Residents of Louisiana County, located in the center of a cluster of polluting petrochemical plants, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday, alleging violations of civil rights, environmental justice and religious freedom.
The lawsuit names St. James Parish as the defendant and says the parish council has approved the construction of several factories in two black neighborhoods in the parish that release harmful amounts of toxic chemicals. It states that the pollution has adversely affected the health of black residents in the area.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are calling for a moratorium on petrochemical plants like the one being built by Formosa Plastics and approved by the board in 2019. The Associated Press reached out to the board for comment but received no immediate response.
For years, black residents of St. James Parish have lobbied the parish council and state government to do something about petrochemical plants that release toxic chemicals into the air they breathe. But they were ignored, according to Shamira Lavigne of Rise St. James, a local climate protection organization.
“We are standing here today to say that we will not be ignored. You will not sacrifice our lives. And we will no longer take industry in the fourth or fifth arrondissement of St. James. Enough,” Lavigne said at a press conference on the lawsuit, which was filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.
Lavigne was one of the residents of St. James at the briefing who shared her frustration with living near polluting factories and how they felt the parish council was responsible for creating environmental injustice.
“Each of us has been touched by the parish’s repeated decisions to fill black neighborhoods with poisonous chemical plants,” said Barbara Washington, co-founder of environmental justice organization Inclusive Louisiana. “We each had stories about our own health and the health of our relatives and friends who had…cancer and COPD.”
The plaintiffs live in Cancer Alley, an 85-mile (135-kilometer) corridor that runs along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and is filled with industrial plants that release toxic chemicals, some of which are known carcinogens. In 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency said it had evidence that black residents of the region have an increased risk of cancer due to at least one nearby plant, which they sued last month in a separate case.
The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday, also alleges that some factories were built and destroyed on the burial site of deceased slaves, preventing their descendants from visiting their deceased ancestors. Some of these descendants, the plaintiffs allege, were among those affected by the release of toxic chemicals.
“For some of us, St. James Parish is… the home of our ancestors who were slaves, worked the land for generations and never received a paycheck,” said Gail LeBoeuf, another co-founder of Inclusive Louisiana. LeBoeuf has liver cancer, which she admits cannot be attributed with certainty to pollution from petrochemical plants, but said it cannot be ruled out.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they are seeking a remedy for the environmental injustice experienced by residents, which they seek to stop by repealing permits for operating factories and land use regulations that allow factories to be located in black areas. They also strive for independent environmental monitoring of air, water and soil. The case will be assigned and the parish will be served, after which there will be an opportunity to respond in the coming weeks.
Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science and Education Media Group. AP is solely responsible for all content.