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Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of the faith-based community group RISE St. James

Local activists are organizing to block a petrochemical complex from being in St. James Parish, citing pollution concerns and a discovery that the site served as burial grounds for enslaved people. (Photo: RISE St. James/Facebook)

Louisiana Officials Urged to Rescind Permission for Petrochemical Plant Over Cancer Dangers and Discovery of Burial Grounds for Enslaved People

"We continue to fight for our lives against these toxic industries, and now we are fighting for our ancestors too."

Jessica Corbett

Louisiana residents, environmental justice groups, and legal advocates joined together Monday to pressure the St. James Parish Council to rescind its decision to allow a subsidiary of the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group to build a $9.4 billion petrochemical plant in a predominantly African-American community.

The legal organizations Earthjustice and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) sent letters to the council on behalf of RISE St. James and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade to encourage members—who were scheduled to meet Monday at 6pm local time—to reconsider the land use application of Formosa's subsidiary, FG LA.

The letters, as a statement from CCR summarizes, "cite new and alarming information about the levels of cancer-causing chemicals the facility would emit, the company's failure to follow through on its promise to alter its layout to lessen exposure to school children and residents nearby, and its failure to alert parish officials and residents of the existence of graves of enslaved people."

CCR senior staff attorney Pam Spees said that "it is no exaggeration to say that this facility presents an existential threat to the surrounding communities, who have already borne a heavy toxic burden." As The Intercept reported last week:

Many residents of the area, known as "Cancer Alley," already oppose the construction of the almost 2,400-acre complex on the west side of the Mississippi River on the grounds that it will double the dangerous amount of toxic chemicals in their air and emit more than 13 million tons of carbon pollution each year, making it the biggest new source of greenhouse gas emissions from a petrochemical plant since at least 2012. The discovery of the burial site adds another layer to their outrage.

"We continue to fight for our lives against these toxic industries, and now we are fighting for our ancestors too," Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of the faith-based community group RISE St. James, said Monday. "They had no choice about where they lived, where they died, or where they were buried, but we are going to fight for the respect that their resting places, and our homes, deserve."

The good news, added Spees, is that "it's not too late—the council must do the right thing now to prevent irreparable harm in the present and to begin to reckon with the past in ways that honor those who suffered immeasurably under slavery."

The letter (pdf) from CCR, which focuses on the burial sites, states that "though Formosa has known of the burial sites for more than a year, it did not bring this pivotal information to the attention of the planning commission, the parish council, the council member representing the Fifth District in which the burials are located, RISE St. James, or other interested and concerned parties while its land use application was pending before the parish."

"As a result of Formosa's failure to inform the planning commission and parish council publicly of the possible—and later confirmed—existence of these historic graves," the letter explains, "the commission was unable to fully consider all of the physical and environmental impacts of the project and the residents of St. James were denied their rightful opportunity to make an informed judgement about the merits of Formosa's proposed project."

CCR urges the council to "rescind its grant of Formosa's land use application to fully take into account the impact of Formosa's proposed plastics project for these irreplaceable, historic sites." The letter (pdf) from Earthjustice comes to a similar conclusion, based on concerns about the proposed complex's anticipated impact on public health.

"Formosa appears to have misled the parish that it altered its site design to minimize the risk of harm to the elementary school and church about a mile away," Earthjustice's letter states—and since the council approved the company's land use application, "the evidence of the risks from Formosa's toxic air emissions to St. James Parish residents has only grown more alarming."

The Earthjustice letter continues:

For example, recent analysis conducted by The Advocate and ProPublica shows that the area where Formosa wants to build is already "more toxic with cancer-causing chemicals than 99.6% of industrialized areas in the country." The study concludes that if Formosa is allowed to operate, the emissions from the complex would expose area residents to "more than triple" the toxic levels of cancer-causing chemicals. The study provides new information on the impact of Formosa's cumulative toxic emissions in combination with other industrial sources that already saturate the area with cancer-causing chemicals. This was the first assessment of cumulative toxic pollutant impacts of this project. The parish must consider this new information and rescind its decision to allow Formosa to build what would be one of the nation's most toxic facilities and increase the cancer risk to area residents and elementary school children who are already exposed to high concentrations of toxic pollutants.

The Advocate and ProPublica hired Michael Petroni, a Ph.D. candidate at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and an expert in the Environmental Protection Agency's Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators dataset, to model the regional impact of Formosa's emissions for the analysis in their joint report, which was published last month and also featured comment from local residents.

"We need no more pollution. We are already devastated," said Rita Cooper, a longtime resident of the area where the plant would be located. "Our bodies can no longer take any more."

As Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade put it in CCR's statement Monday: "Formosa is not worthy of St. James Parish. They should be run out of town."

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