Citing ‘racial cleansing’, Louisiana ‘cancer alley’ residents sue for zoning

Claiming that their local government was built on a culture of white supremacy, black residents of St. James Parish in the heart of Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” have filed a federal lawsuit alleging that land use and zoning policies have unlawfully concentrated more than a dozen polluting industrial plants in which they live. .

In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, environmental justice groups Inclusive Louisiana and RISE St. James, as well as Mt. Civil War racism to claim that county officials deliberately directed industry towards black residents rather than whites.

Outside the Hale Boggs Federal Building in New Orleans on Tuesday, leaders from two environmental justice organizations and a church said “enough is enough” and called for a permanent moratorium on chemical plants and similar facilities along with a cleaner and safer economic future for their communities.

The plaintiffs said they had been calling for a moratorium and exemption from heavy industry for several years, but to no avail.

“This is the day the Lord made, and we will rejoice and rejoice in it because we smell victory,” said Barbara Washington, co-founder and co-director of religious group Inclusive Louisiana. “Each of us was touched by the parish’s decision to expose us to poisonous plants. We all have stories about our own health and the health of our friends. It’s time to stop planting our neighborhoods with plants that produce toxic chemicals.”

Shamira Lavigne of RISE St. James said: “Time and again, the St. James Parish Council has ignored us and rejected our calls for the protection of basic human rights. We will not be left without attention. We will not sacrifice our lives.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights, based in New York, and the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic, based in New Orleans, are consultants to the plaintiffs. Chief among their claims is that the parish’s land use system violates the Thirteenth Amendment as a remnant of slavery, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits discrimination.

“To the best of our knowledge, this (lawsuit) is the first of its kind in how it uses civil rights laws and constitutional provisions to challenge these kinds of models and practices,” said Astha Sharma Pokharel, staff lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Law. Rights. According to her, the harm that persists today is related to “slavery and its afterlife.”

St. James Parish officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The problem of proof of intent

On Tuesday, legal experts not involved in the case described the lawsuit as ambitious, timely and significant in its ambition and approach.

Craig Anthony (Tony) Arnold, a land use and property rights lawyer at the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville, described the lawsuit as “strong and groundbreaking.

“Typically, environmental justice groups bring charges of discrimination against local land use practices in lawsuits against specific land management projects or specific regulatory decisions,” said Arnold, author of the 2007 book Fair and Healthy Land Use: Environmental Justice and Planning. and the forthcoming book Racial Justice in Land Use in America.

“When environmental justice groups addressed systemic environmental injustice in local land use practices, they often worked with local governments to bring about regulatory and policy reforms, albeit perhaps under the threat of lawsuits.”

What distinguishes the St. James lawsuit, Arnold said, is that it challenges “the whole array of local land use practices and backs up its case with a detailed history of how those land use practices have discriminated against and unequally harmed black communities that have permanent impacts.”

The pipeline crosses Highway 18 in St. James County, Louisiana.  Credit: James Bruggers
The pipeline crosses Highway 18 in St. James County, Louisiana. Credit: James Bruggers

Since this pattern of racially unfair land use is not unique to St. James County, “we may see more of these lawsuits in the future,” Arnold said.

The lawsuit illustrates the ongoing and welcome emergence of the importance of environmental justice in the field of environmental law, said Patrick Parentau, professor emeritus of law and senior fellow in climate policy at the Vermont School of Law and Graduate Studies. “That was a long time ago,” Parentau added.

“This is the right team of lawyers to do this,” he said of the lawsuit. “These are the right clients and the right state.”

However, according to Parentau, it will not be easy to prove intent. It won’t be enough to just map the location of industries in black neighborhoods, he said. “You have to get inside their heads,” he said of parish land-use decision makers. “You must have the minutes of the meetings. Is there anything in writing? Do they have records?

