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Sharon Lavigne

RISE St. James founder and president Sharon Lavigne, who is among this year's winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Foundation)

Frontline Foe of Formosa Plastics Plant in 'Cancer Alley' Among 2021 Winners of 'Green Nobels'

Sharon Lavigne, the North American recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, is being recognized for stopping construction of a plastics manufacturing plant in her Louisiana community.

Andrea Germanos

Environmental justice activist Sharon Lavigne, who led a successful grassroots campaign to block a toxic plastics manufacturing plant in her Louisiana community, is this year's North American winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.

The awards, sometimes referred to as the Green Nobels, were announced Tuesday to recognize "grassroots environmental heroes" on each of the planet's inhabited continents who have exhibited "sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk."

"Sharon is in an intense, ongoing fight for the life of her community and our planet."

Lavigne is a former special education teacher and founder and president of the faith-based grassroots group RISE St. James. The St. James Parish is located in a predominantly Black area along the Mississippi River known as "cancer alley"—a nickname in reference to the human impact of the toxic industries that have polluted, and are slating to continue polluting, the surrounding communities.

The 69-year-old has been leading efforts against such environmental racism, and Goldman recognized her advocacy to successfully stop the Wanhua plastics complex. As a statement from Goldman notes, St. James Parish Council gave the plant zoning approval, even though it would have produced "hundreds of tons of methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI)—a chemical used in the production of foam. MDI affects respiratory function in humans and is found to produce tumors in rats." It would also have released "carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, benzene, and other toxic pollutants into the environment—directly next to residential neighborhoods and the Mississippi River."

By leading what the prize called "a master class in campaigning for environmental justice," including forming alliances with other environmental and climate justice organizations, Wanhua withdrew the project.

But, as she and her allies stress, the battle to stop the community from continuing to be a sacrifice zone to benefit polluting industries. At the center of that struggle is stopping Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group from building a $9.4 billion petrochemical plant.

Lavigne's group along with allies Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Healthy Gulf, filed a federal lawsuit last year to stop the plant, triggering a construction delay.

Following the award announcement, Lavigne's allies sang her praises and referenced her determination.

"When the governor of Louisiana came to St. James Parish and announced Formosa Plastics was coming to town, Sharon Lavigne was brave enough to stand up and say no. Sharon had a different vision for her historic Black community," Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said in a statement. 

"When parish officials told her that Formosa was a done deal, she insisted that it was not," Rolfes added. "Her leadership, courage, and vision are rewarded today by the Goldman Prize. And she would be the first to say that this is just the beginning. The fight has just begun.”

"These phenomenal environmental champions remind us what can be accomplished when we fight back and refuse to accept powerlessness and environmental degradation."

Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which represented the groups fighting Formosa Plastics, also celebrated Lavigne's achievement.

“Sharon is in an intense, ongoing fight for the life of her community and our planet," she said. "Sharon has battled through pollution-related illness and the loss of loved ones, and she keeps faithfully fighting environmental racism. Under the leadership of this amazing woman, we're going to stop Formosa Plastics and advance environmental justice in this country.”

Other Goldman Prize winners this year include Gloria Majiga-Kamoto of Malawi for fighting against plastics pollution; pangolin advocate Thai Van Nguyen of Vietnam; dam opponent Maida Bilal of Bosnia and Herzegovina; anti-coal activist Kimiko Hirata of Japan; and conservation champion Liz Chicaje Churay of Peru.

"These Prize winners," said Goldman Environmental Foundation vice president Susie Gelman, "have so much to teach us about the path forward and how to maintain the balance with nature that is key to our survival. These phenomenal environmental champions remind us what can be accomplished when we fight back and refuse to accept powerlessness and environmental degradation."

"They have not been silenced—despite great risks and personal hardship—and we must also not be silent, either. It takes all of us," added Gelman.


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