Rising Up for Health (and Winning) in Louisiana
Courtesy Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Following tireless community organizing, residents of St. James Parish, Louisiana, have successfully stopped the development of what would have been the largest methanol factory in North America. Grassroots International recognizes our grantee ally Rise St. James for its leadership in this struggle to defend the rights of the area’s historic Black neighborhoods, whose residents are descendants of enslaved people who worked the local sugar plantations.
For almost a decade, the community had been fighting a legal battle against South Louisiana Methanol, who attempted to construct a petrochemical plant that would spew toxins into the air and create the risk of explosion and leaks. The proposed plant would have been built near a popular public park.
This development should have been denied from the start, but the company and state continue to value economic development and profit over peoples’ lives and health. The success came as a result of hundreds of residents and other environmental organizations coming together to push against the proposed factory.
The fact that this struggle happened in the first place and that other hazardous facilities still exist and continue to be proposed in the area underscores how pervasive structural racism is in policy and practice.
In a region where environmental racism has resulted in some of the highest cancer rates in the country, Rise St. James remains at the front line of the struggle for a clean and safe place to live.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 13, 2022
Sharon Lavigne, firstname.lastname@example.org
Alexandria Trimble, atrimble@
Victory: Community declares victory against what would have been the largest methanol production facility in North America
ST. JAMES, LA — Today, community members and environmental groups declared victory in a near decade-long fight to stop South Louisiana Methanol from constructing a petrochemical complex in St. James Parish, a predominantly Black community already overburdened with industrial pollution. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) released a letter stating it has withdrawn its review of South Louisiana Methanol’s application to modify the air permits for its planned methanol complex. LDEQ had given South Louisiana Methanol until August 19, 2022 to confirm whether it intended to go forward with its development plans before formally withdrawing its review of the pending application. The company failed to respond, therefore confirming the end of South Louisiana Methanol’s project.
“South Louisiana Methanol finally threw in the towel having learned that our community will not back down in the fight to protect our health and wellbeing from more industrial pollution,” said Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James. “Today is a tremendous victory, but we will never stop fighting against polluters who think our health is less important than their dirty profits.”
The methanol complex site was located between two historic Black neighborhoods, including Freetown, a Reconstruction Era community established by people who had been formerly enslaved at area sugar plantations. It would have also wrapped around a public park which houses a playground, ball fields, community gathering shelter, walking path and senior center.
“South Louisiana Methanol’s project has been a hazard since its conception,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “South Louisiana Methanol bungled this project for over a decade, as demonstrated by its ongoing starts and stops. It should have been obvious to the state that the company was in no shape to run such a hazardous facility. It took hundreds of residents banding together to force LDEQ to recognize how overburdened the community is with industrial pollution, and to show polluters that we will not accept another plant moving in.”
“St. James Parish was targeted by a petrochemical industry accustomed to breezing through the permitting process that has ignored community concerns and allowed toxic plants to move into predominantly Black neighborhoods,” said Corinne Van Dalen, senior attorney at Earthjustice.
Earlier this month, the St. James Parish Council dealt a final blow to any future industrial projects for the area when it rejected an ordinance proposed by South Louisiana Methanol that would have rezoned the company’s property to allow for other industrial use. Currently, South Louisiana Methanol only has parish authorization to build a methanol plant.
In 2013, hundreds of residents urged the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to deny South Louisiana Methanol’s air permits because of its location within a residential area. The residents raised concerns about cancer-causing toxic air emissions along with the potential for “a leak, fire, or explosion” at the facility.
Incredibly, LDEQ justified its issuance of South Louisiana Methanol’s initial air permits on the grounds that ‘existing industrial sources’ are even closer to residential areas, the community center, and churches than the methanol plant would be.”
South Louisiana Menthol then requests modifications to its permits to allow for a massive rail/truck/ship terminal and storage facility. The company argued that it needed the modifications to secure investors.
Earthjustice represented RISE St. James, a faith-based community organization fighting to stop the onslaught of new petrochemical plants in St. James Parish, along with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Healthy Gulf, and Sierra Club in a series of comments challenging the permit modification. The coalition submitted comments on the now withdrawn application in November 2020, December 2021, and August 2022. The comments raise serious environmental justice concerns, land use violations, and cite the expiration of any authorization to construct under the Clean Air Act.
The methanol plant would have been a major source of toxic air pollution and it would have been allowed to emit over 2 million tons per year of greenhouse gasses. South Louisiana Methanol had boasted that its site could accommodate four more plants, which would have amounted to over 10 million tons per year of greenhouse gasses had the company’s plans gone through.
The coalition, led by RISE St. James, has also worked to stop Formosa Plastics from constructing what would be the largest chemical complex in the country in their community. The complex would emit 13 million tons of greenhouse gasses and enormous amounts of cancer-causing ethylene oxide just one mile from an elementary school. A state court judge is currently deciding on the air permits LDEQ issued for the massive complex and a decision is imminent.
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.
ABOUT RISE ST. JAMES
RISE St. James is a faith-based organization working to protect the land, air, water and health of the people of St. James Parish from the petrochemical industry.
Intern writer Cameron Calhoun contributed to this post.