Rise St. James fights Formosa, but elected officials don’t

Activists continue to fight the company in court

By: - August 14, 2020 7:30 am

Members of the environmental justice group Rise St. James are involved in an ongoing fight to keep Formosa Plastics from building a $9.4B plastic manufacturing complex in St. James Parish. (Photo courtesy Stephanie Cooper)

The people in St. James Parish who are fighting against the planned construction of a $9.4 billion manufacturing complex planned by Formosa Plastics have waged that fight without the support of any elected officials. No Republicans, who have traditionally been friendly toward big business, have supported them as they’ve tried to keep a project worth many billions from being built in St. James Parish, but neither have any Democrats.

“No, not one,” Sharon Lavigne, a Rise St. James leader, said in a recent interview when a reporter asked if any politician had stood with them in their fight against Formosa. Lavigne seemed to be the most disappointed that  her representative in Congress hasn’t helped them.  “We can’t get Cedric Richmond,” she said. “We tried. I tried.”

Lavigne believes Richmond intervened and persuaded Gov. John Bel Edwards to veto House Bill 197, which would have made felons out of people who protest at petrochemical plants, but, she said, “I can’t get him (to oppose) Formosa or the petrochemical industry.”

As for their elected representatives in Baton Rouge, state Sen. Ed Price and state Rep. Kendricks Brass, Lavigne said, “They voted for the bill to put us in jail for three years.We put them in office,” Lavigne said of those two Democrats, “and they voted for bills that would put us in jail.”

In this photo from Oct. 23, 2019, the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign — A National Call For a Moral Revival, addresses a crowd protesting environmental racism in that parish and the rest of the Mississippi River corridor known as “Cancer Alley.” Standing behind Barber in the red shirt and clerical collar is Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the other co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. (Photo provided by Steve Pavey)

Rise St. James has found local partners in the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Healthy Gulf. And some national organizations have taken up their cause.  The Center for Constitutional Rights, which is based in New York, has provided legal representation. So, too, has the Center for Biological Diversity, which is based in Tucson, Arizona. The Poor People’s Campaign — which cites “ecological devastation” as one of the injustices it fights against — has also staged multiple public demonstrations in St. James Parish. Also, last month, Vice President Joe Biden, the presumed presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, mentioned St. James Parish and “Cancer Alley” in a campaign speech.

But political support from Louisiana’s public officials hasn’t emerged.

Gov. Edwards announced that Formosa had chosen St. James Parish in April 2018 and that its project would be named the “Sunshine Project” because of its proximity to the Sunshine Bridge.   “For more than 50 years, the Sunshine Bridge has connected the River Parishes in a strategic fashion that has enabled tremendous industrial growth and thousands of new jobs along both sides of the Mississippi River in Louisiana,” Edwards said. “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.”

Since then Rise St. James has been fighting on multiple fronts.  In state court in February, the group filed suit against the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, alleging that the state agency violated the Clean Air Act when it granted Formosa permits.  In federal court in D.C. last month, the group filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, accusing that federal agency of violating the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Rivers and Harbors Act and the National Historic Preservation Act when granting Formosa its permits.

A violation of the preservation act is being alleged because Rise St. James argues that Formosa’s construction plans are likely to desecrate the graves of long-ago Black residents who died in slavery.

St. James Parish is included in what’s called “Cancer Alley,” an area along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that is home to multiple petrochemical plants, and, correspondingly, has high rates of cancer and cancer deaths.  According to the permits Formosa has filed, its planned manufacturing complex will double the amount of toxic chemicals released into the air in St. James Parish.

For a story published Aug. 4, The Advocate quoted Gov. Edwards expressing confidence that Formosa’s permits were properly issued.  “I believe we can strike the right balance between public safety, on the one hand, and economic development, on the other, and the job creation and economic impact that comes from all of that.”

Environmental activists in Texas sued Formosa for polluting that state’s waterways, and the federal judge who approved the resulting $50 million settlement in June 2019 labeled the corporation a “serial offender.” 

In his July 14 speech, Biden focused on the damage pollution has caused and announced a  $2 trillion climate plan that would include money to address the prevalence of toxic pollution.  That pollution, Biden said, is “partly why there’s such incredible rates of childhood asthma in Black and brown communities. Why Black Americans are almost three times more likely to die of asthma-related causes than White Americans. It’s cancer alley in St. James Parish in Louisiana and the cancer-causing clusters around Route 9 right here in Delaware.”

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign — A National Call for Moral Revival,  preached at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in St. James in October. He  cited the Biblical story of four lepers who decide they’re not going to just sit and die and would instead get up and walk to describe the people in St. James Parish who are fed up with deadly pollution and would march on Baton Rouge.

During a video conference call with reporters and editors from across the country  with States Newsroom Aug. 7, Barber was asked how Rise St. James can succeed in their fight against Formosa if they don’t have political support.

Barber said the fight will probably have to be waged in the courts.  It’s also likely, he said, that Formosa’s opponents will have to engage in civil disobedience.

“We had the same trouble in Virginia,” Barber said, referring to the successful fight residents mounted against Dominion Energy, which eventually ditched its plan for an Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Barber said Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, “was on the side of the corporation that was going to poison the community. And that’s so wrong. And Democrats need to stop this foolishness of being on the side of corporations, and Republicans need to stop, too,  because to be involved in environmental racism is just as bad as being involved in police racism because both of them kill and destroy lives and whole families.”

It was a point Barber made more than once, including when he directly addressed Edwards’ support of Formosa. If the governor, he said, “supports Formosa and people die, he’s just as guilty as that cop who put his knee on George Floyd and strangled him. Just because you don’t see it on camera doesn’t mean it’s not death.”

And death, Barber said, is what the members of Rise St. James refuse to passively accept. Referring back to the sermon he preached in October, he said, “What the people have decided is that they’re just not going to die quietly. They’re not gonna just die quietly anymore because it’s gone on far too long.”




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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later NOLA.com) as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.