A Form of Racism Which Requires Deeds, Not Words
“Overlay a map of southern Louisiana’s petrochemical and petroleum plants with archival maps of the area’s plantations, and you’ll find that in many cases the property lines match up.”
In the final half-century leading up to the American Civil War, more than a million slaves were transported from Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The area extending from Natchez to New Orleans – rich soil flanking the Mississippi River – consisted of massive plantations whose owners, responding to a spike in worldwide demand for sugar cane, had discovered that the only way to make a profit on this cashiest-of-cash-crops was to use slave labor to harvest, press, and boil the cane. Slave labor made white cane plantation owners richer than nearly any other group of 19th-century entrepreneurs: per capita, Louisiana was the 2nd-richest state in the nation with more millionaires along the lower Mississippi than in any other single geographic region, despite the fact that 50% of its population was made up of slaves.
Louisiana is of course no longer the country’s second-richest state (rather, it has the nation’s 2nd-highest poverty rate), but there are still plenty of uber-wealthy enterprises entrenched on former plantation lands on either side of the River. The 85-mile stretch of Louisiana straddling the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans has been appropriated by the petrochemical industry over the past century. Today, there are 150 industrial plants, equivalent to 1.76 per mile. In a single district (5) of St. James Parish, Louisiana there are nine plants in operation and two under construction; four more have been proposed and are in various stages of the permit-granting process.
One of the four is a $9.4 billion complex slated to include 14 new facilities owned by the Taiwanese corporation Formosa. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) has proposed air emissions as follows for these plants: “7.7 tons of ethylene oxide—a carcinogen linked to breast cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and miscarriages; 36.58 tons of the carcinogen benzene; and 1,243 tons of nitrogen oxides, which cause and exacerbate respiratory illnesses.” For its part, Formosa “has relied on sound science in design of the Sunshine Project and is confident it meets all regulatory criteria.” Among the products Formosa will make: “polymer and ethylene glycol, polyethylene, and polypropylene … [T]he concentration of carcinogens in the atmosphere could triple.”
Formosa’s massive construction undertaking has been nicknamed the “Sunshine Project” in honor of a nearby bridge bearing the same soubriquet. Such euphemisms are common to environmentally-destructive industries – after all, calling the project “Dark Skies” or “Particulate Matter” would be bad for PR. This stretch of the Mississippi makes the owners and shareholders of its petrochemical plants (who make plastics [including single-use plastics], synthetic rubbers, electronic components, and fertilizers among other things) rich indeed – so rich that it’s been dubbed by insiders “the Silicon Valley of the petrochemical industry.”
One difference between the 19th and 21st century: while production remains local, industry profits have taken flight – e.g., Taiwan in the case of Formosa. The company boasts that once all 14 plants are operational, local earnings will rise to $84,500, nearly triple current earnings in District 5 of St. James Parish, where the plant(s) will be located. This sounds good, but upon closer examination fails to inspire trust, as is often the case when a petrochemical plant comes calling at your doorstep: local residents note that these plants import high-skilled labor, reserving low-paying jobs like security for locals.
Louisiana has a long history of cultivating, encouraging, and wink-winking at the environmental damage the industry’s presence in the lower Mississippi has wrought. Between 1997 and 2016, the state granted almost 17,000 tax exemptions under its Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) while denying a grand total of 8. It’s estimated that this has cost Louisiana nearly $2 billion over 20 years – around $100 million a year – money that could have been used to shore up this very poor state’s infrastructure (schools, parks, libraries, even prisons …).
The Formosa project has generated local opposition, and one focus of the long-form Atlantic piece from which we draw today is on Sharon Lavigne, a retired special education teacher who since learning about Project Sunshine in 2018 has devoted her life to stopping it. She has formed a group called “Rise St. James” in opposition not just to Formosa but to any further industrial development in her parish. Rise St. James has garnered regional and national attention among environmentalists and environmental justice organizations across the country (and beyond – the UN is now involved), and inevitably the campaign against Formosa (which halted construction during the pandemic, though it continued carrying out infrastructure works such as road-building) will probably reach the desk of Cedric Richmond, a former Louisiana Congressman representing its 2nd District, where St. James is located, in his new role as White House Director of Public Engagement. When the issue does reach him, will Richmond confer with Michael Regan, the new EPA Administrator? (Regan, former Director of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, has shown himself willing to intervene in environmental justice cases, even when they’re nearing realization; cf. his letter to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot re: the transfer of a scrap metal recycling plant from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side of Chicago [Pilsen, Little Village], one of Illinois’ most environmentally-burdened areas).
