Cancer Alley’s been ignored by state’s top Democrats, activist says in Poor People Campaign event

Gov. Edwards and Cedric Richmond criticized for doing nothing about Louisianans dying from pollution

La. Democrats ignoring Cancer Alley
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 St. James 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 courtesy of Steve Pavey).

One of the nation’s most prominent defenders of the poor and their right to live in environments free of pollution included Louisiana’s Cancer Alley in his weekly call to activism Monday during which a St. James Parish resident accused the state’s leading Democrats, specifically Gov. John Bel Edwards and former Rep. Cedric Richmond, of ignoring the residents in Cancer Alley and refusing to protect them from deadly pollution.

The Rev. William Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign, featured Sharon Lavigne, president of RISE St. James, on their weekly “Moral Monday” event, a virtual call for prayer and action that focuses on driving awareness and support for poor and low-income communities suffering from injustices that include polluted communities.

Monday’s online event included activists from Lowndes County, Ala., Apache Land in Arizona, Chicago, Flint, Mich., Memphis, Holmes County, Miss. and Northern Minnesota who spoke out against what they described as environmental injustice in their communities. 

Lavigne founded RISE St. James to spearhead her community’s struggle against industrial pollution and the desecration of slave burial grounds by the proposed construction of a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics manufacturing complex within 2 miles of her home. Since 2018 Formosa has been trying to build a 2,400-acre complex, which would be the world’s largest petrochemical facility, on the site of a former sugarcane plantation where several gravesites of enslaved Black people were discovered in 2019. 

St. James Parish is also in the heart of an area known as America’s “Cancer Alley” because its concentration of industrial facilities has been linked to high rates of cancer among the mostly Black residents who live there. Lavigne, whose presentations are typically composed and accusatory, fought back tears when she spoke Monday. She said since their activism started in 2018, three of her friends and neighbors who were working alongside her with RISE St. James have died of what she said were pollution-related causes. 

RISE St. James and other conservation groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulf and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade have been fighting Formosa in court to try to halt the construction. Their case has so far achieved mixed results with both wins and losses on critical motions, leaving Lavigne and her neighbors uncertain of their futures. 

Despite the Environmental Protection Agency recognizing there are elevated cancer risks in the area, Louisiana authorities have done little to enforce environmental regulations and elected officials who represent St. James have been largely silent about the deaths and those dying in Cancer Alley.

“Our representative, Cedric Richmond, he won’t even come out here to talk with us,” Lavigne said at Monday’s event. She has often said that no elected official except President Joe Biden has given real attention to the problem of deadly pollution in her community. 

Richmond, a Democrat, recently resigned to take a job in Biden’s administration. He could not be reached for comment Monday. Lavigne was also critical of the governor, also a Democrat, saying he is ignoring the deaths in Cancer Alley and doing little to prevent industries from continuing to pollute the state’s air and water. 

“I asked the governor myself in 2019 on November 1st, ‘Would he stop this industry?’” Lavigne said. “And he answered me he’s going to do a health study, but he didn’t say he’s going to stop it.” 

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment regarding Lavigne’s accusations.

Barber didn’t respond directly to Lavigne’s comments at Monday’s events, but he did respond to Kathy Robinson, whose group Memphis Community Against the Pipeline is fighting the Byhalia Connection Pipeline planned for a mostly Black community in Memphis. Robinson said her community’s Black state representative told her group “we should accept the fact that the oil line coming to this community was extremely likely.”

“Everything you just said, they said to us about the East Coast pipeline in between Virginia, North Carolina, running through Black communities, poor White communities,” Barber said, “and they said that we might as well accept it. They had Black politicians come and say we might as well accept it and to take money. They had white politicians to take money. They had some clergy to take money.  I hate to say it, but the state NAACP took money from them and didn’t stand with the people, with the Black community. They said that, but we built people power, legal power, and we shut it down.”

The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline that Barber referred to was canceled by Virginia-based Dominion Energy and North Carolina-based Duke Energy in July.  It’s unclear which state’s NAACP Barber was referring to because news reports show the organizations in Virginia and North Carolina in opposition. Barber previously served seven terms as president of the NAACP in North Carolina and is listed as that organization’s president emeritus.

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Wesley Muller
Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.