In the eight days since Category 4 Hurricane Ida passed through her home and community in St. James Parish, Louisiana, Sharon Lavigne, 69, saw crude oil leaking of a storage tank, seen rockets lighting up a petrochemical plant. , and smelled a foul chemical odor from a fertilizer manufacturer. St. James Parish is located in the heart of Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch of communities along the banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where some 150 petrochemical and chemical facilities operate. fossil fuels. The unusually high toxic air emissions released by the industry have put residents in greater cancer risk and respiratory diseases. Respiratory illnesses caused by air pollution, in turn, are a pre-existing condition that makes Covid-19 more deadly, and the region continues to be ravaged by the ongoing pandemic.
And now hurricane season. Hurricane Ida hit southeast Louisiana with stronger winds than Hurricane Katrina, sinking vast swathes of coastal areas underwater and decimating low-lying communities. Within hours, electricity was cut to more than a million homes and businesses in Louisiana, including all of New Orleans, and more than 100,000 additional customers in Mississippi. Without electricity, water cannot be pumped through pipes, leaving 441,000 households in Louisiana dry, and another 319,000 on boil water advisories – which may also require electricity. By September 6, electricity was fully restored in Mississippi, but more than half of those who lost electricity in Louisiana still had no electricity.
With triple-digit “like” temperatures and a power outage forecast for weeks, residents face additional risks from the extreme heat. There is no electricity in St. James Parish, including for hospitals, stores, gas stations, and parts of the fossil fuel industry. TO press conference On Sunday in St. James, Governor John Bell Edwards warned, “We have to assume the next hurricane is going to arrive before we have recovered from this one. It may even happen before we even finish answering this one.
Lavigne, whose family has lived in St. James for generations, recently received the award. Goldman Environmental Prize for her work as the founder and director of RISE St. James, a local community organization working to stop pollution and industry expansion and to implement a just transition to renewable energy.
The amount of damage caused by the fossil fuel industry in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, in the form of oil spills, leaks, chemical releases, ruptures, etc., could eclipse the impacts of any previous storm system .
Two years ago, Rolling stone wrote about Lavigne and the protest march she led with Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II against the construction of another facility here, the proposed Formosa petrochemical plant. In Ida’s wake, when not busy documenting dangerous releases from surrounding factories, Lavigne not only tries to recover from the storm itself, but also to provide help to residents of her community on the west side of St. James, where the majority of residents are black, low-income and many are seniors with aggravating health issues. Local groups such as Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Healthy Gulf and Another Gulf is Possible have also stepped in to help residents meet basic needs.
I reached Lavigne at her place by phone on Sunday September 5th. She expressed fears that it will take months for St. James to recover and her frustration with the lack of support they have received from industry, state and local authorities in response to the desperate need for recovery. hurricanes. “I’m afraid people will [even more] sick, that’s what worries me, ”says Lavigne.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How are you, Sharon?
Hot and sweaty. Hunger.
Still don’t have electricity?
No no. I do not know.
Do you have a generator?
I just got one yesterday. I had one [earlier] but I gave it to an elderly person. She needed it more than me. I have a room with the air on and that’s it. Every night, I go back and forth in this room just to get some fresh air.
What are you doing for the ice and the water?
[Friends have come] and they bring bags every now and then. And I put it in my cooler, so it keeps the water cold.
There is no electricity, so you cannot go to the store next door and buy ice cream. People have to bring it from afar, right?
They don’t have it in the nearby places here. You have to go further, like Gonzalez [30 minutes away]
Is it hot there?
Must be in the 90s
What was it like when the storm hit?
I was home. In my room. I heard the wind and the trees howl. I saw part of the tin roof fall to the ground. I was afraid he would fall and break my window in my room, but that didn’t happen.
[Afterward], I went up to see my son’s room when he lived here. Water was everywhere on this wooden floor. The ceiling had collapsed. And on the third floor, above his floor, there was an opening in the roof. You can see the sky. And then we went to the master bedroom. I saw a little break in the ceiling. It was so bad. The next day, I saw other things fall. And the next day, more than half of the ceiling, fell on my bed. And this is the bed my mother had before she died. I wanted this for sentimental reasons, and I hope the bed isn’t completely damaged. This is what I pray. And in my living room, the water was falling like a tap. I had three buckets to collect the water there. In my kitchen, water on the plate of rock. Looks like he’s about to explode. The ceiling is sitting there watching me. So far it has not fallen, but if there had been another heavy rain this ceiling would have fallen. All my floors are destroyed.
I’ve never experienced anything like this [bad] since I’ve been living at home [since 1987]. It looked like a cyclone had passed through the city. It was terrible. It was horrible. Some [homes] were completely destroyed and many [people] not have insurance. My friends [mobile home] is totally demolished, but it wasn’t there, so thank God for that. All along this road, power lines fell. The poles are twisted. My son lives two doors down from my house and a tree has fallen on his roof.
So there is another rainstorm coming. What are you going to do?
I will stay here. I will stay at home. It might not be as bad as Ida.
You also helped coordinate aid for others. What have you done?
[RISE St. James is] handing out stuff, telling people to come to my house. We pack the bags with goodies, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, paper towels, whatever they need. [We have] a few small cans of gasoline to give to people. We gave them extension cords, laundry detergent, air freshener, soap, small flashlights, snacks. Some people call me and tell me they need brooms and mops. They’re cleaning up now. They need more disinfectants. So we tried to get out of it here.
As for the other damage in St. James, do you see any flaring plants there? Do you smell chemical releases, more than usual?
Yes! In Marathon, oil has been leaking from the side of the reservoir since just after the hurricane. And when you walk past Mosaic [fertilizer plant], you can smell sulfur and chemicals.
I’m standing in front of the industry called American Styrenics and I’ve been passing here every day for a week and they’ve been polluting us since the hurricane and before the hurricane, and I can’t see where they’re trying to stop. They don’t care. They only pollute us. He’s been there every day, all night. When I spend the night here, it still burns. And I think someone should come over here and see what’s going on. The industry has the nerve to pollute us again as we try to recover from Hurricane Ida. Something has to be done about it, thank you.
[Lavigne has been documenting the pollution on her Facebook page. Videos and photos show oil streaked down the sides of a massive crude oil storage tank owned by Marathon Pipe Line across the street from St. James Catholic Church. In another video, she documents a flare burning at the nearby American Styrenics (AmSty) facility.
Marathon Petroleum Corporation confirmed in an email to Rolling Stone that on August 30th, Marathon Pipe Line personnel detected a release of crude oil from one of the St. James storage tanks, writing: “The release was stopped and controlled… with no identified off-site impacts” and clean-up is in progress.
American Styrene said that the plant has power with “normal operation of the flare under EPA guidelines” and that the plant is not currently processing any material. The spokesperson added that it “always flares, it’s just not always visible.” He was unable to answer whether the flare is more visible because it is burning more excessively.
Mosaic did not respond to calls or emails.]
Governor John Bell Edwards came to St. James Parish on Sunday to meet with members of the community and assess the damage. Were you surprised that the governor did not ask to meet with you, since you have been a leader and organizer in the region?
I’m not surprised. I [speak publicly] a lot of it and i know [it reaches him]. I told him to bring this industry to his hometown. I write him letters. I remind him that he promised to do a health study [of St. James residents but has not yet done so]. He doesn’t even comment. I guess he thinks I’m nothing. But I don’t care. I will always continue to sting him. And I will continue to poke against Formosa. Formosa is not going to come and build a factory right next to me and my people. Let them go and build it in Janile Parks’ hometown [a spokesperson for Formosa].
[Formosa] shouldn’t come to build a massive factory because they know we have more storms coming due to climate change. They don’t think about it because they don’t care. And none of those industries offered to help the people of St. James. RISE St. James is here looking for supplies to help people. The industry is not helping us at all. No one in the industry here has said, “Let me bring you water, let me bring you gas for your cars, or come and refuel at our facility.” ” But it does not matter. People come from all over the world to help us. Reverend William Barber to send [supplies] to help us. We have people who help us.
[Later that evening, Lavigne called me back, frustration and exhaustion filling her voice.]
“I’m so tired. And people keep calling me. They need generators. The sick and the elderly. I gave all of our generators. I gave them to a woman on oxygen and a bedridden woman. .
“I have no ice. The ice has melted. Hope someone brings some ice cream tomorrow.
Here is a list of other self-help groups helping Louisiana residents that you can donate to.