David vs. Goliath

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The shadow of Goliath is looming over St. James Parish, Louisiana, and it’s called The Sunshine Project. This $9.4 billion proposed petrochemical plant would sprawl across 2,400 acres, pushing against the community that has lived and died there for generations. Our David is lifelong resident Sharon Lavigne. After teaching special education at the local school for over 30 years, Sharon becomes an accidental activist trying to save her community and its history.

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Michael McClanahan, Kimberly Terrell, Gloria Riviera, Mark, Gloria, Joe Banner, Sharon Lavigne, Lisa, Mica, Jane Patton

Sharon Lavigne  00:00

He heard my cry because I was quitting inside because I had to move to one […]. my last ports and I thought record was colorful tree. They were so beautiful. In my thought he said when you see a red Cardinal, that means change. I say, I’m gonna put the change is going to be.


Gloria Riviera  02:01

Me, Sharon Lavigne, a lifelong resident of St. James Parish in Louisiana. About an hour’s drive from New Orleans St. James is nestled into the curves of the Mississippi River. This parish, which is a Christian word most other states in the US call it County is home to just under 20,000 people driving along 10. Between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. You can easily miss St. James. It’s camouflaged by marshland, it’s green, it’s humid, and there’s all that water in the Mississippi River bending back and forth as far as the eye can see. It was here Sharon said God spoke to her.


Sharon Lavigne  02:39

I’d ask him if you want me to sell my home, he said no. And I asked me he wanted me to sell my land he said no. And that’s when he told me to fight. That was most powerful day of my life. And ever since then I’ve been doing this work. You change something inside of me for a long but it feels good.


Gloria Riviera  03:11

Sharon comes from generations of people who have lived off this land. She raised all six of her kids here. She taught special ed at the local school for almost 40 years. And today she is a devoted singer in her church choir. Sharon’s connection to this land and this community is strong.


Sharon Lavigne  03:32

My grandparents lived on this land they did they raise turkeys. Take a look at the big fat this when I was a little girl and Turks were so big and beautiful feathers take for Thanksgiving. My grandfather used to fish in the river right over there across this levee. My grandfather was fish and shrimp. We picked a constant pecan season. Over there we had more in the field where my dad would plant sugar cane and on the side of the house we had a garden where we got up in the morning at five o’clock to go pick the butter beans, the snap beans, the okra.


Speaker 1  04:04

It all sounds so good. But when you get off the interstate and meander through the parishes between these cities, you start to see here and even smell a different story.


Sharon Lavigne  04:17

I used to pick the plums all the time they used to be sweet.


Gloria Riviera  04:19

Look at Entergy, so far we’ve seen […] Entergy, this 85 mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is known as the industrial corridor. There are some 150 plants and refineries up and down this part of the Mississippi that process oil and produce the chemicals that make up plastic. And as you’re driving through these rural communities. Is that a normal occurrence that you’re just driving along this highway and this huge plume of white smoke it doesn’t look like a fire, it doesn’t look good. I was just about to roll down the window to see what it smelled like but that’s probably not a good idea. Driving along Highway 18 to Sharon’s house, you feel dwarfed by these massive pipes that stretch over the roadway like a bridge. They come down on the other side, practically splitting property lines. I have never seen industry so close to people’s homes. When we left that night and got back on I-10. Those smokestacks they kept going big, glaring high beams from the plants we watch them fade into these distant twinkling lights, mimicking a city skyline. In 2018, Taiwanese based Formosa Plastics Corporation put in a bid, a big bid $9.4 billion for 2400 acres in St. James Parish, what four might you ask the sunshine project. The Sunshine project sounds innocuous, doesn’t it? Well, according to a Guardian article, this sunshine project would roughly double toxic emissions in its local area. And according to environmentalists released up to 13 metric tons of greenhouse gases a year, it would be one of Louisiana’s largest plastic factories, plopped down, essentially insurance backyard. Yeah, sure it would change the character of the neighborhood. But according to environmental activists who would do a lot more than that. In the late 1980s, this area was dubbed cancer alley by local environmental activists, some began calling it death alley. They claim if you live close to a petrochemical facility in this area, you might get cancer at a rate that dwarfs the national average. So why would anyone choose to live here in cancer alley?


