In addition to MDI, the plant would release carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, benzene, and other toxic pollutants into the environment—directly next to residential neighborhoods and the Mississippi River.
The St. James Parish Council quickly granted Wanhua’s permits for the plant, rezoned the residential area in order to allow the project to be built in close proximity to homes, and granted Wanhua a 10-year exemption from all property taxes. This was carried out in a predominantly Black and low-income community in which, it was assumed, residents would not speak up in opposition.
Even in the context of entrenched environmental racism against the Black community in the region, this all stood out with particular starkness.
A Leader Tied to her Community
Sharon Lavigne, 69, is the daughter of civil rights activists who has lived in St. James Parish her whole life. As a little girl, her family lived off the land—with gardens, cattle, pigs, and chickens—and her grandfather caught fish and shrimp in the Mississippi River. Lavigne worked as a special education teacher until deciding to dedicate herself full-time to working for environmental justice in her community. In October 2018, she founded RISE St. James, a faith-based, grassroots environmental organization that started with a meeting in her living room with 10 community members and her daughter taking notes. Now, she manages a small staff and some 20 volunteers.
A Master Class in Campaigning for Environmental Justice
In 2018 and 2019, drawing upon the civil rights work of her parents, Lavigne began to mobilize against the proposed plant. She regularly attended parish council meetings and other hearings, providing testimony and raising questions about the proposed plant, rapidly becoming a critical voice of opposition. She detailed the negative health and environmental impacts of the project and highlighted the scale and density of the plants already operating in St. James Parish.
Lavigne organized door-to-door visits in neighborhoods that would be most impacted and spoke to residents about the risks. She hosted townhalls that brought in respected experts to educate community members, produced reports, wrote letters to regional newspapers, and designed newspaper ads—all arguing against the project.
As the campaign heated up, Lavigne met one-on-one with council members to persuade them to rescind permits for the plant. She asked the parish council and governor’s office to issue municipal and statewide moratoriums on new industrial construction, and, when these were denied, she led marches to raise visibility on the issues.
Lavigne built coalitions with local civic organizations and church groups, and forged links with environmental and climate justice organizations in Louisiana and nationally, including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, 350.org, and Tulane’s environmental law clinic.
Finally, in response to this intense community campaign, in September 2019 Wanhua withdrew its land use application—less than one year after receiving permissions—officially canceling construction of its US$1.25 billion plastics manufacturing plant in St. James Parish.
Lavigne’s grassroots campaign successfully defended her community from the construction of yet another toxic plant in its midst. Her activism not only protected residents from additional air pollution, but also prevented the generation of a million pounds of liquid hazardous waste each year, safeguarding the environment of St. James Parish. Today, she continues her work opposing new chemical plants—and the pollution they bring—in her community.