There’s a stretch of land along the Mississippi River corridor that has been the target of petrochemical companies for years. Between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, hundreds of plants fill the air with toxins and soot at such speed that the area is already considered to have “some of the most dangerous air in America.” It’s known as Cancer Alley — it has the highest cancer rates in the U.S. — and as if the effects haven’t been felt enough already, seven new petrochemical facilities and expansions have been approved since 2015, including a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics factory in St. James Parish that would double the parish’s toxic air pollution.
Formosa’s grand plan, titled the Sunshine Project, is a huge bet on single-use plastics at a time when bans and restrictions are on the rise. But the company’s vision is not completely off-base, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has called for increased use of single-use masks, gloves, take-out containers, and more.
Plastic use is only expected to go up in the coming decades—and, once finished, the Formosa complex will be one of the largest petrochemical plants in the world.
It’s easy to see who the winners are in this scenario. Through a combination of corporate incentives, access to fossil fuels and shipping lanes, and lenient environmental regulations, these companies have made Louisiana home. And locals are putting up a fight. As ProPublica stated in a recent dive into the toxic history of Cancer Alley, “Folks in St. Gabriel and elsewhere along the river say they don’t need a weatherman — or a computer model — to know which way the wind blows. They see cancer everywhere, and they blame the plants, even if the state Department of Health and other researchers have yet to prove such a link exists.”
They are sending letters to the state government to shut down the projects and protesting alongside construction sites. And the COVID-19 pandemic won’t slow them down (although it will affect them disproportionately). In fact, their voices are more important than ever. “What we’re seeing is the petrochemical industry on steroids, doing what they usually do, which is to take advantage of a crisis for their own benefit,” Louisiana Bucket Brigade founder Anne Rolfes said on the podcast Drilled. At the start of the crisis, the American Petroleum Institute asked President Trump for safety rules to be relaxed to boost production. Six days later, their request was granted. Additionally, Formosa began construction on their new plant the day that the state’s stay-at-home order was enacted (and after a two-year battle against it by local environmental justice groups).
“Why do the residents of St. James and everywhere else have to abide by the governor’s stay-at-home orders and Formosa does not?” Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James, asked in a press release. “Why does Formosa have special privileges and we who have lived here all our lives do not?”
Sharon Lavigne’s family has called St. James home for five generations now. The new Formosa plant is being constructed two miles from her home.
Lavigne and RISE St. James have been working closely with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade to call for a moratorium on new facilities in St. James Parish, a neighborhood that already hosts six of them (and five more in the works). You can follow their efforts here and here. Together with other environmental and civil rights organizations, they have banded together to form CADA, the Coalition Against Death Alley, to fight the poisoning of majority-black communities in what it considers an “ongoing silent genocide.”
The fight isn’t an easy one, in part due to what’s called a “social license to operate,” or a company’s argument that its benefits outweigh the costs. Shell, for example, now funds New Orleans’ Jazz Fest, or as it’s officially called, Jazz and Heritage Festival Presented by Shell, under the guise of fostering a sustainable community.
On the surface, it seems like a philanthropic endeavor — but it also makes it harder to hold these companies accountable.
Fossil fuel companies are pushing the illusion that the social fabric of the state depends on their generosity. Imani Brown of Antenna, which runs artist- and writer-driven programs in New Orleans, said to Drilled, “Shell and Chevron’s logos are on every volunteer t-shirt, on all merchandise, on the banners that hang from the massive stages that, historically, especially with Jazz Fest, have been named after cultural icons in New Orleans are now plastered with the logos of the industries that are literally destroying the state from within.”
In other words, the companies whose products ratchet up hurricane intensity and pollute the air daily are weaving a narrative in which they are the saviors.
This story is not new. As Brown points out, “Yes, Louisiana has been captured by the fossil fuel industry, but the industry occupies basically the same place in Louisiana’s economy and culture that slavery did… the fossil fuel industry has carried over the economic, environmental, spatial, social legacies of colonialism and slavery.”
But even with centuries behind this practice, in 2020, community-led efforts won’t stand for it. Recently, archaeologists found evidence of a slave cemetery on Formosa’s site, and local residents petitioned to hold a prayer service there on Juneteenth. After being denied by the plastics company, a judge ruled in favor of St. James residents. It’s an example of the cohabitation that has been taking place there for years, a picture of what gets taken away and what, when justice is restored, is returned to the people.