The sunsets from Sharon Lavigne’s home in St. James, Louisiana, are otherworldly. In the evenings, the 67-year-old can look out from her porch onto the 20 acres she inherited from her grandfather, the land bathed in orange and pink light. Once farmland, today it is mostly grass, which gives off a sweet, earthy smell as the heat leaves with the day.

Interrupting the quiet murmur of cicadas is the steady clank and hum of machinery. Tall metal tanks are visible from Lavigne’s property, with twisted pipes running between them and plumes of white smoke curling above.

St. James sits smack in the middle of Cancer Alley, a series of communities, mostly majority African American, that line the banks of the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. For decades, oil, gas, chemicals, and plastics have been produced here, and for an equally long time, residents have said they’ve faced significant health issues because of the plants. St. James Parish (the equivalent of a county) has a population of 21,000 and 32 petrochemical plants—one for every 656 residents. Industry is even more concentrated in the parish’s Fifth District, where Lavigne lives, which is 86 percent black. (The parish overall is 50 percent black.) The community has 2,822 people and 12 petrochemical plants—one for every 235 residents.

Last fall, Lavigne heard that two new companies were looking to build major industrial facilities in St. James. Formosa Petrochemical, a Taiwanese company, plans to build a $9.4 billion plant in the Fifth District to produce polypropylene and other compounds used in plastic products like bottles and grocery bags. According to Formosa’s application for an air permit, the facility will become one of the state’s largest emitters of ethylene oxide and benzene, both of which are known carcinogens. In the Fourth District, directly across the river from Lavigne’s home, a Chinese company, Wanhua Chemical Group, plans to build a $1.85 billion plant to produce a different compound widely used in plastics.

Lavigne is a devout Catholic, and one evening after she heard the news, she went to her porch to pray. She already felt hemmed in by industry; the addition of other facilities struck her as an existential threat to the vitality of the town her family helped make, a town that people and businesses have been leaving slowly but consistently for decades as the petrochemical companies moved in.

“I said, ‘Dear God, do you want me to give up my land, my home?’” she recalls. Then a red bird flew into her yard, and she knew she had an answer. “He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Fight.’”

Taking inspiration from her late father, who was a local NAACP leader, Lavigne founded a group she called Rise St. James, with the goal of blocking the two new plants. The group faces a tough political landscape. St. James’s seven-member Parish Council green-lit Formosa’s plan a few months after Rise was created, and now the company is applying for an air permit from the state. Hundreds of public comments have been submitted in opposition. The same trajectory was expected for Wanhua until Rise pushed back. The company’s application, initially approved by the Parish Council, has now been kicked back to a planning commission, putting a kink in Wanhua’s plans.

Lavigne has support from environmental groups in New Orleans and across the country, which have helped with everything from filing lawsuits against the parish to taking her to Washington, DC, for public presentations and meetings with members of Congress. But she doesn’t have as much support as she’d like from her fellow St. James residents. On paper, there are about two dozen Rise members, but some who say they’ll go to meetings don’t show up. “Even after all these months of fighting, some people still tell me it’s a done deal,” she says.

While Lavigne is deeply committed to the land her family has lived on for generations, some of her neighbors have said they feel fed up and hopeless—and they’re seeking buyouts that could help them move to a less polluted area. Beneath her struggle to organize is a question that often goes unspoken: When a place is as polluted as St. James is, should its residents stay and fight—or make plans to leave?

The fighter: Lavigne founded Rise St. James after she heard that two new petrochemical plants were planned near her home. (Mara Kardas-Nelson)

Over the years, Lavigne has seen her neighbors do one of three things: get sick, die, or move away. When she was growing up, St. James had several grocery stores, a family doctor who made house calls, a few restaurants, and multiple post offices. Many of the businesses were black-owned. Many families farmed—mostly sugarcane, sometimes rice, cultivating land that was worked decades before by enslaved people.

Driving along Highway 18, which runs in a thin line beside the Mississippi, Lavigne points out house after house that is no longer occupied. There’s Burton Lane, which mainly has elderly residents and a few families, since most of the younger people have left. Freetown, a neighborhood founded by a community of former slaves in 1842, is being reduced to a single road by a steady invasion of oil tanks.

As the people left, so did the businesses. Today, the most prominent family operation is a little shack that sells sno-balls (Louisiana’s version of the snow cone) on the side of the highway. The closest grocery store is a Walmart in Donaldsonville, about 12 miles away.

