Feature Photo: Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash.
Sharon Lavigne used to spend her free time enjoying nature growing up in St. James. On a typical day, you could find her outside with her family’s cows and chickens, picking pecans and figs right off the tree.
“But now that’s impossible,” Lavigne said.
Over the years an abundance of petrochemical plants moved in and around her hometown, slowly killing all the local plant life and animals.
After years of watching her community grow more and more polluted, Lavigne decided to quit her job as a teacher to work as the director of local environmental activism group RISE St. James full-time.
And RISE St. James, along with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Healthy Gulf are in the midst of a lawsuit to stop Formosa Plastics Corporation, a Taiwanese plastics company, from building a $9.4 billion petrochemical plant in the region, which the corporation’s local affiliate calls “the Sunshine Project.”
However, after environmental orgs filed a lawsuit, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced they would suspend and reevaluate the permit to build the plant on Wednesday, Nov. 4.
According to a court filing, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are suspending the permit due to concerns that the project might violate the “Clean Water Act (CWA).” FG LA LLC, an affiliate of Formosa Plastics, must make adjustments to their building plans if they want to continue development.
However, the activists’ case does not only involve the Clean Water Act. They argue that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not issuing an Environmental Impact Statement.
The group also said the The Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act was further violated by damaging the wetlands and dumping pollutants in the water.
Issues were also taken with the location of the plant under the The National Historic Preservation Act, as the activists argue, is expected to be built on slave burial grounds, according to the organizations’ legal complaint.
In addition to these grievances, the activists outlined additional concerns regarding environmental racism in an amicus brief.
“Loosely defined, environmental racism refers to institutional regulations, policies, or government and/or corporate decisions that target specific communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and/or environmental laws, causing communities of color to be disproportionately affected by hazards such as toxic emissions and hazardous waste,” the brief read.
According to the US Census Bureau, 48.8% of residents in St. James Parish are African American.
Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade said one of the reasons Cancer Alley is filled with an abundance of petrochemical plants is “because the government at every level has rolled out the red carpet.”
Louisiana offers manufacturers a property tax exemption called the Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP). Businesses involved only need to pay 20% of their taxes for a span of eight years and pay what they owe when the deal expires.
Lavigne does not approve of ITEP, as she feels the government is essentially paying manufacturers to pollute the state and forcing the average citizen to pay higher taxes to make up for them, she said.
“I think that we shouldn’t be stuck with the tax. The industry should be stuck with the tax,” she said.
An additional tax exemption option for manufacturers was on the ballot in the 2020 election. Amendment 5 did not pass, but it would have allowed local governments to negotiate alternatives to ad valorem property taxes with manufacturers.
Before the election, the Center for Biological Diversity, RISE St. James, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Sunrise Movement New Orleans organized a march against the amendment.
While many have voiced opposition to the new petrochemical facility, others support the decision and think it could help St. James Parish by creating new jobs.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said Formosa’s new plant would help St. James Parish, creating thousands of jobs in the area.
“The new Sunshine Project continues that bridge into a brighter economic future for Louisiana, one with an estimated 8,000 construction jobs at peak, even more permanent jobs upon completion, and a multibillion-dollar impact on earnings and business purchases for decades to come,” Edwards said, according to the Office of the Governor.
FG LA LLC, the Formosa affiliate, said the project would create over 1,000 direct jobs, paying an average of $84,500 a year with benefits, according to The Sunshine Project’s website. According to the U.S. Census, the median household income in Louisiana was $47,942 a year from 2014-2018, $36,558 less than the expected average income of the 1,200 direct jobs they plan to create with the Sunshine Project.
Milton Cayette, a member of RISE St. James, said he hopes they will win their lawsuit, but isn’t too optimistic.
“I hate to say it, but I think they’re going to come anyway because our government is greedy,” Cayette said.
Lavigne, on the other hand, is confident her organization will prevent Formosa from developing their plant.
“The Sunshine Project will not see sunshine,” she said.