A schoolteacher in Louisiana's 'cancer alley' has won a 'Green Nobel' for stopping companies from building chemical plants on the Mississippi River
- Sharon Lavigne lives in "
cancer alley," an area of Louisiana on the Mississippi River with a proliferation of chemical plants.
- Lavigne is the North American winner of the 2021
Goldman Environmental Prize, for her work successfully fighting back against a new plastic plant.
- President Biden has also pledged to fight for "environmental justice" in "
The sugar cane that grew along the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana used to taste different. 70-year-old Sharon Lavigne remembers it as so "sweet, sweet, sweet" when she was a kid growing up in St James Parish.
Lavigne would chew on large, juicy stalks of it, back when her family farmed chickens, pigs, and cattle, and her grandfather would fish and shrimp from the big river in Welcome, Louisiana, about 66 miles west of New Orleans.
But in the decades since then, her area of the river has become home to dozens of oil refineries and plastics manufacturing plants. Sugar cane stalks now grow thinner and taste less flavorful than they once did.
Instead, early in the morning and late into the night, the smell of rotten eggs often wafts though her neighborhood. She says all you have to do is come visit for a few hours, and you'll likely either get a headache, your stomach will start to turn, or your skin might start to itch.
"If you're sitting on the porch you're going to start scratching," she told Insider. "There's stuff falling out of the sky on you."
Lavigne lives in the heart of what's called "cancer alley" - a stretch of the Mississippi that snakes from New Orleans to Baton Rouge - where upwards of 140 factories and plants dump their toxic byproducts into the river and into the sky. Recently, it's become her life's mission to stop more plants from moving in, winning her a coveted 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize, also known as the "Green Nobel."
'Cancer alley' residents deal with the health consequences of bad air and bad water
The cancer rate in St. James Parish, where Lavigne lives among more than 20 different refineries and plants, is the eighth highest in her state, with an average of 136 new cancer cases every year (among a population of roughly 21,100 people).
According to a 2014 national air toxics assessment from the US Environmental Protection Agency, the cancer risk in this area is anywhere from around 10 to 30 times higher than most other parts of the US. But it's likely far higher than that in her own neighborhood, as 85% of reported the air pollution in the parish is centered in the predominantly Black sections.
"You can go every household in this area, and talk to someone in that family, and they will tell you who was sick and died, and who is sick right now with cancer," Lavigne said.
"I have two brothers, they both live in St. James, both of them have cancer. My neighbors on my right side, his name was Robert, he died of throat cancer. My neighbor on the other side of me, her name was Helen. She died of cancer. Just all up and down the river, all up and down the river, literally up and down the river people have cancer."
Lavigne stopped a new $1.25 billion plastics plant from coming in
So, in 2018, when Lavigne's teaching contract was not renewed, she made it her new mission to do something about these
"That was not in my plans," she said, "My plans were to teach school, retire from teaching school, and then relax myself."
So far, her new less-than-relaxing plan has worked. On Tuesday, Lavigne was one of just six climate activists worldwide to receive the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize for her work founding Rise St. James, which stopped a $1.25 billion Chinese-owned plastics plant (Wanhua) from setting up shop in the parish in 2019.
Lavigne says her father used a similar tactic in the Civil Rights movement, going door to door to launch a local chapter of the NAACP, and helping integrate the area schools. But it wasn't necessarily the kind of work she ever pictured herself doing until very recently.
"It was mostly men doing this type of work, so it didn't interest me," she said. "I just knew my daddy was fighting - was fighting for us."
Then, in October 2018, "God told me to do this," she said, and Rise was born.
"When I go canvassing, I think about him, and I think about his spirit," she said of her dad. "I think about him being with me."
Her work has involved knocking on doors to let neighbors know about what's being proposed, speaking out publicly at meetings exposing when companies have "lied to the parish council," writing letters to the editor in the local paper, raising donations for the cause, filing petitions, handing out hams in the neighborhood, and managing a small staff.
'They're polluting us'
Lavigne's work fighting off pollution is far from over, though. A Taiwanese plastics company, Formosa, is hoping to set up shop soon with a much larger $9.4 billion petrochemical complex, stretching across an area of land the size of 1,200 football fields, according to the Washington Post.
It would double to triple the already high levels of pollution in the air over the Formosa site in St. James Parish, which are already "more toxic with cancer-causing chemicals than 99.6% of industrialized areas of the country," according to a 2019 ProPublica report.
The project is so heavily focused in the Parish's predominantly Black 5th District (where Lavigne lives) that council member Clyde Cooper called Formosa's proposal "environmental racism." Another recent Atlantic story neatly overlays petrochemical and petroleum plants in Lavigne's region of the country with archival maps of plantations, highlighting how the industry in general profits from the historical inequities born out of slavery.
"They just dump it in the river, on the people. They don't live here," Lavigne says, with a glass of filtered water at her side (she's stopped drinking bottled water, hoping to avoid plastic chemicals, and cut her reliance on the plastic industry in general.)
"They don't care because they're polluting us," she adds, "They are not being polluted. We are being polluted."
Lavigne is hopeful that President Biden, who mentioned "Cancer Alley" by name when he introduced new executive orders on environmental policy in January, will also be able to lend a hand in preventing Formosa from from moving in.
"I feel it in my gut that he's going to do something," she said. "Lord, we can breathe whenever he stops this one. We gon' be able to live. Cause if he don't stop it, and this plant is coming, we're going to die. We will die if this plant come here."
A 2020 Pew Research Center poll suggests most Americans agree with her, with 79% of Americans saying the priority for the country's energy supply should be on wind and solar energy, not petrochemicals - and a majority of those surveyed also agreeing that more government regulations and support will be needed to prop up the shift.
"I want people to pray for us," she said. "That we live, that we get clean air, and eventually get clean water so we can stop buying bottled water, and go back to some of the old things that we had a long time ago when I was a little girl."
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