Sharon Lavigne  07:19

I belong here. I don’t belong somewhere else. Why should I give up but my grandparents have worked for, to let industry come and take it. If I leave all these people I’m going to leave behind. I wouldn’t leave my neighbors here to die. So if I have to fight for me and my neighbors, I will.


Gloria Riviera  07:42

This is the story of a woman who was nearly driven out of her home in St. James Parish, a woman who lost so many friends to cancer, she felt she was running out of options. Who was she to go up against some of the biggest plastic manufacturers in the world? What did she have other than her faith in her friends? Well, as it turns out, that’s plenty. This is the story of how Sharon Lavigne took on the sunshine project.


Sharon Lavigne  08:14

We are going to win, we’re not going to lose.


Gloria Riviera  08:23

I’m your host Gloria Riviera. Welcome to DISCARDED. I never would have described myself as someone with any connection to an 85 mile strip of land in Louisiana. And I bet the same might be true of you. I mean, I went to New Orleans for jazz fest once in 2003. It was awesome. Shout out to the Neville Brothers and the gospel tent. But that was it. That being said, a connection would come. It happened on Sunday, April 14 2019. To be exact. I was a pretty healthy 45 year old woman. Someone would soon tell me I had the resting heartbeat of Michael Phelps. And you know, I haven’t fat check that but it sounds pretty good. Anyway, that Sunday, I went to a hot yoga class. And the last thing I remember thinking is I need to sit down. I had two back to back grand mal seizures because I had a cancerous brain tumor called an […] in my left frontal lobe. I was told one course of care had an average survival rate of 10 years. In 10 years, my youngest child would be going to high school, but a crappy time for a mom to die. So yeah, I know what it’s like to have a doctor look at you and deliver the news that you have cancer and it might kill you. In this four part series, we start with how cancer alley came to be in share Erin’s mission to take on big plastic. We examine how we fostered an environment in the United States that often puts profits over people. We will zoom out of Louisiana and learn how plastic first entered the home, and where things took a turn for the worse. While the petrochemical industry is looking to scale up production, we are highlighting the people who are working to scale it down and keep it that way.


Gloria Riviera  10:25

Try to go through your day without plastic. I can’t. Plastic is everywhere. To fully understand its impact. We went to ground zero in Louisiana, where plastic and so many other large scale industrial products come into this world. Do you remember what it was like before the first?


Sharon Lavigne  11:08

Oh, I heard mom and dad talking. They were saying it’s a David and Goliath.


Gloria Riviera  11:15

Sharon was a teenager when she learned the first plant was coming to her community. She says her mom and friends thought that new industry meant prosperity for the town.


Sharon Lavigne  11:25

It was told it was safe and it was toilets or bring jobs.


Gloria Riviera  11:46

We met Sharon at her choir rehearsal. They practice every Thursday here at St. James Catholic Church. Well, everyone, including me, is tired from the workday. It does feel like a peaceful release just to find my place on a wooden pew and let that music fill the room with serenity. When practice is over, people slowly filter out down the aisle and I ask can we speak to you? It doesn’t take long for the subject of cancer to come up. Do you think do you believe your cancer was connected to living in a cancer alley?


Mica  12:36

I can’t say no, it wasn’t. Because I’m because I’m not 100% sure that it wasn’t because where we live.


Gloria Riviera  12:42

This is Mica. She’s a cancer survivor. And she’s the assistant principal at the school where Sharon works. Mica is warm. She’s got this big smile on her face. And she’s very happy to talk to us.


Mica  12:54

I love my parish. I love my community. I’m a sister principal at the school where I graduated from I love my kids here. I love the people here.


Gloria Riviera  13:04

We heard about that kind of love for community from almost everyone we spoke to.


Mica  13:10

I’m choosing not to leave, because I just feel St. James is where I belong. This is where my great grandparents lived. My entire family. Both sides were from St. James. This is me. So why should I be forced to move?


