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Campaign calls for halt to St. James chemical plant construction

A new, community-based activist group in St. James Parish last week launched a massive, nationwide marketing campaign, including a powerful television advertisement, aimed at blocking the construction of a proposed, $9.4-billion chemical plant in an area dubbed “Cancer Alley” because its abnormally high risk rates for cancer exposure are the highest in the country.

Protect Our Parish released the TV ad last Thursday, with scheduled airings on such highly-rated networks as CNN, Fox and CNBC. According to the activist organization, the Protect Our Parish campaign will also include print and billboard ads, as well as placements on radio and Internet outlets like Facebook, YouTube and iHeart Radio. Ads will also be broadcast on WWL radio during Saints games.

The one-minute ad released last week features narration by longtime St. James Parish resident and educator Sharon Lavigne, who recounts the death of her husband, Oliver, from COPD. In the ad, Sharon says that “there’s no doubt that the pollution killed him.”

Like many residents – the majority of them African American – who have been affected physically and psychologically, Lavigne and her family have lived for years in the parish’s Fifth District, where numerous chemical plants are located.

In the ad, Lavigne relates that in addition to her husband’s death, she has attended the funerals of more than 30 friends and relatives in St. James Parish who have died from cancer or similar terminal illnesses over the last five years.

Lavigne’s narration is accompanied by images of her family, including some of Oliver, as well scenes from across Gramercy and St. James Parish. The promo spot features religious imagery, including scenes of Lavigne praying inside of her church.

The ad urges the St. James Parish Council and other civic leaders to rethink the decision to approve the plant, which has been proposed by international company Formosa Plastics.

“It’s too late to bring back Oliver,” Sharon says in the spot, “and I don’t want our children and grandchildren to be next.”

In an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, Lavigne said the goal of the advertisement and the Protect Our Parish effort overall is to prevent the proposed Formosa plant from being constructed, and convince government officials to block further chemical plants being placed in the parish.

“The big step is to see no more are coming in,” Lavigne said. “We want to stop them from ever coming in. We are people. We deserve to live here. We deserve to live.”

Lavigne stressed the stark urgency of stopping the Formosa plant from coming. “If this is built, it’s going to be a death sentence for us,” she said. “We will not be able to live, to breathe the air.”

The St. James Parish Council initially approved Formosa’s land-use application for the proposed plant in January 2019, but RISE members and other community activists say that vote came before news reports broke revealing that the plant would double the community’s permitted toxic emissions.

That revelation, say activists, constitutes a dishonest and evasive effort by Formosa to convince parish politicians that the plant would be safe and allowable.

As a result, Lavigne said, “[w]e want the parish council to rescind their decision. We want them to go back, weigh the facts and re-do it.”

She added that “[t]hey should have evaluated all the plants we already have in the area before they put this one in.”

Representatives of the St. James Parish Council did not respond to inquiries for comment by The Louisiana Weekly.

Lavigne is a member of RISE St. James, a faith-based coalition that came together to protect local residents from the crippling health diagnoses and deaths from cancer and other long-term medical conditions members say have resulted from the pollution from existing chemical plants.

Through the new Protect Our Parish campaign, RISE St. James also wants to “advocate for investment in healthier, longer-term industries” in the parish, according to a press release.

According to the Protect Our Parish press release, more than 150 chemical processing plants already exist in Cancer Alley, a fact advocates say has resulted in cancer rates as much as 50 times higher than average Americans.

The new advertising campaign sharpens RISE’s efforts on the proposed Formosa Plastic plant, which would cover hundreds of acres of land for its production of single-use plastics, which critics note have been banned in more than 120 countries. While Formosa representatives say such plastics continue to contribute to the globe economically, technologically and culturally, critics assert that single-use plastics have outlived their usefulness and become outdated and have seen a decrease in use.

Representatives of the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group, of which the St. James project is a part, said Protect Our Parish and its new ad distort the track record of the company and fail to adequately represent the scope and impact of the proposed facility. The company has dubbed the proposed facility “The Sunshine Project,” or “FG” for short.

