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‘This is environmental racism’: activists call on Biden to stop new plastics plants in ‘Cancer Alley’ | Louisiana


On Monday, groups of climate activists protested a proposed petrochemical complex an hour away from New Orleans, Louisiana, calling on the Biden administration to revoke the plastics company’s federal permit to start construction.

The demonstration is part of a 400-mile march led by the youth climate group Sunrise Movement, which began last week and traces the path of environmental disasters in the gulf coast from New Orleans to Houston. Roughly 20 participants are on the trek as part of the group’s “Generation on Fire” campaign.

“It’s one plant one day, and another plant another day,” said Kidus Girma, 25, an organizer with Sunrise’s gulf south trek team and the Dallas chapter.

A crucial stop along the way is the site of a $9.4bn petrochemical complex slated to set up shop in St James parish, a community that sits on an 85-mile industrial corridor of the Mississippi River known as “Cancer Alley” – home to more than 150 chemical plants and oil refineries.

Last January, the Louisiana department of environmental quality (LDEQ) approved permits for the Taiwanese plastics-giant Formosa to build 14 separate plastics plants in St James parish. The decision proved controversial; for years, the parish’s predominantly Black community has witnessed their neighbors suffer from pollution-linked conditions such as cancer, asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Rise St James, a grassroots environmental justice group that has been leading the fight to block Formosa from building the mammoth facility, organized Monday’s protest in conjunction with the Sunrise Movement. In 2019, Rise St James found that Formosa’s chosen location sits on two former sugarcane plantations and the burial grounds of enslaved people.

In November, the project’s federal permit was suspended, and is currently under re-evaluation. The activists protesting on Monday argue that, just as Biden revoked a necessary permit for the Keystone XL pipeline on his first day as president, he should do the same for the proposed Formosa facility.

“This is the epitome of environmental racism,” said Varshini Prakash, the co-founder and executive director of Sunrise Movement. “Biden was elected on a climate mandate rooted in racial and environmental justice, and we demand he fulfill his campaign promise by directing the army corps to revoke the federal permits on this plant.”

At the rally, activists held a visioning session with community members where they reimagined what the land could look like whether it would become a memorial ground, a historical museum, or homes for the descendants of the formerly enslaved people – anything, but another polluting facility.

“If we had the money, we would purchase the land from Formosa,” Sharon Lavigne, the founder of Rise St James,said. “We would build a subdivision and preserve our ancestral graves.”

Throughout the pandemic, Black residents living along Cancer Alley with underlying conditions faced disproportionately high Covid-19 infection and mortality rates. Still, Formosa strengthened its control over the 2,500-acre complex.

If built, researchers found that the Formosa complex would diminish nearby wetlands, which protect the communities from extreme flooding and heavy rain. Even Formosa’s own models show that the gargantuan complex could emit more of the carcinogenic compound ethylene oxide than just about any other facility in the country.

“While some groups continue to spread fear and confusion about [the project], [Formosa] continues to work alongside citizens and leaders in St James parish to invite cooperation and truth, and to address real concerns,” Janile Parks, a spokesperson for Formosa, wrote in an email to the Guardian.

Activists say revoking federal permits for the Formosa plant is an opportunity for the Biden administration to prove its commitment to racial and environmental justice, which the president has made a cornerstone of his climate plan.

“I want the Biden administration to come down and see the filth we’re living in,” Lavigne said. “We are hoping and praying that he would come to us and listen to the people of St James so that we can tell him what we envision our community to be.”

The goal of the Sunrise Movement’s 400-mile march is to pressure the Biden administration into expanding its infrastructure package to include a much-anticipated Civilian Climate Corps, which would create good-paying jobs for Americans fighting the climate crisis – much like what members of Rise St James and Sunrise have been doing in the last few years.

“It’s really about how do we get beyond just stopping a new plant to how do we get to a place of creating,” Girma said. “St James deserves to stop fighting plants and to start building what they really want in their community.”


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