Residents of a Louisiana parish located in the heart of a cluster of polluting petrochemical factories filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday raising allegations of civil rights, environmental justice and religious liberty violations.
The lawsuit names St. James Parish as the defendant and says the parish council approved the construction of several factories in two Black districts of the parish that emit harmful amounts of toxic chemicals. It said the pollution negatively affected the health of the area's Black residents.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are calling for a moratorium on petrochemical plants like one being built by Formosa Plastics that was approved by the council in 2019. The Associated Press reached out to the council for comment but did not receive an immediate response.
For several years, Black residents of St. James Parish have lobbied the parish council and state government to do something about petrochemical plants emitting toxic chemicals into the air they breathe. But they've been ignored, according to Shamyra Lavigne of Rise St. James, a local climate justice organization.
“We stand here today to say we will not be ignored. You will not sacrifice our lives. And we will not take any more industry in the fourth or fifth district of St. James. Enough is enough,” Lavigne said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Louisiana.
Lavigne was one of St. James residents at the briefing who shared about their frustration from living near polluting factories and how they believe the parish council is responsible for creating environmental injustice.
“Every one of us has been touched by the parish's repeated decisions to pack Black neighborhoods with toxic chemical plants,” said Barbara Washington, co-founder of the environmental justice organization Inclusive Louisiana. “Every one of us has had stories about our own health and the health of our relatives and friends, who have had .... cancer and COPD."
The plaintiffs live along Cancer Alley, an 85-mile (135-kilometer) corridor that runs along the Mississippi River between New Orleans to Baton Rouge and is filled with industrial plants that emit toxic chemicals, some of which are known carcinogens. In 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency said it has evidence that Black residents in the region have an increased risk of cancer from at least one nearby plant, which they sued last month in a separate case.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday also claims that some of the factories were built on and destroyed the burial grounds of deceased slaves, which made it impossible for their descendants visit their dead ancestors. Some of these descendants, plaintiffs claim, are among those affected by the toxic chemical releases.
“For some of us, St. James Parish is .... the home of our ancestors, who were slaves, who worked the land for generations and never got paid,” said Gail LeBoeuf, another co-founder of Inclusive Louisiana. LeBoeuf has liver cancer, which she acknowledged can't be traced back to petrochemical plant pollution with certainty, but said it can't be ruled out either.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they are seeking remedies for the environmental injustices sustained by the residents, which they seek to halt by invalidating permits for factories underway and land use regulations that allow for the placement of factories in black districts. They are also seeking independent environmental monitoring of air, water and soil. The case will be assigned and the parish will be served, then will have an opportunity to respond in the coming weeks.
Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley.