Environmental Racism in St. James Parish Louisiana
The community of St. James Parish, Louisiana has faced environmental injustices before, and right now they’re fighting another. Join me in this podcast as I analyze the conflict between the grassroots environmental justice group, RISE St. James, and plastics company, Formosa, as they navigate their way through the construction of a new plastic plant and the issues that come along with it.
Hi, my name is Annika Lloyd and today I want to talk about what’s going on in St. James Parish, Louisiana.
After Hurricane Ida, I was thinking about how the state’s been hit pretty hard by several factors within the last few years. Hurricanes, COVID, pollution. As I was reading news articles about Louisiana, I found a recent article from The Guardian about a plastic plant that’s being protested, and it really caught my interest.
The article explains how on May 17th, 2021, the grassroots environmental justice group Rise St. James protested the construction of Formosa’s new plastic plant located in St. James Parish within Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, citing the construction as environmental racism. Their evidence lies in the fact that the plastic plant is putting their health and environment at risk, since it is expected to double toxic emissions in the predominantly black community, which already has among the highest levels nationwide, and it is planned to sit on land that was previously used as sugarcane plantations in the burial grounds of enslaved people. They’re calling for the securitization of their environments by preventing the construction.
So today I want to analyze this claim through an environmental geopolitical perspective. At this point, you might be asking yourself what environmental geopolitics is? According to Dr. Shannon O’Lear’s Environmental Geopolitics (2018) textbook, geopolitics itself is a “way of representing and projecting a particular understanding of the world in spatial relationships.” And that environmental geopolitics uses this perspective to examine, quote: “how environmental themes are used to support geopolitical arguments and realities.” It looks at things like boundaries, how and why they’re set and how this affects our interactions with, and our understandings of what the environment is. To use this perspective, I’ll be asking three questions according to Dr. Shannon O’Lear’s Environmental Geopolitics (2018) textbook.
- How was the role and meaning of the environment specified?
- What is the role of human agency within this claim or view of the world?
- And what is the spatial focus of this particular claim?
This will help me get a better understanding of the claim Rise St. James is making.
I have Kale Ralston here from the KU School of Journalism to help me break it down.
Hi Annika, Thanks for having me.
No problem. Let’s get into it.
So you mentioned that environmental politics asks how the role and meaning of the environment is specified. Can you elaborate on that within this context?
Yeah, of course. So in this case there are two opposing perspectives. One is coming from Rise St. James, the protesters’ side, and the other is coming from Formosa, the company side. From the view of the protesters, the “environment”, and I say that in quotation marks, is very local, living, and something to be protected. The environment is specified as the environment of their own bodies and the bodies of those in their community. And along with that they’re including the air quality in their community in the meaning of the environment, since that’s what’s directly impacting the security of their bodies.
On the other hand, the role of the environment to Formosa is something to be controlled, managed, and regulated by humans. It isn’t something living. Their meaning of the environment is within the context of state and federal regulations. So it includes things like emissions and air quality. And these roles and meanings are really opposite of each other. But there’s even more to the environment than that, and that’s just kind of left out of the story.
And what would that be?
Well, when you think about it, the protesters are only considering the environment of their own community and bodies. And not that that’s wrong because that’s what Rise St. James was created to do – to look at their own community. But when you define the environment so narrowly, what’s missing is a more global perspective and meaning of the environment, which may include larger roles like the one living environments play in ecosystem services or the spreading of Formosa’s pollutants to further locations.
And actually, if you look really closely, a formal complaint made in the US District Court for the District of Columbia in January 2020. The Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulfs, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Rise St. James together write that Formosa’s construction would diminish wetlands that protect communities from “flooding, land loss and storm surges.” But this kind of perspective isn’t mentioned in either groups initial claims or on their websites.
Alternatively, Formosa’s perspective is missing everything that Rise St. James is trying to point out. Since they’re viewing the environment as essentially non-living, what they’re missing is the living parts, like the living environments of the communities’ bodies. And this allows them to cause harm to those parts as long as they’re within the set regulations that they are considering.
Wow, okay, so can we jump back to the beginning real quick where you talked about Rise St. James’ evidence to their claim. That was shocking to me, can you expand on that?
Yeah, and that actually brings me to the second question about the role of human agency and the claim. I think their evidence really shows the dynamics of power within the state and community and its links to the social and economic systems that have been built there. Even though the plastic plant is planned to be built on graves of enslaved people, this hasn’t been a reason for the construction to be stopped or moved.
This is a tell that the black community and the values of the black community are not valued by Formosa or other groups who may have a say in the construction. And it shows that the protesters don’t have power over what happens to their history. Instead, Formosa is in power. Their values are the economic benefits.
Formosa’s website mentions the benefits to state and local governments through increased jobs and spending. And the company itself will be profiting too. To Formosa, this is valued above the community’s history and health. And since government officials have had some control over whether the plastic plant is built as well, this shows that they have a certain level of power, too.
I think the contrast between these values and power dynamics here supports the claim of the construction as environmental racism. And when I talk about environmental racism in this case, I want to point out that it includes the quote: “mutual devaluation of black bodies in the spaces they inhabit.” As defined in Willie J. Wright’s 2018 publication: “As Above, So Below: Anti-Black Violence as Environmental Racism.”
Okay, that makes sense, but let me guess – there’s more to this part of the story, right?