Gloria Riviera  13:29

Deep family ties and service to the community are just some of the reasons people stay here. But not everyone feels like Mica. The reality is, it’s just not that easy to pick up and go. Here’s Lisa. She’s more reserved. And I could hear the burden she lives with in her voice.


Lisa  13:49

I would love to leave. I like the place where I grew up. I love to stay here. But I would love to get away from the pollution as well. If that was possible for me to do so. It’s you know, more people here are older people and it’s hard to start over at this age. And sometimes I hear a lot of people talk about being depressed. Because when you think about the conditions here, it is depressing. It’s like we have been cheated out of something, a good life a better life and all the other opportunities that other people have. The plants are here but they benefit other people. They come and get the jobs here and we have to breathe the air. That’s just so sad and heartbreaking.


Gloria Riviera  14:44

They have to breathe the air. As real as cancer Alley is just so many St James locals, a lot of people disagree. Calling it cancer alley, death alley, industrial corridor or even chemical corridor. Whatever you call it can be a political statement.


Gloria Riviera  15:32

It’s controversial. Research is lacking, despite residents of the area, maintaining that they’re disproportionately impacted by cancer, and other health problems due to these plants. Scientists have recently tried to investigate that correlation.


Kimberly Terrell  15:46

If you look at any map from the EPA of levels of cancer causing pollution. The entire area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge will light up.


Gloria Riviera  16:00

This is Dr. Kimberly Terrell. She’s a staff scientist and director of community engagement at two lanes Environmental Law Clinic in New Orleans.


Kimberly Terrell  16:09

It continually blows my mind that all of the pollutants we’re talking about, are chemicals that are known to cause health problems.


Gloria Riviera  16:18

Cancer alley residents aren’t just worried about cancer. The area has seen increases in asthma, upper respiratory illnesses and heart disease.


Kimberly Terrell  16:27

The state doesn’t regulate the release of steam into the air. It regulates pollutants that have established health effects. So why is it that each community has to prove that they are susceptible to health problems, from exposure to pollutants that are known to cause health problems.


Gloria Riviera  16:51

But it’s not that simple. Quite frankly, more research needs to be done into whether environmental risks equate to actual cases of all kinds of cancer. For Kim, a scientist who led a study that found a link between pollution and cancer in Louisiana. While she’s pretty firm on her view.


Kimberly Terrell  17:09

To me, cancer alley is a place in Southeast Louisiana, where communities of color are disproportionately burdened with air pollution and with cancer.


Gloria Riviera  17:19

Kim is convinced and I just want to wind back a little to grasp this slow but massive heavy industry takeover along the Mississippi. I talked to a local journalist Mark […], an environmental reporter at The Times Picayune, the New Orleans advocate who’s been working this speed since the 80s. We met Mark at his house in New Orleans. This is actually his most recent home, his last one flooded with nearly 15 feet of water during Hurricane Katrina. He works out of his home office reporting awards are displayed on the walls. And there’s also a white hardhat he takes on all his site visits.


Mark  18:02

Some of the chemical plants were built on the Mississippi River because there’s free water from the Mississippi and there’s free transportation, but he also have easy access to salt domes throughout the region that can be mined to make chlorine, which is the key ingredient for most petrochemicals.


Gloria Riviera  18:24

Ah, petrochemicals, you are going to hear this word a lot. It simply means chemicals that are made from oil and gas. They make anything from the building blocks of plastics, to the chemicals that go into fertilizers. Early on in Mark’s career, he pulled up to the Gates of a petrochemical plant and asked to see the facility. After some pushback, he got inside with a PR representative leading the tour. He says he saw huge trucks dumping liquid waste into pits. Inside the pits were aerators which essentially cause the waste to evaporate.


Mark  19:04

We were walking around in street clothes and the guys who were at the trucks and were in white suits with helmets and masks, and we were not feeling well to say the least. By the time we got back. The environmental guy who was with me was throwing up at the front gate.


Gloria Riviera  19:23

So like I said, hazardous chemicals. And this was just one story. Mark told our team from those early days of his investigative reporting.


Mark  19:33

One of the chemical plants that I looked at, they let us in and took us around and showed us all this stuff. Then it was very well cleaned up and everything. And then as we were walking along, we smelled something that smelled like maple syrup.


Gloria Riviera  19:47

Yeah, so not rotten eggs, maple syrup. The smell of chemicals comes in many flavors.


Mark  19:54

I asked the plant manager and he said oh well that’s the pancake place in the Community next door, as I’m walking back, this other worker who’s like falling behind us wings over my shoulder and says, you know, that’s not pancake syrup. And I said, yeah, I know. It’s ethylene dichloride. Well, ethylene dichloride is a very toxic material that’s used in making plastics. It does smell like pancakes.


Gloria Riviera  20:22

So the pancake place excuse was probably fake. But the community next door know that’s very real. And it just so happens to be a predominantly black community that Mark told us had issued a number of complaints about the pollution, not a pancake factory. At this point, it’s 1988. Louisiana ranks number two in toxic emissions bind Texas, and the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA has officially begun to require industry to track their pollution numbers.


Mark  20:54

The result of that was two thirds of the emissions in Louisiana disappeared over the next 15 years.


Gloria  21:02

Wow. Okay, two thirds. I mean, we’re getting somewhere. But wait. Mark said it was 15 years that would place us around the early aughts. The last time I checked, we have moved on from the early aughts. And we still have a big problem today.


Mark  21:16

In the last five or 10 years, the industry both because there are more of them. But also because the companies themselves have expanded their size and have increased the amount of product that they’re producing. We’re seeing an increase in the total amount of missions in the state.


Gloria Riviera  21:35

So what happened, and where’s the oversight, Mark explained what was happening in the 70s that planted the seeds of how we got here.


Mark  21:43

At that time, Governor Edwards was in charge of what was happening, both the federal and state regulation of environmental issues was really fairly new. The industry was very interested in how to develop ways of disposing of hazardous waste and making money off of these large amount of chemical plants that were in the state.


Gloria Riviera  22:05

Edwin W. Edwards, a Democrat, he served four times, in fact, the only four term governor in Louisiana history and he was how can I put this, he was quite the character. So back in the early 1970s, these new regulations meant companies producing hazardous waste had to meet new disposal standards parameters. Sounds pretty good to me. But the catch is that Edwards well, he allowed these companies to dump all of their toxic waste in Louisiana. And I will give you one guess as to I don’t know who owned the dumps.


Mark  23:12

There’s a term for it and Louisiana friends of Edwards.


Gloria Riviera  23:15

But those slick deals well, they finally caught up with old Edwin Edwards over a riverboat casinos scandal that landed him in prison. Also just a point of clarification here. Edwin Edwards is not related to Louisiana’s current Governor John Bel Edwards. Regardless, in addition to political corruption, the Department of Environmental Quality, the D EQ, well, Mark said they seem to be doing the bare minimum, we reached out to the Louisiana DEQ for an interview they declined, but did answer a few questions including stating, quote, permits are issued in a fair and impartial process that is prescribed by state and federal law.


Mark  23:55

If you talk to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, what they will say is that they are following the federal laws that they’re required to enforce and the state laws that determine how they are to regulate the industry. The result of that is that it’s rare that companies do not get the permits that they need.


Gloria Riviera  24:24

In fact, Mark contributed to a big investigative series for ProPublica a few years ago, the title of the first piece was I’ve investigated industrial pollution for 35 years. We’re going backwards.


Mark  24:37

I think the fact that we are allowing the increases in emissions, and we’ve seen dramatic improvements in ways to reduce emissions, for some reason that dramatic improvement is not occurring here.


Gloria Riviera  24:54

That here is Louisiana. That here is cancer alley. That here is St. James Parish, where we come back to after the break.


Michael McClanahan  25:42

I want to see St. James restored to the time when I used to visit St. James as a college student back in the early 80s. And they St James had a high school football games was king. And that now all of that moving away died out and before you know it, there’ll be a ghost town.


Gloria Riviera  27:45

Meet Michael McClanahan, Louisiana NAACP State Conference president Michael is the kind of guy who brightens any room he enters. Michael is just always on the go driving from his home in Baton Rouge to various activist campaigns and events across Louisiana. He remembers St. James the way it was when he visited the area. As a college student back in the mid-80s.


