The Welcome Park community center is a sturdy cinderblock building that rises about three stories out of the sugarcane fields on the west bank of St. James Parish. It’s just off of River Road and surrounded by a chain link fence, a construction site that began six years ago but has sat idle for the last three. About five miles up the road from the park, if all goes to plan, construction of a $9.4 billion plastics manufacturing complex affiliated with the Formosa Plastics Group, dubbed “The Sunshine Project,” is set to begin next year.
Sharon Lavigne lives midway between Welcome Park and the proposed Formosa complex, right on the river levee. At a public hearing on the Formosa complex on September 19, she mapped things out for the St. James Parish Council. “The residents of District 5 in St. James Parish are fenced in,” she said.
At the far north end of the district are the Mosaic Faustina ammonia plant and the American Styrenics chemical complex. At the far south end, Yuhuang Chemical has begun construction on a $1.85 billion methanol complex. In between are the Ergon crude oil storage tank farm and the NuStar Energy Crude Oil Terminal, which handles crude oil shipments by rail, ship, and pipeline, including from the Bayou Bridge Pipeline (should that project go online).
St. James Parish sits midway through a seven parish corridor along the Mississippi River that has the highest density of petrochemical industries in the United States. The deeply-feared and often-reported health effects of the industry have earned the place the unfortunate nickname of Cancer Alley.
With five out of the ten largest industrial facilities in St. James, the rural, majority-Black 5th District could be considered a Cancer Alley within Cancer Alley. Lavigne was one of many neighbors at the hearing who blasted the parish council about emissions, poor air quality, dead gardens, skin rashes, polluted rain, breast cancer, lupus, fear of accidents, and deaths in the community.
The discussion of injustices in Cancer Alley often starts and ends with these health effects. But at the council hearing, the economic effects that the plants have (or don’t have) on the communities that unwittingly host them was the topic of discussion. Like most places in Louisiana, its residents’ relationships to the petrochemical industry are common and complicated, and several who spoke said they made their livings in the plants. But both supporters and opponents were exasperated by questions of money, namely why so many plants are locating in this specific area of the parish and how the economic benefits of these multi-billion dollar facilities are eluding its residents.
“Parish government would have us believe that the millions and billions of dollars that these companies reap will strengthen our economy and better our community. Look around and see how they have bettered our communities,” Lavigne said. “They haven’t.”
A couple of days before the council hearing, Pastor Harry Joseph sat at a picnic bench under the Welcome Park pavillion, the stalled community center just over his shoulder. He’s the pastor of New Triumph Baptist Church down the road, which is situated between the Ergon tank farms and the NuStar tank farms. He was meeting with 5th District residents of the H.E.L.P. association (Humanitarian Enterprise of Loving People) to prepare for the hearing, and he and others were frustrated about young people from the area being denied jobs at the chemical plants in their own backyards. Two young people from Pastor Joseph’s church had recently been turned away from the construction office for the Yuhuang Chemical office. “They say they ain’t doing no hiring,” Joseph said. Boosters for that project have said it would create 1,000 construction jobs.
Joseph said that when area residents do get jobs at the plants, they’re often lower-paying positions that pay around $30,000 a year, such as security details and maintenance operations, as opposed to the $60,000 to $80,000 salaries that escape the west bank of St. James or the entire parish.
A 2006 analysis of St. James Parish, published in the journal Local Environment, found that the 5th District has the lowest average household income in the parish ($29,907), the highest proportion of African Americans (88%), and the lowest proportion of residents working in the industry, with a mere 12%.
The census tract of St. James with the highest average income ($48,219), the least percentage of African American residents, and the most high school graduates has no manufacturing facilities in its neighborhoods. That area, on the east bank of the parish, has the highest percentage of residents who are employed in the manufacturing industry, at 37%.
At times, the council hearing played out like a job fair. One gray-haired man in jeans and a polo shirt sat down at the microphone and told the council, “I’m involved with a company out of Oklahoma that is located here and working with other plants, and we hope to be working with this plant if it gets under construction. And I will be talking to you about offering some of you jobs and give you an opportunity to work, including high school students or graduates who may want summer jobs.”
It was 91-year-old former Governor Edwin Edwards, who said he lives in a neighboring parish upriver with his wife and his five-year old son. He said he had been in touch with Parish President Timmy Roussel about his company’s involvement with Formosa. “When I talked to Mr. Roussel about helping me get involved with these people, he invited me to talk, and I’m happy to be here.” Edwards, the four-term governor of the state, served more than eight years in federal prison for extorting $3 million from casino companies in the 1990s.
Roussel is being prosecuted by the state District Attorney’s office for malfeasance in office for his involvement in a scheme to provide a free parish-constructed gas line to the Millennium Galvanizing facility, just before his reelection bid in 2015.
Fifth District anger about the jobs and pollution mirrors that of another fight in St. James Parish two decades ago involving the proposed Shintech polyvinyl chloride plant, which is remembered as one of the messiest environmental justice battles in state history. It pitted allies against allies, local residents against New Orleans environmental activists, and the state NAACP (with the backing of Governor Mike Foster) against neighbors of the plants. The battle, which was ultimately won by opponents of the plant, unearthed long-simmering tensions about access to the jobs at plants that polluted nearby Black neighborhoods.
