Louisiana Environmental Racism Case: St. James Parish Residents Continue Fight for Moratorium on Toxic Plants in Black Districts

A year after suing the Parish Council for racist land use, residents of Cancer Alley community appeal district court ruling

March 22, 2024, New Orleans
Late yesterday, exactly one year after they sued St. James Parish for racist land use practices, organizations representing residents of the majority-Black 4th and 5th Districts took their fight for a moratorium on the siting of hazardous industrial facilities to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Inclusive Louisiana, RISE St. James, and Mt. Triumph Baptist Church are appealing the ruling of the district court, which dismissed their lawsuit on procedural and jurisdictional grounds. 

The suit targets the parish’s decades-old pattern of steering hazardous industry into the majority-Black parts of the parish, which, plaintiffs say, imperils residents’ health, heritage, property, religion, and dignity. Chief among their claims is that the land use pattern and practice violates the Thirteenth Amendment as a vestige of slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The parish’s practices also violate the Louisiana Constitution and federal law, the suit says.

"We will never back down from this fight! I have faced the tough battle of being diagnosed with an inoperable liver tumor and undergoing chemotherapy,” said Gail Lebouef from Inclusive Louisiana. “I want to convey that even though I cannot pinpoint a specific carcinogen as the definite cause of my cancer, no one can deny that a carcinogen may have contributed to my illness." 

“We all have personal experiences of seeing our loved ones and friends struggle with health issues like cancer, respiratory conditions, and chronic coughs,” said Barbara Washington of Inclusive Louisiana. “The burning of our eyes and skin, along with the prevalence of COPD, are constant reminders of the harmful impact of toxic chemicals in our environment. It is time for us to come together and put an end to the pollution in our neighborhoods caused by industrial plants.” 

Rather than assess the suit’s substantive claims, the district court judge dismissed most with the finding that a one-year statute of limitations had expired. The judge pegged the time limit to the parish’s passage of a 2014 ordinance designating large portions of the 4th and 5th Districts for industrial use. But the plaintiffs’ lawyers, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic, say that the ordinance merely codified discriminatory practices that long preceded it and that have since persisted. 

“The parish has for generations implemented a racially discriminatory pattern and practice that has transformed majority-Black districts into what is now known as Cancer Alley – it began this practice in the 1950s, and continues to enforce it through to today,” said Astha Sharma Pokharel, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The statute of limitations simply does not immunize the government for this ongoing violation of law.”

The judge also maintained that the plaintiffs lack standing to bring a claim under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the Louisiana Constitution’s protection of historic linguistic and cultural origins. Their suit argues that the parish land use practices have destroyed sites of historic, cultural, and religious significance to plaintiffs. But the harm, according to the judge, is traceable not to the parish council but only to the petrochemical companies. 

"Cancer Alley is America's number one battleground for climate and environmental justice,” said Sharon C. Lavigne, Founder and Director of RISE St. James. “These issues impact us all and should prompt broader discussions about equity and corporate responsibility. We refuse to accept that our community's cries for justice can be silenced by procedural technicalities. Our fight against environmental racism in St. James Parish is a fight for our lives, our heritage, and our dignity. We will not rest until the systemic injustices that have plagued our neighborhoods for decades are addressed. Today, as we take our appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, we stand united in our determination to secure a moratorium on toxic plants in our Black districts. Our struggle is not just about the present; it's about rectifying historical wrongs and ensuring a safer, healthier future for generations to come." 

St. James Parish is packed with the kind of petrochemical plants that give Cancer Alley its name, but the districts do not share the burden equally. Since the construction of the first plant in the parish in 1958, at least 20 of 24 have been built in the 4th and 5th Districts. That amounts to one plant for every 250 people. In such areas, dubbed sacrifice zones,” residents face increased risks of cancer, respiratory ailments, and newborn health harms

“We have so many plants already in our parish, and our community is suffering because of it. Enough is enough,” said Pastor Harry Joseph of Mt. Triumph Baptist Church. “The parish puts a moratorium on clean energy but not on the facilities that are causing our people, especially the children, so many health problems. We need a moratorium for the people and a different vision for our children’s future.” 

Hazardous industry threatens not only the physical health of residents but also their cultural, historic, and religious sites, according to the suit. Petrochemical plants are often built on the site of former plantations, where enslaved people were buried. In 2019, RISE St. James learned that gravesites of enslaved people had been discovered in an area that the parish council had slated for a massive plastics facility.

 “With this appeal, our clients ask for their day in court,” said Clara Potter of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. “They seek recognition of core rights that every person has: the right to equal protection under the law, the right to bodily integrity free from unwanted government intrusion, and the freedom to exercise their religion unburdened by the effects of state action. For too long, this has been denied them.”

For more information on the lawsuit, please see the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page

For further information, visit the groups’ websites:

The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.


Last modified 

March 22, 2024