If You Build It, They Will Suffer

A Louisiana Community Gives Voice to the Costs of Fossil Fuel Production

More than a dozen fossil fuel subsidies in the U.S. tax code encourage companies to extract oil, gas, and coal. Today we know how destructive it is to incentivize that: extraction pollutes our communities, destroys nature, and fuels climate change. Often lost in the debate over esoteric tax policy is the real-world impacts of this industry on the ground. 

NRDC has worked with local leaders and communities in four locations around the country to understand more clearly how incentivizing the fossil fuel industry harms people. Hearing stories like these from Wilmington, CA, St. James Parish, Louisiana, Washington County, PA, the Greater Chaco, NM region—can help all of us grasp the urgency of eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. This is our second instalment in this series.

Thank you to RISE St. James and Healthy Gulf for partnering with us in telling the story of the impacts of fossil fuel extraction in the Gulf Coast region below. For more information on the work of RISE St. James to protect public health, nature, and human rights in St. James Parish, please visit https://www.stopformosa.org/

Sharon Lavigne holds a photo of Keith Hunter, a resident and activist who died of sudden respiratory illness, at a Stop Formosa rally on March 9, 2021.
Healthy Gulf

St. James Parish, LA

In southeast Louisiana, the Mississippi River winds its way through rural St. James Parish. Fertile soil along the banks of the river was once the site of plantations and, later, farmland. In more recent years, though, the parish (similar to a county) has become host to petrochemical plants, oil refineries, and other oil and gas-related industry.

St. James Parish is part of the infamous swath of Louisiana between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as “Cancer Alley,” where a high concentration of industrial facilities emits toxic pollutants and causes some of the highest cancer risks in the country.[1] In St. James, most of these facilities are located in low-income communities of color in the parish’s Fourth and Fifth Districts. The Fourth District, with 7 petrochemical facilities, is 61 percent Black with 47 percent of its children living in poverty.[2] The Fifth District, currently with 12 petrochemical facilities, is 91 percent Black, and about 61 percent of the children live in poverty.[3]

In 2014, around the peak of the fracking boom, the Parish Council invited even more toxic development by adopting its first land use plan that designated existing residential and agricultural land as industrial.[4] New proposed projects include expanding an oil terminal, building one of the world’s largest methanol manufacturing facilities, and hosting Formosa Plastics, a more than $9.4 billion massive plastic manufacturing complex across more than 1,500 acres—slated to be the largest in North America.[5]

The Formosa complex would be located one mile from the elementary school. It would be allowed to emit more than 800 tons of toxic air pollutants each year,[6] including multiple carcinogens and substances that can cause or worsen respiratory and heart diseases.[7] It would triple the air pollution in nearby communities.[8] Formosa would discharge water pollution into the St. James Canal and Mississippi River, “the main source for municipal water down river for highly populated areas.” The proposed plastics facility is also the site of two cemeteries believed to contain the remains of enslaved people who worked on the plantations. The project’s been deemed environmental racism that poses serious and disproportionate threats to its Black residents.[9]

Sharon Lavigne, a former teacher who has lived in the Fifth District her whole life, founded the grass roots organization RISE St. James in 2018 to fight new petrochemical development. RISE helped stop a $1.25 billion petrochemical manufacturing facility plant proposed by the company Wanhua. Now, it’s focused on stopping Formosa Plastics and also working to establish a moratorium on all new oil, gas, and petrochemical development in the Parish. According to Sharon, every household in this community has someone who has died of cancer; community members also report breathing difficulties, skin rashes, and nose bleeds.[10]

“The potential exposure to more and more industrial pollution from Formosa Plastics is a death sentence. Our people are sick and they are dying.”

—Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James

Congress Must Act to End Fossil Fuel Freebies Now

Decision-makers must stop the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in local communities like St. James Parish. And at the federal level, Congress must also ensure that that we do not further incentivize this dirty and destructive industry through taxpayer dollars. Ending fossil fuel giveaways is a no-brainer and an essential step in the effort to eliminate the industry’s threat to communities, nature, and the planet’s future.


[6] LDEQ FGLA LLC Basis for Decision. Page 5. Jan 6, 2020. Available at https://edms.deq.louisiana.gov/app/doc/view?doc=11998452

[10] DECLARATION OF SHARON C. LAVIGNE

About the Authors

Amy Mall

Senior Advocate, Dirty Energy, Lands Division, Nature Program

Sujatha Bergen

Director, Health Campaigns, Health and Food Division

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