Community Asks Court for Temporary Restraining Order
(St. James) Prominent African American authors, scholars and civil rights leaders sent a letter to Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards on Sunday evening asking him to use his authority to stop one of the world’s largest plastics plants, Formosa Plastics, from exacerbating the COVID-19 health crisis and destroying historic Black communities in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Local residents, led by the group RISE St. James, have opposed the facility since Governor Edwards announced it in 2018.
Signatories to the letter (link here) asking for a cessation of the project include the Reverend Jesse Jackson, General Russel Honore, Reverend William Barber, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, and Alicia Garza, co-creator of Black Lives Matter. Their support comes as RISE takes the company to court over access to a cemetery discovered on the site where a sugarcane plantation once operated so they can commemorate Juneteenth. Said Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., “White supremacists practice apartheid even in death and don’t respect our sacred sites. I’m reminded of Proverbs 22:28 ‘Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.’ We must fight to affirm our history and our sacred sites.”
The letter, sent to Governor Edwards on Sunday evening, cites the decades-long racism that has prioritized African-American communities as the location for polluting plants that devastate health, leading to the region’s nickname of ‘Cancer Alley’. The Black leaders urge the Louisiana Governor to protect St. James in light of residents’ increased vulnerability to COVID-19. Numerous studies, including one by the Harvard School of Public Health, have found that even a slight increase in air pollution leads to increased fatalities from the virus.
“All these leaders are with us,” said Sharon Lavigne, President of RISE St. James. “They understand our pain and they are willing to stand up for the right thing about our health and safety as well as our ancestors’ legacy. It’s wonderful to have their input into what we are going through.”
"When the stakes are between life and death, it’s all or nothing. And now, amidst this new crisis, things are getting only more dire,” said Rev. William Barber. “A recent study from Harvard confirmed that people with long-term exposure to air pollution are 15 percent more likely to die from COVID-19, and that black people are exposed to 21 percent more air pollution then white people in this country.”
The proposed site is in the 5th District, a community within St. James Parish that is 90% African-American, the highest Black population in a parish whose demographics are an even split between Black and white residents. Governor John Bel Edwards, who announced the project before it was even approved by the local parish council, was reelected in 2019 on the strength of the African American voters.
“It’s the state that can - and has the obligation to - prevent Black communities from suffering and dying from these facilities,” said Vince Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “For a Governor that has depended so much on support from Black people to maintain power, he has an opportunity here to finally commit to putting the interests of Black communities before the petrochemical industry.”
RISE St James and its supporters have waged a vigorous two year campaign to stop Formosa Plastics. Ms. Lavigne exposed Formosa’s attempts to begin construction during the pandemic, on the first day of Governor Edwards’ stay at home order in March. The company withdrew its workers at the time.
Today’s letter brings new national allies to the campaign that has raised a long list of reasons to stop the facility. Formosa Plastics would be a massive facility constructed in the sensitive coastal zone and would double the toxic air pollution in the parish. At annual projected emissions of 13 million tons of greenhouse gases, it would be the largest proposed new source of greenhouse gases in the country. It would also be a significant source of ethylene oxide, a dangerous carcinogen.
The letter kicks off a week in which RISE St. James plans to lead a Juneteenth commemoration on the burial site discovered on the property where sugarcane plantations once stood. The company has so far not agreed to RISE’s request to access the site. On Monday morning, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed for a Temporary Restraining Order against Formosa Plastics on behalf of RISE St. James to prevent the company from stopping or interfering with RISE’s prayer service at the cemetery.
“Formosa continues to add insult to injury in denying us access to this gravesite, and suggesting that it’s not our ancestors buried there, even though their own archaeologists initially believed it was,” said Sharon Lavigne. “We will continue to fight for them, and for our future.”
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.