Janile Parks, director of community and government relations for FG LA LLC, said in a lengthy statement to The Louisiana Weekly that Protect Our Parish’s marketing campaign presents the company and the proposed plant in an inaccurate, misleading light. Parks said the company has continually complied with all relevant government requirements and regulations, and will keep doing so in the future.

“FG LA LLC’s (FG) is committed to protecting the health and safety of its employees and the community as well as the environment,” Parks said. “The company will continue to follow all rules and regulations set forth by federal and state agencies and will continue to work to build a brighter future for the people who live and work in St. James Parish and across Louisiana. While we recognize there are some who are doing everything they can to stop progress in the parish, including spreading fear and confusion about The Sunshine Project, FG will continue to invite cooperation and truth as well as listen to and work with the St. James community to address real concerns.”

Parks added that the firm has done extensive research of its own showing that the proposed plant will not harm the community and citizens, and that the existing chemical plants in the parish have not caused the harm opponents say the facilities have.

“Simply stated,” Parks said, “there is no scientific proof that cancer rates in the Industrial Corridor, including St. James Parish, or District 5 where The Sunshine Project is located, are higher due to industrial activity. In fact, cancer rates and deaths are lower than, or there is no significant difference from, the rest of the state. Reports issued by the Louisiana Tumor Registry, the state’s cancer data aggregator, clearly establish this point.”

Parks asserted that plans for the facility include measures designed to prevent excessive, dangerous levels of by-products, and that such emissions will not only be closely monitored, but also reused and recycled by the plant.

Parks continued by saying that Formosa, especially the staff, employees and executives involved in the Sunshine Project, has gone the extra mile to reach out to the citizenry of St. James Parish and the larger region. That outreach includes a public open house and the creation of a project Web site.

“The company has also maintained open communication and continues to reach out to local project stakeholders, St. James Parish residents, local ministers, educators, workforce leaders and others to seek feedback and address questions and concerns as the project moves forward,” she said. “As a result, FG has developed and implemented community out each programs that meet real needs in the St. James community.”

Parks said that the plant will also provide an economic boost to the parish by creating hundreds of new jobs, and added that the cutting-edge production technology used by the plant will benefit the world as a whole.

However, Lavigne and other members of RISE St. James dispute such assertions by the company. Lavigne said the Protect Our Parish campaign will tell the general public – and its elected leaders – the truth about the proposed Formosa plant and the devastating, toxic effect the chemical industry has had on the local community.

Lavigne told The Louisiana Weekly that in addition to raising public awareness of the situation in her parish across the country, another targeted group is the government at all levels. Not only does she hope the ad will help persuade parish officials to rescind their initial approval of the Formosa plant, but she wants incoming President Joe Biden, Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond (who has announced he will step down from Congress to take a position in the impending Biden administration), and representatives of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, to view the promotion and learn about the plight of the residents of Cancer Alley.

“I would like them to take a tour of St. James to let them see first-hand how this industry has hurt our community,” she said.

In particular, Lavigne said, hopefully Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards will become aware of the situation in St. James Parish and take measures to block the Formosa facility’s construction. Lavigne said state government officials, especially Edwards, have failed to protect Louisiana’s citizenry.

“If [the ad] is shown nationally, it will make him look pretty silly for not stepping up to help the citizens of his state,” she said of Edwards.

She added that Edwards “should have stopped [the plant] before it got this far.”

Lavigne said that the Formosa company’s alleged distortions and cover-ups can no longer hide that the machinations of the chemical industry have had a particularly ruinous impact on people of color and majority-Black communities like the Fifth District of St. James Parish. She said such disproportionate negative impacts on communities of color amount to environmental racism, and she asserted that parish leaders have rejected proposals for similar projects in white communities and allowed the chemical industry to locate its activities overwhelmingly among Black populations.

“They figured that the Black community is poor, so we’re not going to speak up,” she told The Louisiana Weekly.

However, she added, she and other citizens devastated by the chemical industry and its toxic effects have decided to band together and stand against what they view is a system that allows polluting companies to do as they wish, a trend reflected by the number of industrial facilities in the area.

“We won’t let any more [plants] come in,” she said. “Not where I live. Not in St. James Parish.”

Read the article in Louisiana Weekly