Sharon Lavigne won the 2021 Goldman Prize for environmental defenders this year. She never meant to become an activist, let alone the face of a key environmental justice fight in the U.S. But in 2018, when Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that a company called Wanhua was set to build a new plastics plant in St. James Parish — her community — she knew she had to do something.
That year, she teamed up with other local residents to form an environmental justice organisation called RISE St. James, which played a major role in getting Wanhua to pull its plans in 2019. But now, Lavigne and her organisation are fighting to stop another plastics industry proposal: a $13 billion plastic complex that Formosa Plastics wants to construct, perversely called the Sunshine Project.
St. James Parish sits in the southeast corner of Louisiana, an hour west of New Orleans. It’s part of an 80-mile (129-kilometre) strip known as Cancer Alley, an area that has one of the highest densities of petrochemical sites in the U.S. and where residents also have the highest cancer risk in the nation.
Lavigne learned that the Formosa proposal was set to create hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic pollution, including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and benzene, every year, further threatening public health and the environment.
The fate of people and the smokestacks that surround them are intimately connected to the long history of the slave trade in Louisiana. In the 1740s, nearly four times more enslaved African people lived in Louisiana than the number of free colonizers living there. Today, descendants of enslaved people are entitled to visit their ancestors’ graveyards — but Formosa plans to infringe upon that right.
RISE St. James and other local groups began handing out petitions, knocking on doors, and going before the St. James Parish Council to present evidence of two suspected burial grounds filled with the bodies of enslaved people on the former plantation property where the project is proposed.
“They want to desecrate the gravesites of our ancestors,” Lavigne said.
The fight against Formosa recently saw an encouraging development for advocates: The Army Corps of Engineers said it would issue a requirement for an environmental impact statement for the project, meaning Formosa “cannot construct it now for about a year and a half or two,” Lavigne said. That doesn’t guarantee that the project won’t move forward, but it’s a good sign.
A new report shows how right the organisers have been to fight the proposed complex. The study — compiled by Centre for International Environmental Law, the Centre for Biological Diversity, and Earthworks, and on which Lavigne consulted — alleges that Formosa Plastics Group has been violating environmental, health, and labour regulations in four different countries for the six decades that the firm has existed. Earther has reached out to Formosa for comment on the plant and the findings in the report.
“This report is a wake-up call that Formosa Plastics’ proposed ‘Sunshine Project’ is an environmental and human rights disaster waiting to happen,” report co-author and Earthworks’ infrastructure campaign manager Ethan Buckner said in a statement.
Lavigne said that one way Formosa has tried to get locals on board with their new project is by dangling the possibility of employment, but she said it’s polluting industries that drove jobs out in the first place.
“So many businesses left because of all the pollution,” she said. “You could find something besides the industry that can create jobs for the people.”
And the new report suggests that the new jobs Formosa would bring to the community would be dangerous. Among the company’s abuses detailed in the 106-page report is a disaster at a steel plant owned by the firm. In 2015, a scaffold at the Formosa Ha Tinh steel plant in Vietnam collapsed, killing 14 workers. The very next year, the very same Formosa plant had an accidental toxic waste spill, which polluted more than 125 miles (200 kilometers) of coastline, killing marine life and threatening local economies dependent on fishing and tourism.
The company has also faced allegations of abuses here in the U.S. In April 2004, an explosion at a plastic plant in Illinois killed five and injured another eight. The next year, another explosion at a plastic plant in Point Comfort, Texas, injured 16 workers, including one seriously. At the same Point Comfort plant, a flash fire in 2013 injured another 14. The authors suggest that there’s no reason expect Formosa to suddenly clean up its act if the Sunshine Project is built.
“The people of Louisiana deserve a good, safe economy that is supportive of local communities and provides reliable, well-paying jobs,” Jane Patton, the Centre for International Environmental Law’s plastics and petrochemicals campaign manager, who co-authored the report and is based in southern Louisiana, said in a statement. “Our state’s elected leaders should be prioritising safe and renewable energy technologies that provide long-term support and stability. Formosa Plastics will not provide any of those things, and this company and its project are wrong for Louisiana on all fronts.”
In addition to these labour abuses, the proposed plastic plant in St. James Parish would bring even more air pollution to the mostly low-income black communities who live in its proposed vicinity. The area already hosts some 200 petrochemical plants, pipelines, and refineries.
“Already the emissions are making us sick,” said Lavigne.
The additional pollution would have a disastrous impact on the climate. The company’s own data shows that its facilities in Delaware City, Baton Rouge, and Point Comfort emitted more than 7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2018.
“If the planned petrochemical complex in St. James Parish comes online, it would nearly double that figure, emitting another 13 million tons of greenhouse gases a year,” the new analysis said.
The new report comes as fossil fuel companies are increasingly linking their future growth plans to increasing plastic production at the expense of communities like Lavigne’s. A separate report from Beyond Plastics out on Thursday found that plastic plants in the U.S. will emit more climate pollution than coal by the end of this decade.
For her part, Lavigne says she will keep fighting to keep the Sunshine Project out of her community, and hopes the new findings will provide the movement with even more ammunition to do so. It won’t be easy, but she’s confident.
“I know we’re going to win,” she said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”