That the petrochemical industry would make its 20th– and 21st-century home (with a competing outpost in Texas between Houston and Galveston) in this part of the U.S. should come as no surprise upon reflection: the industry requires very large land expanses, and many of the pre-Civil War plantations had remained largely intact after Reconstruction – with huge plots given to whites, and narrow slivers along the River given to Blacks to create small towns and communities. The other thing sugar cane growers and petrochemical plant owners share is the need for access to transportation hubs, and the Mississippi River continues to offer easy/cheap access to the port of New Orleans and thence, to international shipping routes.
The small Black towns – those “slivers” of land granted to Blacks – remain, as do their historic graveyards, many of which date to the pre- and post-Civil War period. Sharon Lavigne believes her ancestors were buried on the Buena Vista plantation grounds, one of two plantations Formosa now occupies (the other is Acadia, whose graveyard remains to be discovered). Formosa was required to survey the land purchased for remains; initially the company claimed they had found nothing, but they were later pressed by the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, went back (?), and identified one of the two cemeteries, which they then fenced off and made essentially inaccessible. When Rise St. James requested permission to visit the Buena Vista cemetery last Juneteenth, the company “questioned the need for the ceremony on the basis that archaeologists couldn’t confirm the ethnicity of the human remains.” The group took them to court, the Judge sided with them, and so Lavigne was given brief access (lasting one hour) to the site.
The plantations – there are about a dozen still “operating,” in some sense, as wedding, baptism, and party venues, and of course as museums and big tourist attractions – are now surrounded by petrochemical plants; only one plantation museum, the Whitney, has made the effort to engage with Louisiana’s slaveholding past. The overseer’s shed there still displays the “tools of chattel”: “neck braces, balls and chains, leg irons, and paddles.” One out of twelve – readers may wish to ponder that percentage.
As in many extremely complex, longstanding, historically-rooted instances of racial-environmental injustice, it’s hard to see a way forward for small towns like Welcome (pop. 824), the home of Sharon Lavigne and a place she vows she’ll never leave. In other, similar cases, companies have bought out entire villages and towns. For example, in 1987, Georgia Gulf bought out Reveilletown, a free Black settlement dating to the 1870s, for $3 million; Dow Chemical bought out Morrisonville for $7 million in 1989. In both, high levels of vinyl chloride had been detected. In 2002, Diamond, another free town, was bought out by Shell two decades following two fatal chemical explosions.
The problem is that these Black towns are historic homes to the descendants of slaves and as such deserve to be preserved and revered, whereas in fact they have become so toxic that contemporary residents’ health and lives are threatened daily by toxic fumes, soil, and water. What would “reparations” even mean for the residents of St. James Parish? Sharon Lavigne says she won’t leave no matter what – but in the meantime, her own health and that of her family and friends is under constant and direct threat. In a far, far better world than the one we inhabit today, the petrochemical industry would cease to exist along the lower Mississippi. Eventually, if we are to survive climate change, this will have to happen – but it won’t happen today or tomorrow, even assuming Rise St. James successfully deters Formosa from constructing its mega-complex in District 5.
Buy-outs, on the other hand, present a risk of their own: that of no remediation. Once an area directly adjacent to such a complex is abandoned, the prospect of remediation or eventually, full withdrawal by environmental polluters substantially decreases. At present, such regions – and Cancer/Death Alley isn’t the only one, it’s just the largest and most concentrated one – will become environmental sacrifice zones sans human beings. Without human presence, no motive to remediate save the long, slow, torturous process of EPA rulings – should they ever come at all – will remain.
Should Formosa be granted the final permits allowing it to proceed to construction of this petrochemical behemoth? No, for the sake of both racial and environmental justice, and a survey of recent articles indicates that the tide may be turning slowly but inexorably against them. But even though this would be a notable (and unprecedented, in Louisiana) victory for the cause of environmental justice, it would be “one down, 150 to go.”
One of the environmental justice movement’s slogans in this strugle is “Formosa would be a death sentence for St. James Parish.” But the larger issue is that the entire petrochemical industry between Baton Rouge and New Orleans already constitutes a human and environmental death sentence for the lower Mississippi.
Note: A January 2021 podcast featuring Sharon Lavigne, founder of Rise St. James.