RISE St. James founder Sharon Lavigne wins Goldman Environmental Prize

Retired teacher, 68, currently fighting to keep Formosa Plastics out of St. James Parish

By: - June 15, 2021 5:02 am

RISE St. James founder Sharon Lavigne is the 2021 North American winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work opposing chemical plants in St. James Parish, Louisiana. (Photo provided by Goldman Environmental Prize)

Sharon Lavigne, a retired special needs teacher in St. James Parish and the founder of the faith based environmental justice group RISE St. James has been named the 2021 North American winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize for fighting to keep multibillion dollar chemical plants out of her already polluted community in the heart of an area dubbed “Cancer Alley.”

The Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded each year to six individuals, one from each of the world’s inhabited continents. It typically goes to ordinary people who take extraordinary actions to protect their local environment. Lavigne, 68, received the award, nicknamed “the Green Nobel,” Tuesday. 

“I was overwhelmed,” Lavigne said in a phone interview Monday about learning that she’d won. “I was just in disbelief that they chose me. I didn’t understand what I did to receive such a prestigious award.”

The award committee credits Lavigne with helping block a $1.25 billion plastics manufacturing facility that Chinese chemical company Wanhua proposed to build in St. James Parish near the Mississippi River and praises her ongoing fight against Formosa Plastics, a company from Taiwan that’s planning a $9.4 billion plastics manufacturing complex near Lavigne’s house.

In being named a 2021 Goldman winner, Lavigne joins

  • Gloria Majiga-Kamoto of Malawi, who, according to the Goldman award committee “fought the plastics industry and galvanized a grassroots movement in support of a national ban on thin plastics, a type of single-use plastic.” Malawi’s highest court “upheld the ban on the production, importation, distribution, and use of thin plastics” in 2019.
  • Thai Van Nguyen who “founded Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, which rescued 1,540 pangolins from the illegal wildlife trade between 2014 and 2020. Nguyen also established Vietnam’s first anti-poaching unit, which, since 2018, has destroyed 9,701 animal traps, dismantled 775 illegal camps, confiscated 78 guns, and arrested 558 people for poaching, leading to a significant decline in illegal activities in Pu Mat National Park.
  • Kimiko Hirata, whose “grassroots campaign led to the cancellation of 13 coal power plants in Japan. These coal plants would have released more than 1.6 billion tons of CO2 over their lifetimes. The carbon impact of Hirata’s activism is the equivalent of taking 7.5 million passenger cars off the road every year for 40 years.”
  • Maida Bilal of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who “led a group of women from her village in a 503-day blockade of heavy equipment that resulted in the cancellation of permits for two proposed dams on the Kruščica River in December 2018… [A] massive hydropower boom in the region threatens to irreversibly damage thousands of miles of pristine rivers.”
  • Liz Chicaje Churay whose activism caused “the Peruvian government (to create) Yaguas National Park. Comparable in size to Yellowstone National Park, the new park protects more than two million acres of Amazon rainforest in the northeastern region of Loreto.”

Lavigne, a lifelong St. James resident, grew up living off the land with gardens, cattle, pigs and chickens and fishing and shrimping in the Mississippi River with her grandfather. She worked as a teacher until 2018 when she dedicated herself full-time to the environmental justice organization she started.

Lavigne said she got involved after seeing St. James Parish officials rubber stamp plans from giant chemical manufacturers to build facilities in Black communities originally zoned residential. She started by hosting a meeting in her living room with 10 community members and her daughter taking notes. She now manages a small staff and about 20 volunteers.

According to the Goldman news release announcing Lavigne as a winner, the plant Wanhua proposed building in November 2018 would have generated a million pounds of liquid hazardous waste annually, in a region already contending with known carcinogens and toxic air pollution. This includes hundreds of tons of methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) — a chemical used in the production of foam that affects respiratory function in humans and is found to produce tumors in rats. In addition to MDI, the plant would have released carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, benzene, and other toxic pollutants into the environment, Goldman says.

Lavigne became a critical voice in opposing the project at parish council meetings, calling on the council and the governor’s office to issue municipal and statewide moratoriums on new industrial construction, and when her requests were denied, she led marches to raise visibility on the issues.

Lavigne organized door-to-door visits in surrounding neighborhoods and spoke to residents about the environmental and health risks, as well as built coalitions with local civic organizations including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, 350.org, and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. She hosted town-hall meetings that brought in experts to educate community members, produced reports, wrote letters to regional newspapers, and designed newspaper ads — all arguing against the project.

In September 2019 Wanhua withdrew its land use application, officially canceling construction of the planned facility.

“Lavigne’s grassroots campaign successfully defended her community from the construction of yet another toxic plant in its midst,” Goldman says. “Her activism not only protected residents from additional air pollution, but also prevented the generation of a million pounds of liquid hazardous waste each year, safeguarding the environment of St. James Parish.”

RISE St. James’ fight against Formosa Plastics is ongoing. In November, the Army Corps suspended its permit for the Formosa project after being sued by the Center for Biological Diversity, RISE St. James, Healthy Gulf and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Another 20 organizations and thousands of individuals then asked the Corps to reexamine the project. The growing chorus of project opponents includes the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, which called the project “environmental racism” in March and urged U.S. officials to reject the project.

Last month, attorneys general from New York State, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and the District of Columbia general sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers demanding a deeper analysis of the climate, wildlife and environmental justice impacts of Formosa Plastics’ proposed petrochemical complex in St. James Parish.

The retired teacher said Monday she had never considered herself an activist and had no idea her work would lead to where it is now.

“I just wanted to help the community,” she said. “No one had the guts to fight this industry. So many times I was told, ‘It’s a done deal. There’s nothing you can do about it, Sharon.’ That put a fight in me.”

Anne Rolfes, an activist with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said the Goldman Prize is a “really big deal.” Lavigne is the first Louisiana resident to win the prize since Norco resident Margie Richard won in 2004

“She’s a Black woman in the Deep South standing up to powerful people, and so often that goes unrecognized, so this is well-deserved,” Rolfes said of Lavigne. “We’re in the middle of a huge battle, which she is the lead on, so we need this — we need this kind of affirmation, absolutely.”

Lavigne has won more recognition from outside Louisiana than from within. She said in an interview with the Illuminator last year that not a single elected official had helped RISE St. James fight Formosa. Referring to a bill that would have made it a felony to protest at petrochemical plants, she said state Sen. Ed Price and state Rep. Kendricks Brass, both Black Democrats, “voted for the bill to put us in jail for three years. We put them in office, and they voted for bills that would put us in jail.” Gov. Edwards vetoed that bill, but he has welcomed Formosa’s plans to build in St. James. U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy criticized President Joe Biden’s use of the phrase “Cancer Alley” as “a slam on the state.”

“Tell Cassidy we’re gonna call it ‘Death Alley,’” Lavigne said.

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Wesley Muller
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.

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