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St. James woman credits faith and community in fight against big industry in Cancer Alley

SAINT JAMES, La. — A St. James woman has become a local David and Goliath story as she works tirelessly to save her community from an expansion by the chemical industry.

“The chemical plants have more money than we have so their money talks,” Sharon Lavigne said. “We are just a little old community of people. We don’t have any money to fight this $9.4 billion dollar industry.

A multi-billion dollar chemical company bought 25,000 acres of farmland in St. James Parish.

The company was all set to build a massive new plant until they encountered Lavigne and Rise St. James.

When Lavigne learned about the $9 billion chemical plant was planned less than 2 miles from her home, she immediately was distraught.

“Something happened inside of me,” Lavigne said. “I was angry. I felt so hopeless that we have to move.”

She was so bothered, she raised the issue with her local community group.

“No one wanted to fight it, they said it was a done deal,” Lavigne said.

Although her community thought it was a done deal, they didn’t know who else Lavigne was speaking to about the matter.

“I was sitting out there praying and I was crying and I said, ‘Dear God do you want me to sell my land?'” Lavinge said. “To my surprise, a voice said, ‘No!’ I was startled!”

Lavigne said the voice pointed her in a different direction.

“Then I said, ‘Dear Lord, do you want me to sell the home? The home you gave me?'” Lavigne said. “He said, ‘No!’ so I said, ‘Dear Lord what do you want me to do?’ And he said, ‘Fight.'”

Lavigne said it was a divine revelation that set her course in motion.

She said she didn’t know where to start until a friend suggested she start a community group of her own.

It was an idea she rejected at first.

“I don’t know how to start an organization. When God goes through pushing me and whipping me I started something,” Lavigne said. “When the good Lord gets next to you you are going to do what God tells you to do.”

That is when Rise St. James was born. It was a way for the community to stand up to big industry in their neighborhood.

Lavigne said when the first chemical plant came back in the 60s it was a welcomed development.

“Before you know it they were buying out the farmers. The farmers land with sugar cane,” Lavigne said. “I thought the industry was friendly people and they wouldn’t pollute us.”

The more she got involved, the more she learned about the sickness that had taken hold of her area.

Between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, there are more than 150 chemical plants along the river. It’s called Cancer Alley.

“If you go back and find all the people who died from cancer, it’s coming from something,” Lavigne said.

Cancer Alley is not just a nickname for Lavigne. She showed WDSU pictures of those she had lost and says it is why she is in the fight for her life to save others.

“We filed the clean air act and the clean water act,” Lavigne said.

Lavigne said there are already several chemical plants in her district alone.

“We have 12 in the 5th District,” Lavigne said.

Despite the movement being led by the people, Lavigne can easily list the number of politicians who have joined the cause.

To those who doubted her, she gave this answer.

“You can’t fight that $9.4 billion industry and my answer to them is,” Lavigne said. “I know I can’t but I know God can.”

In November, the Army Corps of Engineers suspended the permits for the plant.

This month, the United Nations issued its report on potential harmful impacts.

Rise St. James and environment groups have even managed to get a letter to the President of the United State.

They want the White House to not only take notice but to take action.

Lavigne, a former school teacher, is teaching everyone a lesson in the power of organizing a community as well as the power of faith.

“The community is behind me. We got People Power,” Lavigne said. “When God has his arms around you there is nothing they can do.”

Watch the story at WDSU News