Michael McClanahan  28:08

We would go there, maybe a Friday night, you know, there was always a club open at the time, I might have been drinking a little bit and eating, have a good time. And Friday night football was on you know, it was good.


Gloria Riviera  28:21

Okay, so Michael is a good storyteller, and his eyes just widened with excitement. As he took us back to the heyday of St. James.


Michael McClanahan  28:29

After the game, St. James probably won […], we would go out and we would dance and drink and their parents will be cooking for I mean, all that maybe.


Gloria Riviera  28:42

I love those stories. But I have to be honest, it is really hard to imagine that this community where you can almost hear a pin drop was once so vibrant. It’s as if these companies have slowly taken over the whole town suffocating.


Michael McClanahan  28:58

You hear about the health issues that come along with living close to Exxon. Now like move just tell them to move.


Gloria Riviera  29:05

Michael explained that it’s just not that easy. After years, generations of families working for these plants, it’s really asking someone to sacrifice their entire livelihood.


Michael McClanahan  29:17

So now it’s embedded community because they get a paycheck from it. And so they don’t want to talk about it.


Mark  29:24

The phrase I always use is company town.


Gloria Riviera  29:27

That’s Mark, our environmental journalist again.


Mark  29:30

There’s a lot of company town-ish culture going on in a lot of these locations. industry can do no wrong. You know, Louisiana’s Department of Economic Development makes a big deal out of announcing that new projects are occurring and in part it’s because of the money that’s pouring in, in various different ways.


Gloria Riviera  29:52

This concept of a company town doesn’t just happen in St. James.


Joe Banner  29:57

When I think of St. John the Baptist Parish. I think of marathon as just underwriting everything because you would think that marathon was part of like our official government, it blends in with the scenery.


Speaker 1  30:08

That’s Joe Banner, the co-founder and co-director of the descendants project. She lives in Wallace. It’s just down the road from St. James and she’s a fellow campaigner alongside Sharon. When Joe says marathon, she’s talking about marathon petroleum, one of the largest oil refineries in the country. There Gary Ville refinery in St. John Parish, right next to St. James refines over 580,000 barrels of crude oil per wait for it. Day, per day, that oil can be turned into all kinds of things. The gas that goes in your car, the asphalt, you drive on, even the plastic your car is made of.


Joe Banner  30:49

And this is a connection that is unnatural, but so natural at the same time for this area that you don’t even see, like you don’t even realize when I go to a public meeting, and here’s marathon given backpacks, they’re so ingrained in everything.


Gloria Riviera  31:05

Yeah, backpacks. In fact, we found this rap from a 1989 Dow Chemical educational video called chemistry journey to your future.


Gloria Riviera  31:24

Gotta love the 80s. So the wrap states at the beginning that the video is designed to give you a look inside the chemical industry, and how that relates to what you are learning in the classroom. And the opportunities available. Should you decide to pursue a career in the sciences.


Joe Banner  31:43

And yes, they do provide jobs but not everybody works at Marathon and a lot of the people who work there aren’t even from St. John Parish.


Gloria Riviera  31:51

When it comes to Sharon’s fight her own brother, Milton Kiat, worked at a plant for almost 30 years. When we went to visit him just a mile down the road from Sharon. He opened his front door in his wheelchair. You can hear there, he’s got this very gentle way about him. He’s warm, he’s older. He’s also kind of funny. Listen closely because he can be hard to understand. Furniture has been pushed aside to make room for Milton to maneuver.  Milton was so proud to put food on his table for his family to get consistent raises. But he lost his wife in 2001 after her second battle with breast cancer. Today, prostate cancer is just one of his many health issues. After a loyal if anxious service to a plant for decades, signs in support of his sister’s fight now array his yard for Mosa. You’re not welcome here. And we live on death row, no Formosa. Before Sharon took on Formosa. She definitely had doubts.


Sharon Lavigne  34:03

If you were wondering where we gonna go. And that’s what he say going to come and then I say that’s not far enough.


