'Cancer Alley' at center of lawsuit claiming environmental health crisis
The area is the stretch of land along the Mississippi River in Louisiana.
The residents of a Louisiana parish, located in an area that has become known as “Cancer Alley,” filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the local government alleging the petrochemical plants built in the area are tantamount to “environmental racism.”
The lawsuit, which names St. James Parish, St. James Parish Council and St. James Parish Planning Commission as defendants, seeks a moratorium on petrochemical plants in the Black districts of St. James Parish, as well as other relief. The lawsuit was filed by the environmental organizations Inclusive Louisiana and Rise St. James, as well as the Mount Triumph Baptist Church.
“It is one of the most severe and obvious forms of discrimination that people have been living with, and it needs to stop. It’s illegal,” said attorney Pamela Spees, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, at Tuesday’s press conference announcing the lawsuit.
The Center for Constitutional Rights and Tulane University Law School collaborated with the community to file the lawsuit, which states that it seeks to “remediate the ongoing effects of the Parish’s environmental racism.”
The predominantly-Black neighborhoods, nicknamed “Cancer Alley” for their high concentration of petrochemical plants and long-term air pollution, lie along the stretch of land along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
The environmental organizations and residents of St. James Parish submitted their first challenge to the production of petrochemicals in September 2019, according to a press release from St. James Parish residents Tuesday morning.
The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declined to comment regarding the lawsuit.
In 2022, after a preliminary investigation, the EPA released a letter with their initial recommendations in response to civil rights complaints accusing Louisiana regulators of neglecting Black community members' concerns about toxic air pollution, and wrote the state “must examine how polluters imperil the health of Black residents.”
According to the letter, which referred to the agency’s early research, Black residents in southeastern Louisiana have a disproportionate increased cancer risk from industrial air pollution and urged environmental and health agencies to analyze the impact on the residential plants, including a proposed Formosa Plastics facility in St. James Parish.
Studies have demonstrated that air pollution from petrochemical plants has the ability to change human DNA, which can lead to the development of cancer.
Gail LeBoeuf, the co-founder and co-director of Inclusive Louisiana and a community member, shared during the press conference that she has liver cancer that she believes the area’s plastics plants contributed to.
“For years now we have gone to the Parish Council with our concerns, but every time we are ignored,” she said.
According to the lawsuit, Black residents are heavily concentrated in the 5th District and 4th District of St. James Parish, which are 88.6% Black and 53% Black, respectively. The lawsuit emphasized that more than a dozen industrial facilities are located in these districts.
Community members are descendants of African slaves, according to citizens in the Parish, whose families have remained in the area.
"As a result of the vestiges of the slavery in Louisiana and in St. James in particular, plaintiffs’ members reside in some of the most polluted, toxic – and lethal – census tracts in the country, situated within a stretch of land along the Mississippi now widely known as 'Cancer Alley,'" the lawsuit states.
According to the lawsuit, 11 facilities in St. James Parish report to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory and four of them are located in the 5th District. Five facilities are located in the 4th District.
Last September, Judge Trudy White, of Louisiana's 19th Judicial District in Baton Rouge, vacated air permits for the proposed $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics petrochemical facility in St. James Parish. Formosa Plastics affiliate FG LA- LLC, in addition to The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, appealed that decision and defended its proposed plant.
A spokesperson for FG LA LLC, Janile Parks, said in a written statement to ABC News the company still plans to continue to build the complex, coined as the "Sunshine Project," by exploring "all legal options in light of Judge White’s ruling as the project continues to pursue successful permitting."
"The serious health claims levied against FG’s project are false and unjustified. This project has been thoroughly vetted and approved by parish and state bodies because it relied on sound science in design and met all regulatory criteria, including locating the project in an area designated by parish government for industrial use," Parks said. "As part of the St. James Parish Land Use Approval Process, FG assessed various reasonable potential failure scenarios to demonstrate that, even under an unlikely failure event, materials being handled or stored onsite are not expected to cause or create a health or safety issue for even the nearest community."
This plant was destined to be one of the world’s largest production facilities for plastics and plastic feedstocks, which serve as the building blocks to develop plastics.
“The owners of these plants come to St. James Parish promising job and economic opportunities in our neighborhood; we don’t see any of that,” said Barbara Washington, a director of Inclusive Louisiana. “We’ve seen smoke and smog, and smell pollution.”
St. James Parish Councilmembers did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment, and Councilman Clyde Cooper of District 5 declined to immediately comment on the lawsuit.
“There is no better example of the afterlife of enslavement than what is happening right now in St. James Parish,” said Vincent Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, during the press conference.
“Our plaintiffs, and the Black communities they are a part of, have essentially called on St. James Parish to end the building and the siting of the plants that are killing this community,” he said.
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