Welcome, Louisiana — Last May, on the day she turned 69, Sharon Lavigne and three Protestant pastors hiked the levee beside the Mississippi River and looked across the highway at the lush sugarcane fields and wetlands where Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group planned to build one of the largest plastics factories in the world.
The 2,400-acre, 14-plant complex would worsen the area’s existing pollution overload, spewing cancer-causing chemicals into the air. Opponents say its environmental permits would allow it to emit greenhouse gases equivalent to the output of three and a half coal-fired power plants.
The complex would also disturb or destroy graves of enslaved Black people who were buried on the property, which was once a plantation.
A mile downriver from the Formosa site stands an elementary school, and a mile beyond that, Lavigne’s home.
Standing atop the levee, she and her companions recalled the Old Testament story in which Joshua circled the ancient city of Jericho and caused its walls to tumble. Lavigne and the pastors walked six times in a circle, reciting Psalm 23, and on the seventh, they raised their arms skyward and begged God almighty to stop Formosa.
A devout Catholic, Lavigne is at the forefront of a campaign to thwart construction of the plastics complex. Two years ago, she founded Rise St. James, a faith-based, grassroots group made up of residents of the Fifth District of St. James Parish, an area of sugarcane fields and historically black hamlets interlaced with pipelines and industrial facilities.
Backed by environmentalists and community organizations, the group is speaking out for Black communities in St. James that face a new wave of industrial pollution.
The group started with protest marches. When the coronavirus pandemic erupted, the activists adapted their strategies and message, pointing out that theirs is a struggle against environmental racism and linking it to national calls for racial justice.
The group’s Facebook posts include updates on actions and lawsuits against the corporation, articles on plastics pollution, video clips of parish council meetings where Formosa was on the agenda, and numerous clips of Lavigne urging local officials to rescind approval of the complex.
She often mentions God.
“If you are Christians, if you believe in God, change this,” Lavigne says in a Sept. 1 Facebook post. “I know you can’t sleep at night because you live in St. James, too. When I am poisoned, you will be poisoned, too. So I ask you to go back, to get on your knees and pray and ask God to put it in your hearts to go back and rescind this decision.”
The Formosa complex represents “an assault on human life at all of its stages,” says Jesuit Deacon Chris Kellerman of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans. In an Aug. 27 letter to the News Examiner-Enterprise, a St. James newspaper, Kellerman said ethylene oxide emissions from the facility would jeopardize the unborn, citing studies showing that exposure increases rates of premature births and miscarriages. He noted that adults and school-age children would also be at risk, and he mentioned the graves.
“And all of this without the express consent of the people,” wrote Kellerman, who urged local officials to “find other alternative ways of investing in St. James that won’t pose such an antilife, racist and existential threat to the parish.”