St. James Parish
St. James Parish, home to chemical companies and the annual lighting of bonfires on Christmas Eve, is the subject of a lawsuit alleging that local officials discriminated against Black residents by allowing chemical plants to locate in their neighborhood. Credit: St. James Parish Council

 Buildout of industrial facilities in Black areas of St. James Parish constitutes discrimination and must halt, groups argue in lawsuit

Multiple groups sued St. James Parish, saying officials there discriminated against Black neighborhoods by clearing the way for dangerous industries to locate in their areas.

The St. James Parish government’s long history of locating highly pollutive industrial facilities in areas of the parish home to large concentrations of Black residents constitutes discrimination, and the parish must cease the practice, residents and environmental groups argued in a lawsuit filed in federal court this week. 

“We stand here today to say we will not be ignored. You will not sacrifice our lives. And we will not take any more industries in the 4th or 5th district in St. James,” Shamyra Lavigne of the environmental group Rise St. James said outside a federal courthouse in New Orleans on Tuesday morning. “Enough is enough.” 

Rise St. James, the nonprofit advocacy group Inclusive Louisiana and the Mount Triumph Baptist Church filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, arguing that the parish government has violated the 14th amendment to the Constitution by discriminating against Black residents by locating heavy industrial facilities near their communities while sparing white residents the same fate.

The plaintiffs are all St. James Parish residents and some are descendants of people enslaved on the plantations once located in the parish. 

The groups sued the St. James Parish Council, the parish’s planning and zoning commission and the parish itself. The parish government did not respond to requests for comment before this article’s publication. 

St. James Parish is located in the highly industrialized 85-mile corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, home to some 150 petrochemical plants, that’s been dubbed “Cancer Alley” by some. 

The parish itself has more than 30 industrial sites within its boundaries, of which about a dozen are petrochemical plants. Most of the heavy industry is located upriver, in the majority-Black, lower-income 4th and 5th districts. There are 11 so-called toxic release inventory sites in St. James Parish that release potentially harmful toxins, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — five of which are in the 4th district and four of which are in the 5th district. 

Black residents comprise nearly 90% of the population in the 5th district and more than 50% of the population in the 4th. 

The parish government has granted every request made by corporations to locate their heavy industrial facilities in the 4th and 5th districts, but has refused to do the same in majority-white communities, the lawsuit stated. For instance, the parish hasn’t allowed a new facility to be located in a majority-white area in 46 years, according to the suit. 

“Racial cleansing”

Although the parish did not adopt an official land use plan until 2014, the parish government had long pursued a land use strategy that steered pollution-emitting facilities into majority-Black communities, according to the suit. The 2014 plan merely codified that blueprint, according to the lawsuit. 

“The 2014 Plan designated large swaths of property in the 4th and 5th Districts as ‘industrial’ even though they had previously always been identified as having ongoing agricultural use, demonstrating in the clearest possible terms an intent to continue populating the predominantly Black 4th and 5th Districts with more industry,” the groups said. 

What’s more, parts of the 4th and 5th districts were designated as “Residential/Future Industrial” in the 2014 plan, a classification not employed elsewhere in the parish. The designation signaled that the parish government was intent on dismantling the character of, and indeed, the very existence of, the historic Black communities located there, the groups said. 

It was “in effect, a racial cleansing plan,” the suit stated. 

Ongoing battles

That the parish government treats the health and environmental concerns of its Black and white residents differently was further illustrated by the council’s decision last year to impose a moratorium on the consideration and approval of large-scale solar farm projects after a company sought to build one in a majority-white area, the groups said in the suit. 

The council conceded to “white [residents’] demands for a moratorium on the construction of a solar power farm in areas that one white resident described would be “in our backyard,” because it might arguably diminish white residents’ property values, even as solar power farms do not emit toxic pollutants,” the groups said in the suit. The moratorium was designed to last until the South Central Planning Commission — a regional planning commission located in Louisiana — completes its impact study, or until March 31, 2023 — whichever occurs later.

Meanwhile, the parish government in 2019 approved a 2400-acre chemical complex in the 5th district for Formosa Plastics that would, if completed, double the air pollutants, expose residents to three times the amount of carcinogens and emit 13 million tons of greenhouse gasses annually, according to the suit. 

A state judge vacated the permits for Formosa’s $9.4 billion proposed facility last year. The state has pledged to appeal the decision. 

For the residents of St. James Parish, whether or not heavy industrial facilities are allowed to proliferate in their communities is a matter of life and death, the groups said in their suit. 

“Our plaintiffs in this case have essentially been given a death sentence by St. James Parish,”  Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights — which is one of the legal organizations representing the plaintiffs — said on Tuesday. “It did not have to be this way.”

Joshua Rosenberg

Joshua Rosenberg covers the environmental beat for The Lens. Joshua is a Report for America corps member, and is working in collaboration with the Mississippi River Basin Ag and Water Desk. Prior to joining...