In 1997 during that fight, the St. James Economic Development Office reported that the percentage of Black St. James residents employed in 11 manufacturing plants ranged from 4.2% to 19.4%, while Black residents made up 50% of the parish population. Oliver Cooper, a council member at the time, told researchers that the disparity could be rooted in the historic pull of the sugar plantations on the Black labor market. “I think the reason for that to happen is you have a lot of sugar cane growers in the area.” The more workers employed in plants, he said, “the less people you would have working in the sugar cane fields.”
In a 2003 report on St. James Parish, the EPA found that parish government “does not identify environmental justice as either a problem or a priority… unless a polluting facility purposefully locates near a low-income or people-of-color community intending to harm the residents.” The agency urged the parish to solve some of its problems by guiding development with zoning ordinances.
Eleven years later, parish government did so with its Government Comprehensive Plan. The plan began with a history of St. James, citing an excerpt from the 1988 publication La Paroisse de St. Jacques: “The early 1800’s was the era of fabulous plantation life in St. James. Acreage was counted by thousands and slaves by hundreds. It was the day of luxurious living, of sumptuous entertainment, of delightful ease. Sugar was gold; the planters were sugar barons; St. James was the Gold Coast.” It was the only mention of African Americans in the history of the parish. “Over the years,” the plan’s authors wrote, “numerous settlers representing a variety of ethnic groups have come to claim St. James Parish as a home. However, the French Creoles and Acadians remained the predominant population and their strong cultural influence continues today.”
The plan ended with new zoning maps that converted “Residential” districts where descendents of those slaves currently live to “Existing Residential/Future Industrial.” The 5th District is one of those areas.
The plan was guided by current parish Director of Operations Blaise Gravois, who was indicted alongside Parish President Roussell on malfeasance in office charges. Court filings allege that Gravois used the parish gas line deal with Millennium to help his daughter secure a job at the plant, which she was given in November 2015 (according to The Advocate).
Industry, spurred by cheap natural gas from the fracking boom, took note of the zoning changes and is transforming the 5th District. On the Formosa project’s website, the company says that its plant is being built on land “specifically created for industrial development projects.” Also moving into the 5th District is the $1.3 billion Louisiana Methanol plant, adjacent to Welcome Park. The Ergon tank farm is set to increase capacity by 20 tanks to a capacity of 3.7 more million barrels of oil. NuStar Energy Crude Oil Terminal will increase its capacity from 8 million barrels to 11 million barrels. St. James High School was relocated out of the district to make way for the Yuhuang Chemical plant. And plans were announced in August by Tallgrass Energy to build a new crude oil pipeline from Oklahoma to St. James.
With five out of the ten largest industrial facilities in St. James, the rural, majority-Black 5th District could be considered a Cancer Alley within Cancer Alley
Clyde Cooper holds the parish council seat for the 5th District once held by his father. Since taking office, he has amended 2013 land use plans to include more protections for churches and schools in the area and fought plans to close 5th Ward Elementary in the district. As it stands, he said, “Everybody’s guaranteed something but the local residents.”
His anger is audible when he talks about the way things have gone in his district. “Almost all the stores in the area are closed and gone. The youth center is closed down. They’re trying to make that for contractors… The post office is no longer in that area. So residents have to go through hardships on all different levels, and yet they’re in the areas that produce the most taxes for the parish. I think that is immoral. I think it is wrong. And I think it is unethical. And I think there is nobody on this Earth that would disagree with that in a fair manner.”
Like his father with Shintech, he supports the Formosa project but only if it comes with safety guarantees and specific guarantees for local residents. He wants Formosa to bring “a technical avenue to retrain those residents to qualify for those jobs.” That includes a job retraining facility with programs for adults, a satellite employment office accessible to locals, and free health screenings for cancer and chronic diseases caused by emissions.
He wants the other elected officials to help. “I think some of the local politicians and some of the state politicians don’t want to hold them accountable to make sure that those people are given an opportunity—and a strong opportunity—to get those jobs,” he said. “We’re trying to change that culture.”
Others have chosen different avenues to change that culture. On the morning of the Formosa hearing, a panel of three state appeals court judges in Gretna heard arguments from attorneys representing Pastor Harry Joseph and several other plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The attorneys argued that DNR failed to consider the emergency risks of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline to residents of the Burton Lane neighborhood in the 5th District when the agency issued its permit to the pipeline company. A judge in St. James had ruled in favor of the 5th Ward residents in May, but DNR appealed. The appeals court has yet to issue its ruling.
Asked if the result could mean stronger protections for neighbors of future industrial projects, one of the attorneys, Lisa Jordan, said, “I like to think that DNR, and any agency, will choose not to repeat failures that a court has flagged as illegal (once the appeals have been exhausted). And I have generally found that to be the case, though sometimes the changed agency behavior that results amounts to more of a crossing t’s and dotting i’s type of adjustment than any real substantive change. So, we’ll have to see.”
The Welcome Park community center, Cooper said, is stuck in a legal dispute between the architect and the contractor. It was being built with taxes from a property millage paid by residents and industry. The millage expired in 2016 and the future of the project is in limbo.