Gloria Riviera  34:09

And then one day, Sharon got a call from her daughter while she was teaching in her classroom.


Sharon Lavigne  34:15

She called me and told me, the governor disapprove for more so to come in.


Gloria Riviera  34:22

We made multiple attempts to contact the governor’s office to hear his side. But our calls and emails went unanswered.


Sharon Lavigne  34:28

I was in my classroom. She said watch it on TV. We try to watch at all my students can put the TV on for me. And I saw for myself. They were in there celebrating with the people from Taiwan and the governor was there too. People are happy and rejoice in that a new plant was coming to St. James.


Gloria Riviera  34:48

This is the moment Sharon sat on her porch. saw those red Cardinals and new Formosa had no home in St. James Parish.


Sharon Lavigne  34:57

If we don’t win this fight. We’re gonna die. We want to keep these chemical plants from coming here. We have enough in here already.


Gloria Riviera  36:33

With a new mission in life, Sharon started learning as much as she could about what she was facing. She read parish council papers. She went online looking at petrochemical websites. She spoke to her neighbors. She even joined a local organization called help. That worked as a voice for the community.


Sharon Lavigne  36:51

We asked them to let’s do a march. So we did a march on September 8, 2018. With the help Association, we had our […] and I spoke for the first time in public and people got caught on Amy’s taking pictures above see what they do and I had no idea this was going to go further.


Gloria Riviera  37:11

In that moment Sharon saw the power her community had and she wanted to push the limits.


Sharon Lavigne  37:17

We asked them, let’s stop them also. They said that they are not that kind of organization. Then they say it is nothing you could do about it. The governor approved it. It’s a done deal. You can’t stop it.


Gloria Riviera  37:36

This was a common story here. A company comes into the neighborhood and sets right up often without a fight.


Sharon Lavigne  37:43

We will hear […], all of us were angry with getting the car from the Hilton beaten to go home, Jared and be fussing, Lavigne you can start an organization I said not me. I’m a public speaker not me.


Gloria Riviera  37:56

But that conversation stuck in Sharon’s head. The very next day she started organizing meetings in her den, just a few people and a pot of gumbo she had cooked up from those meetings. She formed her own organization Rhys, St. James. I should also say we did reach out to St. James parish council asking to find out their role within this process and to get their take. But despite multiple attempts, the council did not respond to our request for an interview. All this time she still had her day job working as a special education teacher. It became too much and Sharon had to make a very difficult choice.


Sharon Lavigne  38:39

I didn’t want to quit. But I had to quit because I was getting tired. Doing all this work by myself.


Gloria Riviera  38:47

After nearly 40 years of teaching, Sharon handed in her notice. From that point on. St. James had her full attention. But this fight it is so much bigger than Sharon than St. James the New Orleans. It planted its roots in this state a long time ago.


Jane Patton  39:05

In order to determine when cancer alley became cancer alley, we kind of have to go all the way back to the original French explorers who came up the Mississippi River and claimed this area for France. So we have to go back to the roots of colonialism. And we really have to go back to the origins of the plantation economy.


Gloria Riviera  39:26

Jane Patton is the campaign manager for plastics and petrochemicals at the Center for International Environmental Law.


Jane Patton  39:33

I am a lifelong Louisiana resident. I grew up here one of five kids just up the road in Baton Rouge and my family goes back five generations in New Orleans.


Gloria Riviera  39:43

She’s worked on plastics and petrochemical issues for over a decade. Her goal, reduce harm, prevent waste, and it will become very apparent that Jane is not willing to back down when she speaks you listen.


Jane Patton  39:57

Louisiana is still predicated on a plantation economy, on an economy of mass extraction from the environment from local workers and labor, this is something that is not just our economy, but our entire political system for generations has gone into reinforcing this power structure.


Gloria Riviera  40:17

Jane reminds me of just how deep the political and racial roots of Louisiana are.


Jane Patton  40:23

You know, what we’re seeing is that today’s chemical corridor is yesterday’s plantation alley. And we are seeing that the political systems that allow horrendous exploitation and suffering are still the political systems of today.