Clyde Cooper, who represents the Fifth District and is one of three black members on the Parish Council, says there have been a few attempts to open stores in St. James, but the question is always “Are there enough people to support the business?” He continues, “Industry isn’t uplifting the community. It’s really tearing the community down. People are moving out of the parish, and those who still stay are hurting.”

The Fourth and Fifth districts provide the majority of the parish’s property tax revenue but haven’t reaped the rewards of the industrial facilities they host. In the 2019 budget, for example, the Fifth District has $105,100 allocated for its recreation budget, plus $10,400 for construction. The First District, meanwhile, has $600,000 allocated for improvement of its ball fields. And the Fifth District will provide even more tax revenue in the coming years, thanks to a 2014 land-use plan approved after limited public input. The plan designates the district as a “residential/future industrial” area, while keeping other, whiter parts of St. James designated strictly for residential growth.

The district has been left with a dwindling number of schools, a limited evacuation route, and only one park, which consists primarily of a parking lot, some covered picnic tables, and a small playground surrounded by views of petrochemical plants. It has no health center, which is a problem because residents say they are dealing with significant health issues because of all the industry in area. On our drive along Highway 18, Lavigne points out the houses of those who have been diagnosed with or have died from cancer. “That family—the mother and daughter both have cancer,” she says, shaking her head. “That one, the wife died of cancer.” Lavigne’s brother, who lives down the road from her, is also a cancer survivor.

Hollowed out: As pollution forces residents out, activists are asking for an end to new petrochemical plants along Cancer Alley. (Alicia Cooke)

The extent to which industry is responsible for these illnesses is a matter of fierce debate. Dozens of chemicals released from the area’s petrochemical facilities are known carcinogens, and in two census tracts in St. James, the cancer risk from air pollution exceeds what the Environmental Protection Agency says is the “upper limit of acceptability.” But the Louisiana Tumor Registry, a state body, has said there’s no evidence of an elevated cancer risk along the New Orleans–Baton Rouge corridor, calling Cancer Alley a misnomer.

Wilma Subra, a chemist and technical adviser for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) who received a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1999, has been working with the state’s industrial communities for decades; she notes that, until recently, the Tumor Registry reported data only on a parish level. That meant no distinction could be seen across towns in the same parish even if they had different exposure to emissions—which could water down the results concerning possibly elevated cancer rates. She and others advocated for that practice to change, and now the registry reports rates for each census tract.

But Subra says it’s still difficult to demonstrate increased cancer rates because most people who have insurance go outside Louisiana to receive state-of-the-art cancer care—adults to Houston, kids to Tennessee. As a result, their cancers are reported out of state, even if they’re residents of Louisiana.

There are other problems. In St. James, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality monitors ozone but not volatile organic compounds, the primary toxic substances released by industrial facilities. The DEQ could require companies to do fence-line monitoring to measure pollution at their sites. Despite repeated requests by residents and other environmental groups, the DEQ has required this to be done at only one plant, in a parish down the river from St. James. Data collected there shows that residents have been exposed to emissions that can reach 765 times the levels considered safe by the EPA.

While proof of causality may be hard to come by, the perception that poor health is linked to the petrochemical industry is enough to shake residents. It’s a primary topic of conversation for Lavigne and her family and neighbors: This person had a stroke, that person has respiratory problems, someone else’s neighbor now has throat cancer. The threat of ill health has pushed some of Lavigne’s children and grandchildren out of the parish. “People with young kids don’t want to live here anymore,” she says. “They’re worried they’ll get sick.” The two grandchildren who have stayed often have trouble breathing St. James’s air.

On Sundays, Lavigne tucks a stack of yellow Rise St. James flyers into her gold choir robe. She hands them out before services at the 200-year-old St. James Catholic Church, where she’s worshipped since she was a child, sharing information about Wanhua and Formosa and encouraging neighbors to lobby the Parish Council in opposition to the companies’ plans.

After a service in March, she takes the flyers to a backyard barbecue, where a man is frying chicken in a metal vat. Oil tanks sit behind him, just beyond the house’s fence. The chef, Kirk Carey, has worked in the petrochemical industry for years, at a plant outside the parish. His wife works at a plant, too. Industry jobs can easily pay six figures, especially those that are more technical, like engineering positions. But “no one gets jobs in the parish,” Carey says. “Everybody’s got to go outside to get work.”

Nearly a dozen residents across St. James echo the complaint about jobs, insisting that most of them, especially the well-paid ones, go to outsiders—“because this parish is a club,” says Carey’s friend Gregory Clayton. Rubbing a finger along his arm, he continues, “You get in by the color of your skin. It’s been like that for a long time.” (Employee information is protected by law, and in Louisiana, a right-to-work state, there are few unions that could verify the racial composition of the workforce.)

