In the Mississippi River parishes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, many Black families have owned land for years that was once lush with rich soil and new opportunity. Now, the same 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River is known as “Death Alley” due to the effects of the more than 150 plants and refineries that line the area. In 2017 alone, there were a reported 173 accidents where harsh chemicals like trichloroethylene and ethylene were released. The chemicals can cause headaches, liver damage, and even death if a person is exposed to high levels. Outside of the inevitable accidents that these plants have, they regularly emit pollutants like benzene, another carcinogen linked to aplastic anemia, acute leukemia, bone marrow failure, and cardiovascular disease. They also emit butadiene, a carcinogen linked to stomach and blood cancers. Other chemicals like chloroprene, emitted by Denka Performance Elastomer plant in St. John, causes everything from headaches to gastrointestinal disorders and is considered a “likely carcinogen” according to the 2016 EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment. This assessment is one of the many devastating revelations that led Louisiana residents to create the activist groups that now make up the Coalition Against Death Alley (CADA).  

“We envision an end to Death Alley, and a just, sustainable future for all residents of the river parishes,” the CADA site affirms. CADA is invested in stopping what they call the “silent genocide” of majority-Black communities in Louisiana. People are dying, local politicians are absent, and residents’ consistent petitions for lower emissions have been continuously ignored, they say. But these communities are not giving up.

Several organizations including RISE St. James, Justice & Beyond, and Concerned Citizens of St. John have gathered together to fight environmental racism in Death Alley. In 2014, the Land Use Plan rezoned the state’s fourth and fifth congressional districts, which are reportedly 64% and 90% Black, recategorizing them from residential to residential/industrial. Together, the organizations are working to change the Land Use Plan back to residential and save their neighborhoods. Here is a look at the leaders who founded these three organizations and what they are so desperately fighting for.

RISE St. James

Most of Sharon Lavigne’s six children and her 12 grandchildren have lived in St. James their entire lives. Five generations of Lavigne’s family have called St. James home and their family still owns 40 acres of land purchased in the 1800s. She knows all her neighbors and is cheerfully involved in the community, which is why she began going to a community group meeting with Humanitarian Enterprise of Loving People (HELP) Association in 2017. HELP consists of pastors and residents of St. James Parish who are concerned about the industrial plants. These meetings were to inform the community and elected officials of the dangers to public health and environmental safety that the incoming industry would create.  

It was these meetings that first opened Lavigne’s eyes to the behemoth of carcinogens her community was being exposed to. The Formosa plant would be located one mile from the local public school and two miles from Lavigne’s home. The plant would emit ethylene oxide, a toxic carcinogen that causes cancer like non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, breast cancer, and other ailments.

“I would go home depressed from these meetings. I would say dear Lord, there’s got to be something we could do. I know you didn’t bring us this far to let somebody come in and poison us,” Lavigne said.

Soon after, she started RISE St. James, an activist organization firmly against Formosa Plastics’ proposed expansion. The planned operation would include 14 new production plants and would double the amount of pollution already emitted in an area with dangerous air toxicity levels..

On November 3, 2018, RISE St. James held its first protest at Fifth Ward Elementary School.

“People came from all over New Orleans to help us. Neighbors came out to help us,” Lavigne recalled. But all this work took a toll, both mentally and physically.

“I wore myself out. I really needed rest. It’s a lot of work doing this,” she said. Lavigne was a Special Education teacher for 39 years at St. James High School. She had to make a choice between her love of teaching or the future of St. James. She retired early so that she could keep fighting for her community and the sake of everyone’s health. Lavigne later found out that the land St. James High was located on was purchased by China’s Yuhuang Chemical Inc., which will house the largest production facility in the nation for Methanol, an oil and gas byproduct used in plastics. It became clear that the lives and future of St James Parish were at stake.

“I have to go to a funeral tomorrow for a friend of mine who died of cancer,” Lavigne said. “Another person died from stage four cancer right up the street from where I live. My neighbors on each side of me died of cancer. I feel like we’re dying slow. I feel like we’re dying one by one. It could be me next and nobody’s trying to do anything.”

Justice & Beyond

Pat Bryant is the son of sharecroppers. His father grew up on a plantation and later served in the Army. Bryant’s great grandfather ran a one-room schoolhouse in Jones County North Carolina for decades. Prior to that he was a lawyer and doctor, “but the Southern establishment did not look kindly to Black professionals,” he said.

“I grew up learning of the suffering of Black people and their yearning for freedom,” said Bryant.

He took this knowledge and has been building social movements since the 1960s. He tells of his involvement in the tenant movement, the housing movement, and even in the roots of the environmental justice movement.

“My training is in law and urban planning, so I know how systems work and my undergraduate was in history and political science. Building movements is my wheelhouse,” he said.

