New Orleans — After years of seeking redress from the parish council, St. James Parish residents have now taken their case to federal court. Since September of 2019, the plaintiffs, Inclusive Louisiana, Rise St. James, and Mt. Triumph Baptist Church, have requested a moratorium on the construction of new petrochemical plants and related infrastructure after the council approved a large number of new facilities and expansions. Rather than responding to citizens’ concerns, the council has continued to approve more petrochemical plants – and to pack them within the majority-Black 4th and 5th districts. This has in turn given rise to the newly filed suit, which plaintiffs argue will not only address the harms caused by the parish council to majority-Black districts, but will improve the lives of all parish residents.
Citing the council’s practice of repeatedly approving new plants in majority-Black parts of the parish, the plaintiffs are now suing under the Thirteenth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and relevant portions of federal law and the Louisiana state constitution. The Center for Constitutional Rights and Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic are counsel for the plaintiffs. Chief among their claims are the parish’s discriminatory land use system, which the plaintiffs allege violates the Thirteenth Amendment as a vestige of slavery as well as the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
“The St. James Parish Council has made the 4th and 5th districts sacrifice zones for corporate greed and single use plastics,” said Sharon Lavinge, Founder and Director of Rise St. James. “Our request for a moratorium was denied by the Parish Council while we struggle to live with the negative health impacts of carcinogenic chemicals spewing from petrochemical plants. Today we are asking the court to bring an end to the discriminatory land use decisions that have led to sickness, cancer and death throughout our community.”
“St. James Parish charter changed from Police Jury to Home Rule Charter,” said Gail LeBoeuf of Inclusive Louisiana. “Over 60 years, needed revenue was used for voting in plants that release polluting toxic chemicals and other particulate matter. Snaking down the river for 20 miles, two predominantly Black communities breathe in these pollutants daily. These human rights violations show no mercy, compassion, or love for all 20,000 residents, nor envision our future, while we’re experiencing Global Warming.”
“It’s time to end this discriminatory and harmful land use system in St. James Parish that has roots in slavery and its afterlife, and is now the cause of public health emergencies,” added Myrtle Felton of Inclusive. “We need to stop adding harmful chemicals that are impacting our health and homes.”
Barbara Washington, also of Inclusive Louisiana, spoke on the plaintiffs’ shared vision for St. James Parish in “…a future where we have places of business, where the blighted houses are gone, where our homes and our land look like the rest of the Parish.” She continued, “When we win this case, I’m looking forward to a future where I can come out of my house and not look at all the smog and emissions; I’m looking forward to a healthier and more sustainable life.”
“The Parish council needs to realize that we elected them to do a job,” said Pastor Harry Joseph of Mt. Triumph Baptist Church and also one of the plaintiffs, “they’re not listening to what people say. They’re doing what they want to do. They need to bring in the things that people of St. James Parish want, things that will inspire our young people to get involved in the community, like shops and small businesses, instead of bringing in these plants that are harming our communities.”
“This lawsuit is our notice to the St. James Parish Council and St. James Planning Commission that we will not be silenced, and we will hold them accountable for failing to protect us,” said Shamell Lavigne, Chief Operating Officer of Rise St. James. “We are exposing the systems of environmental racism that continue to ravage communities of color.”
Today’s filing marks the beginning of this lawsuit, as well as the start of a new campaign, Imagine St. James. Plaintiffs and their allies in St. James Parish are organizing local residents to demand and build a new local St. James Parish economy that is more inclusive and diversified, and which does not rely on polluting industry. Plaintiffs are asking members of the public to go to ImagineStJames.org to submit their ideas for the future of St. James Parish’s economy.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.