How Solidarity And Tenacity Defeated A Billion-Dollar Toxic Chemical Plant

By David B.

Last month, chemical company Wanhua announced its withdrawal from a bid that would have seen it build a 250-acre plant in Convent, a small community along the Mississippi River in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Its defeat can be attributed in large part to community activists, including Rise St. James, a local, faith-based group determined to turn the tide on toxic air, land, and water pollution caused by a chemical industry run amok. There are 22,000 residents of St. James, and 32 chemical plants. The defeat of the $1.2 billion complex means that its annual production of 300 tons of harmful pollutants will not exacerbate a problem in a community already dubbed Cancer Alley.

“When Wanhua was coming in my side door a half a mile from my house, it was time for me to speak up and speak out,” says Myrtle Felton, a member of Rise St. James. “We don’t want any more chemical plants here. We have enough.”

Rise St. James, one of a handful of activist groups determined to stop the unchecked onslaught of the chemical industry, was organized by Sharon Lavigne, a retired schoolteacher. She founded the organization on October 20, 2018.

“It started in my den. We had 10 members,” she tells Red Delta. “At the next meeting, we had 20 members — that was in my garage. And then we went from there, and we’ve been going ever since.” In the 5th District of the parish alone, there are 12 chemical plants, with three more set for construction — all in a 12-mile radius.

Though Rise St. James is a small group, its members are tenacious. They wrote letters to the editors of local newspapers and appeared on 89.9 WWNO radio. They marched to the state capitol, got to the governor’s office, burned candles, and spoke the names of over 100 people from their community who have died of cancer.

Gov. John Bel Edwards refused to meet with them — no surprise, as he supported the deal that gave Wanhua $4 million and a 10-year moratorium on property taxes.

“So we marched to the mansion,” says Barbara Washington of Rise St. James. “We turned our backs on the governor as he turned his back on us.”
They also took their fight to Washington, D.C., where no Louisiana representatives in Congress had the courage to meet with them.

“We know our voices are being heard,” says Lavigne. “All I was told was the plants are coming in, and there’s nothing we can do.”
She found strength in her faith, which spurred her to action. In addition to marches, reaching out to local media, and political protests, the group joined with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic to file suits to stop Wanhua’s construction, arguing that pumping phosgene gas directly into the air over a residential neighborhood might be a bad idea. Phosgene was used as a chemical weapon during the First World War.

It took nine months to kill Wanhua. It was an extraordinary victory for community solidarity over a toxic behemoth.

“Our local, our state, our federal, and our Congressional leaders of this country have been selling us out for decades. Big business has been getting them to change laws and taking away our rights. And people have to realize that,” says Gail LeBeouf, a member of Rise St. James. “We need new people all over this country that will undo those crooked laws — those classist, racist, despicable laws — that big businesses have been putting forth for their own personal agenda.”

Rise St. James isn’t finished yet. Today, they have targeted Formosa Petrochemical Corporation, which plans to turn 2,400 acres of St. James into a plastic-producing wasteland, adding formaldehyde and benzene — both carcinogens — to the air. The project would emit nearly 14 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, making this complex the second-largest GHG emitter in Louisiana and one of the largest in the U.S. With Orwellian flair, the governor has dubbed the effort to lure Formosa to the community the “Sunshine Project.”

To protest the plant, Rise St. James will kick off with a march on Oct. 16 in New Orleans that goes for two weeks, culminating on Oct. 30 with a descent on the State Capitol led by Rev. William Barber, a civil rights activist from North Carolina and one of the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival.

Follow Rise St. James on Facebook for more details on the October marches.
The group is urging the public to call the governor at 225-342-0991 to oppose the Formosa plant.