Letter to the editor: RISE St. James declares victory over Wanhua

Staff Writer
Donaldsonville Chief
Sharon Lavigne (right) and her granddaughter, Asha Lavigne (left)

After nine months of organizing opposition to a $1.25 billion chemical plant proposed for St. James Parish, RISE St. James Director Sharon Cayette Lavigne declares victory--but says the fight in St. James is not over.

Wanhua, a major Chinese chemical company, pulled its application to build an MDI plastic complex in St. James Parish after a year-long, mostly secretive process.

The company met fierce opposition from RISE St. James and their allies across the river parishes. "We are truly blessed that all our work opposing Wanhua before the St. James authorities has been a success," Ms. Lavigne said.

For those who do not know, RISE St. James is a grassroots community group focused on protecting the air, water and environment for the safety and health of St. James Parish residents. RISE recently called for a moratorium on new industrial plants--until the parish and state address the toxic pollution that is already being emitted in St. James, no new plants should be moving in.

"We still have to defeat Formosa, and we believe Formosa will draw its application to come to St. James," Ms. Lavigne said. "We thank all our supporters and urge our friends to fight hard to stop new chemical plants trying to locate in Louisiana to poison our air, land, and water."

Though Wanhua claimed it would provide hundreds of local jobs, the first job ads were posted in Houston and required fluency in Mandarin. And as Ms. Lavigne said, "We need jobs, but not jobs that will kill us."

St. James parish officials were also complicit in Wanhua's secretive campaign. Planning commissioners and council members violated the Louisiana Open Meetings Law by secretly convening to discuss Wanhua's land use application just days before a pivotal planning commission vote. Represented by Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, RISE St. James and other residents sued the parish to void decisions made in Wanhua's favor.

RISE St. James is part of a larger environmental movement across Louisiana, and their key allies include CADA (Coalition Against Death Alley), Earthjustice, and Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. Beginning on October 16, RISE St. James, CADA, and supporters will be marching for two weeks from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, ending at the steps of the state capitol on October 30.

The march will target chemical facilities, proposed electrical plants, expansion of the industrial canal, lead in water pipes, privatization of public schools, expansion of freeways through poor and black communities, and the mass incarceration of African Americans and people of color by Louisiana's justice system.

It's no coincidence that the 4th and 5th Districts of St. James Parish--which are majority African American--were the only districts to be recently and covertly rezoned from residential to "residential/future industrial."

Though the environmental racism could not be more pronounced, Ms. Lavigne and RISE St. James are fighting to protect the health of all residents along Cancer Alley, including New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Industry and elected officials are trying to wipe these historic communities along the Mississippi off the map, but St. James is rising up with the leadership of Ms. Lavigne to protect our health, our homes, and our future.

Ms. Sharon has retired early from teaching so that she can dedicate all of her time to stopping Formosa from moving into her overburdened community. "This is our land, this is our home, and we are standing up together to defend it. St. James is rising, and Formosa, you are not welcome here," said Ms. Lavigne.


Pastor Harry Joseph of the Mount Triumph Baptist Church in St. James