Rise St. James Cancer Alley DC Funeral March

Pallbearers carry a coffin representing Cancer Alley victims during an October 25, 2022 march and rally in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Eman Mohammed/Survival Media Agency/flickr)

Cancer Alley Activists Hold DC Funeral March Asking Biden to Declare Climate Emergency

"People are dying," pleaded RISE St. James leader Sharon Lavigne outside the White House. "This an emergency. If he will not declare this an emergency, we are going to die."

Environmental justice activists from Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" on Monday held a funeral procession in Washington, D.C. to remember victims--overwhelmingly Black people--killed by petrochemical industry pollution and to demand that U.S. President Joe Biden declare a climate emergency and do more to stop deadly fossil fuel projects.

"President Biden, you are drinking clean water, and we are not. You can plant a garden over here; we cannot, the soil is destroyed."

Activists led by the frontline action group RISE St. James held a second-line march--the procession, replete with brass band musicians and parasol-toting dancers, that rallies behind relatives of the deceased in a traditional New Orleans funeral--to the White House, where they held large photos of dead cancer victims and pleaded with Biden to take action to protect their lives and their environment.

"I want the world to know what's going on in St. James Parish and throughout the Gulf Coast," said RISE St. James president Sharon Lavigne outside the White House.

"People are dying," she continued. "Cancer is taking over our lives in the river parishes, in St. James Parish, and throughout the Gold Coast. So we're asking President Biden to declare St. James Parish, Cancer Alley, to declare this an emergency. If he will not declare this an emergency, we are going to die."

"We are already dying, slowly but surely," Lavigne said. "Sometimes we have one funeral per week for someone dying of cancer. If this don't stop, we won't have anything left of our area. We need you all to work with us to help us to declare this a climate emergency."

"We won the fight with Formosa Plastics. The judge rules in our favor on all counts," she added to loud applause, referring to last month's court order blocking the construction of a highly controversial petrochemical factory along the Mississippi River in St. James Parish. "With God's help we're gonna win any other fight that's coming to our neighborhood, and that's a fact. We will not allow any more because we're gonna stand together, and we will fight any industry that tries to come into our neighborhood and destroy us."

St. James Parish sits in the middle of an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as Cancer Alley due to its nearly 150 oil refineries and plastics and chemical plants.

According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the cancer risk in predominantly Black areas of St. James Parish is as high as 105 per million, compared with 60 to 75 cases per million in majority white areas. The EPA's Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators database reported an 800% cancer hazard increase due to petrochemical facilities in the parish between 2007 and 2018.

"President Biden, you are drinking clean water, and we are not. You can plant a garden over here; we cannot, the soil is destroyed because of [the] petrochemical industry," Lavigne said, inviting the president to "come to St. James Parish" and "see what we are going through."

"We need your help," she added, "and we are pleading with you and your staff."

In a letter to Biden published Tuesday, Lavigne wrote:

St. James Parish now has the most polluted air in America, with cancer rates more than 50% higher than the national average. Our air is quite literally killing us, and no one seems to really mind. Sure, there have been promises. You yourself uttered the words "Cancer Alley," during your first week in office, something very few politicians of your stature have been willing to do. This has given us hope, and when you sent EPA Administrator Michael Reagan down to visit me and other activists, we were encouraged that change will come.

"However, we are still dying, struggling to breath polluted air, and without clean water to drink," she stressed. "President Biden. Please save us. You too understand the gut-wrenching pain of losing a loved one to cancer. Help to make it so that no one else in St. James Parish has to feel this pain. "

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