Bryant started Justice and Beyond (J&B) in 2012 after Justice Bernette Johnson, who represented Orleans Parish on the Louisiana Supreme Court, being denied her position as chief justice.

“She was the longest serving Black judge and they were about to pass her over. J&B came together to challenge that decision by the ‘plantation owners,’” Bryant said, drawing a parallel between the power players within Louisiana’s current legal system and the enslavers of the past.

Since its founding, J&B has continued its fight for justice by helping low-income community members find affordable housing, assisting convicted felons in finding work, and working with others that are being poisoned by toxic emissions near their homes and schools to fight for environmental equality.

“We are a small team. We are a strong team,” Bryant said proudly.

On October 16, a coalition of activist groups joined together to march from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and intended to end on the capitol steps on October 30 to protest the proliferation of petrochemical plants and demand a moratorium on new plants and stricter air pollution standards for the plants that are already operating there. One of the stops during this two-week protest was the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI). On the 11th floor of the building protesters sang, chanted and spoke about their experiences although representatives of LABI weren’t there to hear.

“The people from marginalized communities spoke truth to power. We were there for about 20 minutes and a bevy of police got up the elevators and ascended upon us,” Bryant recalled.

“The most violent forces that we come in contact with are the police. When we challenge them for the evil that they do, they respond with violence and put people in jail. When we stand up to say, ‘That ain’t right.’ Their response is, ‘You ain’t got no right to say anything to us.’”

Concerned Citizens of St. John

In 2015, Mary Hampton attended a community meeting held at a Catholic church near her home. “DuPont was having a meeting because of some kind of emission in the parish. Naturally, I went to find out what it was. I found out it was chloroprene,” Hampton explained. Chloroprene is a carcinogen, which promotes carcinogenesis—the formation of cancer. After DuPont, one of the largest chemical companies in America at the time, explained their concerns to the people of St. John, they revealed that they had sold the chemical plant to the Japanese-owned Denka Performance Elastomer plant.

“Evidently, they had known about this problem for a long time and they decided to just hand it over to them,” Hampton said.

In 2016, the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment revealed that residents who lived near the Denka plant were 800 times more likely to get cancer due to Denka’s emissions of chloroprene. According to the EPA, anything above 0.2 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) in the air is unsafe for humans to breathe over the course of a lifetime. The lack of action from public officials, and the deadly effects of chloroprene to the residents inspired Hampton to create Concerned Citizens of St. John (CCOSJ).

“I never thought at 80 years old I’d be fighting this but as long as I have breath in my body, I will try,” she said. “We’re doing this all on our own. Most of us are elderly. Most of us are retired.”

The rampant cancer rates have left them with what feels like no choice but to fight for those they love and the generations to follow.

“My father had prostate cancer. My two sister-in-laws died with breast cancer. My son-in-law died from bone cancer. My other brother died of bone cancer. So many members of my immediate family that I have lost,” Hampton said. Her voice broke as she described many of those close to her who died before their time, and the children they left behind.

Before the petrochemical industry moved in, Hampton’s father dreamt of providing for future generations of his family. So when a white neighbor offered to sell him his land for $10,000 at $20 a week, he happily paid $20 of his modest weekly salary of $100  as a sugarcane drier. This was during Jim Crow segregation, when Black families still couldn’t get a loan from a bank for homeownership or purchasing land. Hampton’s father divided up the property to each of his children and they each built their own homes on that land. “It was built with loving hands by my husband, my husband’s father and some neighborhood carpenters, they built this house,” Hampton said. The purchase of the land was meant to be the foundation for a flourishing future. Instead, she says, Denka has transformed it into a death sentence for many of Hampton’s family.

While CCOSJ fights to lower the emissions of chloroprene to the EPA’s suggested safe level, they are also working on more immediate ways of creating a safer environment for St. John residents. Right now, CCOSJ is working to relocate Fifth Ward Elementary School, which sits within walking distance from the Denka plant. “It seems like the local officials are so afraid to rock the boat with these industries. I can’t understand our local government, I really don’t. We vote them in and then they forget about us once they get there,” said Hampton. “We’re working with the school board to try to get those kids out of there. We want the kids moved now because we’ve been asking them to move for three years.”

“The president of the school board lost his mom, dad, and sister to cancer. They live right on the fence line of the plant so it shouldn’t be a problem to get these kids moved. He knows what they’re exposed to,” Hampton said.

“This is why we are fighting. We are not fighting for us because I’m 80 years old. My time is limited, but I have 16 grandchildren. I have nine great-grandchildren. I have six children. I’m fighting for them.”

Luna Reyna is the Indigenous Affairs Reporter at Crosscut. Her work has identified, supported and promoted the voices of the systematically excluded in service of liberation and advancing justice. Luna...