Of course, there always is. To start, what’s missing from the protesters’ claim is the way that social systems had led to the creation and need for so many polluting plants in general, not just those in their neighborhood.
Something else they aren’t talking about is who is benefiting from the creation of the plant outside of Formosa. In this case, as I mentioned, Louisiana would be making money through tax dollars and employment. At the same time Formosa isn’t acknowledging the power structures and social systems at play that the activists are trying to bring attention to. Nowhere on their website or in any statements have they acknowledged environmental racism or injustices. They don’t mention the history of the land, or does anyone else that I can find outside of the protesters. And lastly, people aren’t mentioning the history of St. James. In fact, a similar situation occurred in the parish where the company Shintech was prevented from building polluting chemical plants in the neighborhood in 1996. This shows that these power dynamics have been in place for decades, but little has changed.
That seems like a big deal.
Now, if you’re ready to move on to the third question, let’s talk about the spatial focus of the claim.
Okay, so like I mentioned before, Rise St. James is looking at this whole situation from the perspective of their community. The spatial focus of their claim is very local when they claim that the human-environment interactions occurring between Formosa, the air of St. James Parish, and the bodies of those in the community is evidence of environmental racism. Their spatial focus doesn’t expand beyond that of St. James Parish since it advocates specifically for this community.
In addition to their claim though, the parish is located in what’s known as Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. This is an area that Dr. Robert Bullard, who is known as the father of environmental justice, explains, is a quote: “85 mile stretch of the Mississippi River and Louisiana from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.” In this area, humans are polluting the air unevenly than the rest of the country, and polluting facilities have been moving into predominantly black communities since the 1940s. This is significant, as it shows some more of the correlations between a physical space, Cancer Alley, to political and cultural geographies as it follows locations where there are greater poor and black populations with less power.
And when only the local scale is considered, potential damages or even benefits over a broader area are left out. Formosa’s broadest scale is at the state level, but this still doesn’t consider impacts at the national level, such as potential impacts on air or water in neighboring states. Not only that, but as Rise St. James will point out, even though they’re following state regulations, they’re not mentioning how their pollution will impact certain places unevenly within the state.
Finally, no part of the story talks about the connections between who is damaged and where the products Formosa is creating are going. Formosa mentions what sort of things their products will go into, but not who they will go to or where they will be. Would people in other parts of the country or even the world benefit from these products while the people of St. James Parish are unable to? This isn’t discussed in the claims of the protesters or Formosa, and it’s hard to track because the plastic plant isn’t established or distributing their products yet. So there are no records of this.
Alright, I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of the situation in St. James.
Well, good. I’m glad of that.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Yeah. Throughout this process of analyzing what’s going on, I’ve learned that neither side of the story is complete. There is a very complex system of interactions which is revealed when analyzing the problem through these three questions of Environmental Geopolitics (2018), that neither the protesters of Rise St. James or Formosa are fully acknowledging. In fact, some interactions aren’t even known yet since the production hasn’t started. It’s clear that the groups are seeing the construction from completely different points of view with two different sets of values. This makes it very difficult for a compromise to be reached that satisfies all parties involved.
I’ve also learned a lot about the history of St. James Parish more generally. They’re a community that has fought a similar fight before for environmental justice, and they will likely have to fight it again in their future because of the power dynamics that were set up many decades ago between black communities and polluting producers.
And even though this analysis might point out some of these holes where we’re seeing what is and isn’t mentioned in the claim, since I’m only viewing two perspectives, my explanation of the story isn’t complete either.
Bullard, Robert. 2020. “Addressing Environmental Racism.” Journal of International Affairs, 73(1), 237–242. https://www2.lib.ku.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/addressing-environmental-racism/docview/2460536714/se-2.
Complaint Against All Defendants. Filed By Rise St. James, Center For Biological Diversity, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Healthy Gulf. (Entered: 01/15/2020), Center For Biological Diversity Et Al V. U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers Et Al, Us District Court For The District Of Columbia January 15, 2020, Filed) https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/plastic-production/pdfs/2020_01_14-formosa-404-complaint.pdf
Center for Constitutional Rights. 2019. “RISE St. James – The Fight to Protect Burial Sites of Enslaved People.” Accessed October 10, 2021. https://ccrjustice.org/home/what-we-do/our-cases/rise-st-james-fight-protect-burial-sites-enslaved-people.
FG LA LLC. 2018. “Frequent Questions.” FG Sunshine Project. Accessed 10 October 2021. http://www.sunshineprojectla.com/faq.php.
Hines, Revathi I. 2001. “African Americans’ Struggle for Environmental Justice and the Case of the Shintech Plant: Lessons Learned from a War Waged.” Journal of Black Studies, 31(6), 777–789. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2668046.
O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Ramirez , Rachel. 2021. “’This is environmental racism’: Activists call on Biden to stop New Plastics Plants In ‘Cancer Alley’.” The Guardian, May 17, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/may/17/st-james-parish-formosa-complex-biden-cancer-alley.
Stop Formosa Plastics. “Stop Formosa Plastics- Protect Our Community.” Accessed December 2, 2021. https://www.stopformosa.org/.
Wright, Willie J. 2018. “As Above, So Below: Anti-Black Violence as Environmental Racism.” Antipode 53(3): 791–809. doi:10.1111/anti.12425.