RISE St. James Director testifies against Formosa in Washington D.C.

Staff Writer
Donaldsonville Chief
Sharon Lavigne poses with the U.S. House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change on November 20, 2019.

RISE Director Sharon Lavigne was invited by U.S. Representative Paul D. Tonko to testify before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change on November 20, 2019.

Ms. Lavigne was accompanied by RISE members Myrtle Felton, Gail Leboeuf, and Barbara Washington, who met with various congressional leaders during their trip.

Below is the transcript of Ms. Lavigne’s testimony:

"It's an honor and a privilege to be here with you today. My name is Sharon Lavigne. I am the daughter of a Civil Rights Movement leader and I live in St. James, Louisiana. When I was growing up, St. James was a vibrant place and I lived the American Dream as a little girl. But today, we're living through a nightmare of industrial pollution and disease.

"In spring 2018, our Governor John Bel Edwards announced a $9.4 billion industrial factory proposed by Formosa Plastics wanted to locate in St. James Parish, a mile from the local public school and two miles from my home. While researching the project’s history, we found out that in 2014, the Parish Council changed the land use plan for the 5th district where I live from 'residential' to 'residential/future industrial.' Our residential neighborhood was suddenly deemed "future industrial" without our knowledge or consent.

"The 5th district of St. James is already surrounded by industry, and it is making us sick. Maybe you've seen the press coverage of "Cancer Alley," where I live, which we're now calling "Death Alley" because the health threats we face take so many forms. I have auto-immune hepatitis and aluminum in my body. My grandchildren have breathing problems, and when they are outside playing for any period of time, they develop rashes.

"One day, I sat on my porch and I prayed. I talked to God and I said, "Do you want me to give up the land that you gave me?" He said no. I said, "Do you want me to give up the home that you gave me?" He said no. I said, "What do you want me to do?" He said I want you to fight.

"That was the beginning of my fight to stop Formosa Plastics. I felt like we were already bombarded by enough industry in the 5th District, why should another chemical plant get to come here? I found out the Formosa plant isn't just one plant, there are at least 14 plants within the planned facility. Fourteen!

"I didn't know how to fight, didn't know what to do, and I had never stood up to industry in my life. My first meeting I held was at my home, on October 20, 2018. I had 10 people come – two of them died this year. The next meeting was in my garage with 20 people. That was when we decided to come up with a name for our group. We decided on Rise St. James. After that, we planned our first march on November 3, 2018. That march brought a lot of attention to the people in the 5th District. That was one of my first times speaking in public.

"We've already had one victory. We worked to block a $1.5 billion petrochemical plant called Wanhua from moving to St. James Parish and being built within a mile of our homes. We appealed the St. James Parish Planning Commission's approval of Wanhua's land use permit and we won. Wanhua withdrew its proposal and ended up pulling out.

"But we need your help. Rise St. James is asking for a moratorium on the oil, gas, and petrochemical industry in our Parish. These new plastic plants poison our communities and deepen the plastic crisis. We want them to stop expanding. We want to protect our health, our homes, our land, and our future.

"People in St. James need help from our elected officials. Our people are sick, and they are dying. These emissions include ethylene oxide, a toxic chemical that causes cancer like non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, and breast cancer. Formosa's plant would be the third largest emitter of ethylene oxide in the country. It would increase levels of this toxic substance in St. James many, many times over.

"I retired early from teaching on October 3, 2019. I wanted to work a year or two more, but God put this fight in me to Stop Formosa and any other chemical plant that comes to St. James. I am here because of the calling of God. I want to stop any and every industry that is coming to harm the health of the people in my community. God wouldn't have put this fight on me if he didn't have a plan.

"I invite all of you to come to St. James and see it for yourself. The civil rights struggle that my parents fought for continues today and we fight for our survival against industrial polluters.

"Thank you."

Ms. Lavigne invites residents from all districts to join RISE St. James in demanding a moratorium on industry to protect the health of St. James Parish residents.

Contributed by RISE St. James