Louisiana Environmental Justice Leader Wins Prestigious Environmental Prize

Alina Gonzalez

June 28, 2021

This month, environmental justice advocate Sharon Lavigne won the world's largest prize for environmental advocacy for blocking a chemical giant from building a roughly $1.3 billion plastic manufacturing plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana, a majority-Black community. Funded by the late Richard and Rhoda Goldman, the annual Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded to six people around the world who protect and enhance the environment in their communities

At the outset, Wanhua Chemical, the company behind the proposed facility, seemed likely to prevail. Wanhua is the world's largest producer of methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI), showing its dominance in the global market.

But Lavigne did not falter. Through courage and persuasion, she defeated the petrochemical titan, which wielded power over local and state governments to the detriment of community members. For far too long, the petrochemical industry has targeted low-income communities and communities of color, believing it can get away with building facilities that dump toxic pollutants in the air and water. Community members pay the price of this pollution through serious health problems like cancer and asthma, while polluters enjoy massive profits and treat the occasional fine or lawsuit settlement as just another cost of doing business.

Instead of retreating in the face of these challenges, Lavigne, a retired special education teacher, mobilized.

Coming together

When news broke that the facility would be constructed in her neighborhood, Lavigne founded Rise St. James, an environmental justice organization, and members joined forces against Wanhua.

Amid opposition, Lavigne took the lead, organizing marches, petitioning local and state officials to stop construction of new industrial facilities, testifying at parish council meetings, holding media campaigns, knocking on doors, and forming partnerships with organizations such as Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic.

Before long, the company withdrew its land-use permit application. Had it not been for Lavigne’s leadership, the plant would have released huge amounts of toxic chemicals in St. James Parish, a region at the heart of “Cancer Alley” that is already overburdened by environmental health hazards.  

The cancer rate in the corridor, which runs between New Orleans and Baton Rouge,  is 50 times higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Federal environmental regulations have failed to adequately protect people who live in the region, according to a recent statement by human rights officials at the United Nations. 

Leading the charge

In the absence of federal protections, Lavigne managed to effectuate change in her hometown and improve public health. 

Now, she’s leading the charge to stop Formosa Plastics, a Taiwanese company, from building yet another petrochemical complex near her home. With a $12 billion price tag, it would be one of the largest plastic plants in the world if constructed — and likely double the amount of air pollution and contribute to higher health risks in the area. 

For Lavigne, the fight is not over. As James Baldwin put it, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Banner image courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.

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