Louisiana is the second largest petrochemical producer in the country, after Texas, thanks in part to its natural resources and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico—and also to its friendly corporate climate. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has allowed industry to skirt local taxes through the Industrial Tax Exemption Program. While the state’s Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, has reformed the program so that local governments can now impose some property taxes on petrochemical facilities if they wish, the Formosa and Wanhua plants were proposed before that change was made, so tax exemptions will be grandfathered in. “St. James Parish currently has almost exactly as much industrial property exempted as the entire state of Texas—$2.1 billion,” says Broderick Bagert, an organizer with Together Louisiana, a statewide network of religious and civic organizations. “After the Formosa and Wanhua deals, St. James will be giving away at least six times more in property tax subsidies than all of Texas.”

Nor are the plants likely to receive significant regulatory oversight from the DEQ, which is responsible for enforcing state rules as well as the regulations written by the EPA. Andrew Jacoby, an environmental lawyer based in New Orleans, says that the DEQ lacks adequate funding from the state, barely flexes its regulatory muscle, and has an ingrained pro-industry mentality. “We have regulatory capture that’s almost absolute,” he says. “Every level of government is pro-industry—which isn’t necessarily bad, but it is a problem if communities’ interests are compromised. And government’s actions suggest a total lack of interest in the health of these communities.”

Several St. James residents, including Lavigne, say they’ve called the DEQ to register complaints about industrial emissions multiple times, only to see a department representative several days later or not at all. A 2011 EPA study noted that “Louisiana has the lowest enforcement activity levels” in its region, which includes Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Among other things, the study cited “a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry.”

Local government could put up significant restrictions on new industry or at least require stronger environmental protections. But several of St. James’s Parish Council members, including the president, are current or former employees of the petrochemical industry. “As the government, our first priority should be the safety and protection of our citizens,” says the Fifth District’s Cooper. “But I don’t think that’s first and foremost the interest of this council. There’s just this mind-set of more, more, more.”

Under an awning at the barbecue, Lavigne chats with a woman while continuing to hand out flyers. “Come out tomorrow night. There’s a council meeting,” Lavigne says. The woman responds that she’s heard about the new plants, it’s awful, and she’d like to attend—but she has other plans.

Rising up: Activists with Rise St. James have staged protests, spoken at public meetings, and filed lawsuits against local and state governments. (Survival Media Agency / Wambui Gichobi )

A few days later, I meet Eve Butler in a Baptist church in the Fifth District. She is waiting for me inside, taking shelter from a midday rain. She tries to avoid such showers, she explains, because “in 2016, I was caught in the rain, and my face peeled pink from the chemicals. It was like a really bad sunburn.” She has been especially sensitive about health issues since being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017. She’s in remission now, but the treatment made her too sick to work.

Like Lavigne’s, Butler’s family has lived in St. James for several generations. She moved back to the area in 2008 after serving in the military and working in towns across the country and now lives with her mother and sister on Freetown Lane, surrounded by industrial facilities.

Several years ago, Butler joined Humanitarian Enterprise of Loving People (HELP), a group whose original aim was to restart local businesses. (Lavigne is also a member.) The focus quickly changed to environmental concerns. “Children are having asthma, kids are having cancer, young women are having miscarriages,” Butler summarizes. “House foundations are shifting with all the construction.”

While Lavigne is fighting to stay in the parish, Butler is now trying to leave it. She decided it was time to go after the council announced its new land-use plan, which designates part of the Fifth District as industrial. “My mother’s family were slaves, and my family has been in Freetown for at least 100 years,” she says. “That’s a long time for us to live here and give it up. But I don’t think it’s going to improve. There’s just too much industry, too many chemicals. Formosa will be 1.25 miles from the elementary school. Then there’s South Louisiana Methanol, NuStar, LOCAP, Plains, and YCI,” she continues, ticking off the neighboring facilities. “There’s no buffer zone between us and the plants. We are the buffer zone.”

Butler has worked with LEAN and with other residents advocating for a community-wide buyout. That would, at least in theory, allow neighbors to move with neighbors, family members with family members, keeping together some of the bonds that have formed over a century.

In a statement submitted to the St. James Planning Commission in February, LEAN notes that some residents, including Butler, “have repeatedly requested the opportunity to relocate due to the development that has surrounded their community that they believe impacts their health and safety on a daily basis…. The Parish must [provide] relief through voluntary relocation and/or other considerations as dictated by those impacted populations.” Michael Orr, the communications director for LEAN, points out that even before the Wanhua and Formosa plants were proposed, “some residents felt as though their community was so degraded that they wanted to leave, to be bought out.”

