then after that he walked away.

CURWOOD: So eventually you filed lawsuits against the Formosa plant. What happened with those lawsuits?

LAVIGNE: They still in there, they’re still pending. One of the judges, the district judge told EPA to go back and use recent data. When Formosa wants to come in they didn't evaluate all of the industry that's already here. They just tell what Formosa was going to be emitting in the air. So that's when we say this area can't take anymore. We already bombarded with too much emissions. So that's when the judge Trudy White all EPA to go back and come back with more recent data.

CURWOOD: Our guest is Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE Saint James and the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for North America. We’ll continue our conversation after the break. Keep listening to Living on Earth.



Learn more about RISE St. James

CNN “What a hurricane means when you live in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley”

Learn more about Sharon Lavigne the 2021 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize


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