Industry lines the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Credit: JIM BOWEN / FLICKR (CC BY 2.0)

Rise St. James and the Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish can—along with many supporters—claim significant successes since our “Big March,” May 30th to June 3rd, 2019, in opposition of the petrochemical plants along the Mississippi from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Since then, Wanhua Chemical has withdrawn its request to build a plant in Cancer Alley (now widely known as Death Alley). We may have a victory over fertilizer company Mosaic (they are closing for three months as of October 1st with only a skeleton crew managing the plant). Also, the St. John School Board decided to remove students from the Fifth Ward Elementary School, which sits just 1500 feet from the Denka/Dupont Plant, after our demonstrations in front of the school.

”Our coalition still faces quite a challenge making the deadly problems of the river parishes a Louisiana problem.”

On September 6th, the The TimesPicayune/New Orleans Advocate reported that the officials of Wanhua Chemical told St. James Parish officials that they are withdrawing their request to construct their huge petrochemical plant. They claim that the increased cost of building such a plant was too expensive, up to $2 billion, a 60% rise over original estimates. The Picayune/Advocate article also included the following:

“The Louisiana Bucket Brigade and other community and environmental groups that had fought the project trumpeted Wanhua’s decision to withdraw its land use request as a victory, calling it ‘David Beats Goliath’… The groups also promised to continue fighting other projects planned near the largely lower-income, black communities in the parish’s northern end.

‘My great-great-great-great grandmother came out of slavery and bought my family’s land,’ said Barbara Washington, a Convent resident who is part of the community group Rise St. James. ‘Our hard work has paid off. We will not stop ‘til all those industries who want to come in here change their plans. We are tired of being sick. We refuse to be sick anymore.’”

David will continue taking on Goliath until our people—the sisters and brothers in the river parishes—win!

When I wrote about the May-June march in The Lens on July 29th, we had received very little Louisiana coverage outside of significant articles in The Lens. Our coalition still faces quite a challenge making the deadly problems of the river parishes a Louisiana problem. Our governor, who is in part responsible for so many illnesses and deaths, will not even talk to the protestors in St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes, while the state gives huge tax advantages to the many chemical companies there.

But since the June march we have had some important developments.

On August 31st, the Picayune/Advocate reported that the state would conduct a study of cancer risks near the Denka plant. The article begins: “After years of outcry by some neighbors of the Denka neoprene plant in St. John the Baptist Parish, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has promised to conduct a ‘comprehensive study’ in conjunction with the state’s tumor registry to establish definitively whether people living in the vicinity of the plant have elevated rates of cancer.” Details on the study were not immediately available, but the announcement was greeted enthusiastically by Robert Taylor, an outspoken opponent of the Denka plant and leader of the group Concerned Citizens of St. John.

Environment expert and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Bob Marshall made an important point in his Sept 15th op-ed in the Picayune/Advocate. He wrote: “The leading candidates for governor are not even mentioning climate change because they are afraid to upset the oil, gas and petrochemical industries—because their products are major causes of local warming… If the leading candidates for governor don’t even mention the greatest threat to our coast, why should the rest of the country take our ‘fight to save the coast’ seriously? To them we are beginning to look like lung cancer patients who don’t want to quit smoking.” While Marshall’s article talks about numerous causes of climate change, he does feature the impact from petrochemical plants.

It is time for another march, say Sharon Lavigne, director of Rise St. James, and Robert Taylor, director of Concerned Citizens of St. John. Once again various organizations, including Justice and Beyond, are giving the protest march from October 15th to 30th our full support. Other supporters for the march include climate change activists and justice-seeking individuals and organizations.

Pat Bryant of Justice and Beyond – one of the organizers of the October march – has written that it will include educational activities such as essay and food contests, art exhibits, and debates. The march will include daily press conferences and teach-ins, protest demonstrations at state offices and at the poisoning industries, voter registration outreach and musical concerts. Bryant also announced that we have obtained permission to cross state bridges during the march; permission that was denied us during the June march.

One of the highlights of the October march will occur when Rev. Dr. William Barber speaks on the Death Alley crisis. Dr. Barber is a prominent Protestant Minister of the Disciples of Christ Church and known nationally as a forceful political activist. Two hundred people turned out to hear him during the June march where he preached on how God wants us to protect the clean air, the clean earth, and the clean water of creation. We expect even more participants will show up during our October march.

A number of billboards in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and the River Parishes will be included in the budget for the march. Three are already in place, showing a grandmother sitting on her front porch in a rocking chair holding a baby. In the background, a chemical plant is emitting fumes that flow around her home. A script reads, “ELECTED OFFICIALS PLEASE STOP POISONING GRANDMA AND THE BAY.” One of the billboards has been placed at the Hale Boggs Bridge, right next to Death Alley.

I was skeptical that we would pull off the June march. I am somewhat of a skeptic about the October march. I was proved wrong about the first march and pray that I am wrong this time, that, in fact, David will win another victory over Goliath.

Credit: William Barnwell

Rev. William Barnwell’s recent book, “Angels in the Wilderness,” was named Book of the Year in the Indie Book Awards inspirational non-fiction category. He tells more about his ministry to Angola inmates in a previous book: “Called to Heal the Brokenhearted: Stories from Kairos Prison Ministry International.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens Founder Karen Gadbois.