Gloria Riviera  40:41

The same places suffering most today are the very places that endured slavery before the Civil War,


Jane Patton  40:48

The industrial system and the white supremacist, frankly, political system continued to encroach around them, and continue to exploit and harm them in ways that are today protected by law.


Gloria Riviera  41:03

Okay, let’s get into those laws.


Jane Patton  41:05

In Louisiana, we actually have some additional, quote unquote, protections and making air quotes, but you can’t see them around Wetlands Protection, because there is so much land loss happening in Louisiana. And because the Mississippi River is such an important trade mechanism for the country.


Gloria Riviera  41:24

Okay, so you remember what Mark said, industry needs water.


Jane Patton  41:28

If you are coming from a precautionary principle that that people have a protected right to air and water which by the way, we do have an internationally protected right to clean air and clean water. If you are starting from that place, you don’t assume there’s going to be harm, you assume that it is your job to stop harm from happening.


Gloria Riviera  41:52

petrochemical companies get permits from state and federal authorities to pollute at sanctioned levels. But Jane says companies push the limits. My team looked into reports on the EPA website and found multiple petrochemical facilities around St. James do have a history of violations.


Jane Patton  42:08

We see that there are companies that are allowed to be in violation of their permits, in terms of toxic emissions for years on end, in some cases, with no effort to actually shut them down, they pay a nominal fine, the fines paid, they keep doing what they’re gonna do, right? We see that happening all over Louisiana, some of these plants have been in consistent violation of their Clean Air Act permits for more than a decade. And they are still in operation every day. Yep, this seems like a mess. The other key thing that we see happening is that the EPA is actually not keeping consistent records of the cumulative impact from all of these plants. These are the levels of all the Toxics that I would be breathing in that I would be affected by. We actually don’t have that data readily available.


Gloria Riviera  42:57

In James view, the EPA is just flat out not doing enough. We brought this to the EPA and they shared a lengthy statement. The EPA did tell us that in 2018, they released the air toxics screening assessment, which tracks air toxins and emissions that may pose health risks.


Jane Patton  43:16

The state of Louisiana has around 42 air monitors for the entire state.


Gloria Riviera  43:21

Okay, just a quick air monitor 101. The Louisiana DEQ is responsible for setting up these instruments which essentially detect pollutants in the air for a designated spot. For example, St. James has one air monitor for the whole parish.


Jane Patton  43:36

And when we try to push for more air monitoring, the state of Louisiana says we can’t afford that. And so they can afford for millions of people to be getting sick, but they can’t afford air monitors.


Speaker 1  43:46

But wait, let’s rewind just a little this doesn’t make sense if Louisiana has so much big industry that’s bringing in jobs and economic wealth to the state. Where’s the money?


Jane Patton  43:56

In the early 80s When oil and gas was sort of at its peak, more than 40% of Louisiana State Revenue came from oil and gas. Today, oil and gas pays less than 5% of Louisiana State Revenue. We’ve also lost a considerable number of jobs in the oil and gas sector in Louisiana.


Gloria Riviera  44:17

So a company like Formosa says, hey, it’s all good. We’re gonna bring a lot of jobs to the area. But in reality, it’s more complex.


Jane Patton  44:25

What we’re not hearing is that a lot of the jobs created by these facilities are temporary construction jobs. They are not long term sustained full time pension protected jobs. That is not what they are.


Gloria Riviera  44:40

Representative of Formosa sunshine project declined our request for an interview they did send us an email they did right they quote unquote expect 1200 permanent jobs over the next eight years are committed to hiring locally. And yes, there will be 1000s of construction jobs too.


Jane Patton  44:57

The state and local politicians play a role. The key role in a lot of things around the fossil fuel infrastructure for instance, they continue to be the primary bodies that give these companies what we call the social license to continue to build


Gloria Riviera  45:12

a lucrative tax break, benefiting these companies incentivize them to come and build in this part of the state.


Jane Patton  45:19

So up until 2016, Louisiana had one of the most permissive and generous industrial tax exemption programs in the country, it was called ITEP, literally the industrial tax exemption program ITEP, what this program essentially was, was that it allowed industry to be exempt from paying local property taxes, if they made capital improvements. So basically, if a company said, we’ve built this infrastructure, or we’ve made this capital improvement to our existing facility, we’d like a tax exemption, please not have to pay property taxes. Thank you.