In the absence of a coordinated strategy, residents eager to leave have unwittingly engaged in a race to the bottom. As more industry has moved in and more residents have left, property values have tanked. Across the parish, the median value of a home is $136,400, $26,000 less than the median value across the state and $81,200 less than the median value nationally. Orr estimates that the houses in Freetown and Burton Lane, which are closest to the industrial plants, are worth much less than the parish average. “Even if you paid two or three times what they’re worth, [the homeowners] still can’t get enough money to buy a house anywhere else.” (LEAN advocates for the homes to be bought at or above the state median.)

Residents in some of Louisiana’s most polluted towns have obtained buyouts. In 2011, people in Mossville were offered a voluntary relocation package from the petrochemical company SASOL, which was expanding a chemical plant. Many in the environmental movement have criticized the buyout, which was taken by nearly every community member, suggesting that those who didn’t want to go faced peer pressure and that residents didn’t receive adequate compensation. Orr counters that residents received 160 percent of their home’s value, plus moving expenses.

The criticism hasn’t been only about money. Stacey Ryan, one of the few Mossville residents who has stayed, explained his decision in a 2015 interview with the Sierra Club as a commitment to the history of a community founded by enslaved people. “I have not been offered a fair price for my property, and I refuse to give it away,” he said. “I am not someone who seeks the limelight, but I’m aware of my heritage and the ways in which industry can erase history.” Buyouts in other parts of the country, particularly by the fracking industry, have been criticized for being, in essence, a relatively cheap and easy way to keep communities quiet.

Orr makes it clear that LEAN supports whatever the community members decide, whether it’s fighting new plants or obtaining a buyout. But he wonders to what extent the renewed effort to stay is being influenced by outside groups—including the Sierra Club, 350 New Orleans, and several religious organizations—that see St. James as part of a larger struggle against petrochemical development. In June many of these groups marched alongside Rise St. James to Baton Rouge in order to demand, among other things, that no new petrochemical plants be approved in Mississippi River parishes.

Regardless, the fact that the residents of St. James now face a devastating choice is not the fault of environmentalists: It’s the result of decades of industrial pollution and a lack of support from government. Scott Eustis, the community science director for Healthy Gulf, a New Orleans–based organization focused on Louisiana’s wetlands, describes the fight against the new plants in St. James as “a climate issue, a racism issue, a Mississippi River pollution issue, a waste issue. If people care about the Green New Deal, about green jobs, about environmental issues, then they should care about Sharon [Lavigne].” He isn’t against buyouts, but he argues that instilling hope through more organizing could rally people to stay in the parish. “I think if we had more resources, more support, we could get people talking about these things together and push back together.”

It’s difficult to tell what community members really want. Butler notes that many people say they want to leave in private but then clam up in public, reluctant to offer what could be seen as criticism of an industry that promises jobs. Lavigne points out that people can change their tune depending on who they’re talking to. But she says that since Rise St. James started, more people have told her they want to stay and victories like the one that saw the Wanhua application kicked back to the planning commission show their efforts may be paying off. “Even people in industry, they come up to me and say, ‘What you’re doing is right, because the plants are killing us.’” Lavigne says residents have been advised to stay by others who left and are struggling to make it in new, more expensive places. “They say it’s just not worth it.”

For a long time, Lavigne’s brother, Milton Cayette, was among the residents who felt torn. Retired after more than 30 years at Shell Oil, he goes to as many Parish Council meetings as possible, where he and Lavigne wear matching “Rise St. James” T-shirts.

“I’m against Formosa. I’m against all the plants coming in. We hope and pray that that won’t happen,” Cayette says. But his children, who have left St. James, are worried about his health. He says that even if the Formosa and Wanhua facilities are not approved, there will be other plants—and he’s decided it’s time to leave. “I see the writing on the wall. I think this is a losing battle. It’s just going to get worse. I’d sell in a heartbeat.”

Lavigne understands the impulse. “Everyone wishes me good luck, because they say they would be so happy if they could stay. But if the plants go through, they’re ready to go,” she says. She hasn’t yet thought about what she’ll do if Formosa and Wanhua are approved. If she moves, she’ll be cut off from the church that she and Cayette have attended since they were children—a prospect that she finds devastating. “There’s no way I’m leaving that church,” she says. “That is my home.”