Plaintiff’s attorneys could potentially face skeptical appellate judges and the Supreme Court’s conservative 7-to-3 majority if the Louisiana case goes this far. Louisiana is in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, considered the most conservative in the nation.

Despite these obstacles, Parentau said he was “damn happy to see it, God loves them.”

Pokharel agreed that proving intent could be a challenge, but said the team’s lawyers have looked closely at the history of decisions, the statements of the people who made the decisions, and various land use practices. “In our complaint, we have the facts about how racially discriminatory these actions were, not just about the consequences,” she said.

As an example, she cited the decision of local authorities to create two-mile buffer zones separating industrial sites that would protect certain buildings in white communities, but not in black communities. The lawsuit alleges that officials agreed to, for example, establish buffer zones for white-majority Catholic churches and schools in white neighborhoods, but not for churches or schools in black neighborhoods.

Environmental injustice as a remnant of slavery

In Louisiana, parishes are like counties; St. James has five constituencies. The 5th district is 88.6% black and the 4th district is 53% black, the only two districts with a majority of blacks.

According to the lawsuit, members of the plaintiff’s group live in areas where their enslaved ancestors toiled the brutal sugar cane plantations and want access to their ancestors’ graves that were closed or fenced off by industries violating religious freedom.

The parish did not have a zoning ordinance or land use plan until 2014, a practice the lawsuit alleges benefited white people with large land holdings at the expense of long-marginalized black residents.

“White landowners and corporations, who could sell their large tracts of land to petrochemical companies, benefited from this approach; Small black landowners who did not have the means to move out were affected by this,” the lawsuit says.

“As a result of the remnants of slavery in Louisiana and St. James in particular, plaintiff members reside in some of the most polluted, toxic, and deadly census tracts in the nation, located on a stretch of land along the Mississippi now commonly known as “Cancer Alley.” The Defendants, apparently mindful of this historically segregated land distribution, deliberately chose to locate more than a dozen huge industrial facilities in the black-dominated 4th and 5th districts, while clearly relieving white residents of the risk of harming the environment, ”says in a lawsuit.

From “racial cleansing” to a better future

Cancer Alley is a 130-mile stretch along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge that contains more than 200 industrial sites, including refineries, plastics plants, chemical plants, and other industries that emit significant amounts of harmful substances into the atmosphere. .

Industries in the region have sparked a vibrant environmental justice movement, and St. James Parish has come into the spotlight in recent years in part because of a proposed massive $9.4 billion Formosa plastics complex on 2,400 acres in Wellcome, Louisiana.

Last year, a state judge blocked Formosa, but the company is still fighting for its permits. The lawsuit cites Formosa’s large environmental impact – emitting 800 tons of toxic pollutants per year and 13 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, roughly equivalent to the emissions of 3.5 coal-fired power plants – as well as the local government’s decision to approve the plant. as another example of environmental racism.

A land use plan passed in 2014 and amended in 2018 designated large sections of the 4th and 5th districts as “industrial”, despite the high concentration of residential areas in these areas. It labeled residential areas as “Existing Residential/Future Industrial”, clearly indicating their planned demise, a category of zoning that the lawsuit describes as a “racial cleansing plan”.

The lawsuit alleges that parish officials “granted all requests from heavy industry corporations to locate their facilities in black-majority areas of the county and denied requests to locate them in white-majority areas of the county.”

“As much as we love St. James Parish, it has also been a place of grave injustice,” said Gail LeBoeuf, co-founder and co-director of Inclusive Louisiana, citing industrial pollution.

At a press conference, she said that she was currently battling cancer. “I can’t say exactly what caused it,” she said. “But no one can tell me that it wasn’t caused by a known carcinogen.”

Myrtle Felton, another co-founder and co-CEO of Inclusive Louisiana, said the lawsuit is intended to help build a better future.

“We want to envision a new economy for St. James County, one that is not weighed down by pollution and dying industries, and where everyone has opportunity and no one has to suffer.”

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