Gloria Riviera  45:58

And on top of that, if approved for ITEP, these companies didn’t have to pay property taxes for 10 years. That’s money for communities to thrive. I’m talking schools emergency response and health services. Remember, Marathon petroleum located in St. John where Joe banner lives


Jane Patton  46:17

under the ITAP program, marathon was by far the largest benefactor from the program. At one point they were receiving $1.5 million dollars in tax exemptions per job. That marathon created one and a half million dollars per job.


Gloria Riviera  46:36

Tax incentives are set up to attract businesses into the area with the assumption they will bring jobs and economic stimulus. And oftentimes this can be great. These numbers Jane is referring to were true up until 2016. That year, the newly elected Democratic governor gave local authorities the right to approve or reject these exemptions. Instead of the state board.


Jane Patton  47:01

When marathon was actually forced by the parish council in St. John to put all of the property they own in St. John, and they are one of the largest landowners in St. John, when they were required by the parish council to put that property on the tax rolls, the parishes budget almost doubled from one year to the next. That is the amount of money that was being taken by one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, from the people of St. John to give to their shareholders. It was not a drop in the bucket for the people of St. John, that money was the world is the world to them. And it was nothing to marathon shareholders.


Gloria Riviera  47:45

But it might not stay this way.


Jane Patton  47:48

Now, the governor’s term is up next year, and he can’t be reelected. He’s term limited. And we are almost certainly going to elect a Republican governor in 2023. Because the state of Louisiana is heavily gerrymandered. And so what we’re facing right now is that unless this change is protected under state law, the people of St. John might lose half of their budget.


Gloria Riviera  48:09

So after all this doom and gloom, I asked Jane the same thing. I’ve asked everyone else. Why stay here?


Jane Patton  48:18

I am fighting for all of us being able to hold the things sacred that we hold sacred, which include our ancestors, which include this land, which include the clean air and the clean water. And that is something that we have to have optimism toward, because what else do we have? We believe this place is magical, and it’s special. And it should be enjoyed by people who have been here for five generations and people who’ve been here for five minutes. And it should not be further pillaged and ravaged by these companies. And by this broken extractive harmful political system. It just shouldn’t.


Gloria Riviera  48:56

We wanted to give you just a glimpse into the power struggles in Louisiana. Just an idea of what Sharon was really up against. She compared herself to David fighting Goliath. But the more she gave buoyed by knowledge and the strength of her community, the stronger she got, you could argue by now, she’s the Goliath.


Sharon Lavigne  49:19

I didn’t think we would rule on all counts. And that’s the point I got to make everything.


Gloria Riviera  49:25

Yeah, unbelievable. You’re gonna want to hear all about how the fight went down.


CREDITS  49:39

Discarded is a Lemonada Media Original. Presented by Only One. I’m your host Gloria Riviera. Our producers are Ali Kilts. Alexa Lim and me, Tess Novotny is our associate producer. Krystal Genesis is our supervising producer. Jackie Danziger is our Vice President of narrative content, mix and sound designed by Natasha Jacobs with additional mixing from Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Hannis Brown. Naomi Bar is our fact checker. Executive Producers are Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. To learn more and to take action, go to onlyone/discarded. Follow me on Twitter at @GRiviera. Stay up to date with us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @LemonadaMedia. There’s more discarded with Lemonada Premium subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content like my conversation with Jane Patton over delicious Cafe Du Monde venues in New Orleans. Subscribe now in Apple podcasts. Join my Lemonada today for free and chat with your favorite hosts, other listeners and our staff. You’ll also get exclusive audio and video content and invites to live and virtual events before anyone else. Go to bit.ly/mylemonada to join a community who wants to make life suck less together. Go to lemonadamedia.com for a list of current sponsors and discount codes for this and all other laminata series. To follow along with a transcript go to LemonadaMedia.com/show/discarded, shortly after the air date, follow discarded wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.

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