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RISE St. James Activists and Residents File a Lawsuit Against Local Officials

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Howard chapter.

Residents of St. James, La., filed a federal lawsuit against St. James Parish accusing them of civil rights violations under the 13th and 14th amendments, based on St. James Parish’s decision to build and expand petrochemical plants in St. James, Louisiana 4th and 5th district, which are predominantly black communities in St. James Louisiana.

According to the lawsuit, “Plaintiffs…seek to end a discriminatory and harmful land use system in St. James Parish…That system is now the cause of an environmental and public health emergency directly threatening them and the majority Black residents also residing there.”

Residents also called for the pause of construction of the petrochemical plants and a pause of activity in existing plants in the city. In addition to residents wanting to win the lawsuit, they want the courts to help affected communities with remediation.

In a press release from the Center of Constitutional Rights, Gail LeBoeuf, a co-founder of a grassroots non-profit Inclusive Louisiana, said, “Over 60 years, needed revenue was used for voting in plants that release polluting toxic chemicals and other particulate matter. Snaking down the river for 20 miles, two predominantly Black communities breathe in these pollutants daily. These human rights violations show no mercy, compassion, or love for all 20,000 residents, nor envision our future, while we’re experiencing Global Warming.”

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a funeral procession in D.C. where RISE St. James, a Louisiana-based grassroots environmental and faith-based organization, honored the lives of those lost to the fossil fuel industry. In the hope of encouraging the Biden administration to declare St. James Parish a state of emergency.

The event was led by Sharon Lavigne, an environmental justice advocate who helped stop the construction of a plastics manufacturing plant in St. James Parish, La. The plant would have generated a million pounds of hazardous material every year.

“We are dying, struggling to breathe polluted air and without clean water to drink,” said Sharon Lavigne during the funeral procession.

” Our gardens are producing inedible vegetables, and our bath water leaves us itching for days… I am making a personal plea to you, President Biden. Please save us. Use your power to declare Cancer Alley a State of Emergency, declare a climate emergency, halt the petrochemical build out in the Gulf South and help our children and grandchildren to live long, healthy lives.”

St. James Parish, also known as Cancer Alley, has 200 petrochemical plants in the area. Because of this, cancer rates are 50 times higher than the national average, according to an article by The Guardian, mainly affecting African-Americans communities.

The lawsuit reported that there are 11 petrochemical plants in St. James Parish. Out of that 11, four facilities are in the 4th district, where 52% of the population is composed of African-Americans. Five plants are located in the 5th district, where 88.6% of the population in that district are African-American.

Late last month, the Environmental Protection Agency filed an injunction on Denka Performance Elastomer LLC, a power plant in St. James that makes Neoprene. According to the Department of Justice press release, they filed a motion asking that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana order Denka Performance Elastomer LLC, reduce their pollution amount of chloroprene emissions. This pollutant has been known as a possible carcinogen.

The lawsuit was filed by Inclusive Louisiana, Mount Triumph Baptist Church, and RISE St. James, with their counsel being The Center Constitutional Rights and Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic. The lawsuit lists St James Parish and their counsel, also the St. James Parish Planning Commission, as defendants. Since the lawsuit was filed on March 21, there has been no update to it as of yet. The lawsuit will be handled by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

My name is Tcherika Petit-Frere and I am a sophomore journalism major at Howard University. I have written some articles for Glitter Magazine, The Hilltop, and the HU News Service.