The Rise of St. James

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St. James Parish is a place with tangled roots. The community shoulders the burdens of many who have come before them — and bears a deep responsibility to their ancestors to protect their hard-fought land. What started out as just a meeting of concerned citizens around a pot of gumbo turned into a quest to reclaim land and graves and preserve a thriving community.

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Shamara, Michael McClanahan, Gloria Riviera, Joe Banner, Sharon Lavigne, Pamela Spees, Ricky Boyett, Devin Lowell

Sharon Lavigne  00:00

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


Gloria Riviera  01:29

Sharon Lavigne won her case against the sunshine project, Formosa Plastics, multibillion dollar petrochemical plant. The plant was trying to move into her neighborhood in cancer alley.


Sharon Lavigne  01:41

How I was in a courtroom. That last time we went to court and I made sure I went that day. And boy, she asks a lot of questions. That’s one thing I like about Judge White, she makes sure she leaves nothing unturned.


Gloria Riviera  01:54

Sharon and her team had turned over every possible stone and stumbled over so many others. She had been waiting, holding her breath through years of court cases and clashes with council members, all while her hometown was under threat. One phone morning in September of 2022 while she was at home, she received a call. Sharon was shocked. This win was big, and it wasn’t a given. petrochemical plants run up and down this 85 mile stretch of the Mississippi River called cancer alley. And the companies have a stronghold in these towns.


Sharon Lavigne  02:49

You’ll all speak up against industry. That’s what I was told from other people. Highfalutin people. I didn’t know that I didn’t see that. All I saw was one thing. You’re not coming two miles from my home.


Gloria Riviera  03:00

She defied all of those highfalutin people. The odds of winning this fight were pretty unlikely for anyone. And Sharon probably isn’t the first person you’d pick out of a crowd to take it on. She was shy, rarely said a word at work meetings. And our kids still meat it was their dad who confronted any problems growing up. People were doubtful. Her friends, her church, even her own daughters. We’re not sure if the community had the power to win against big plastic.


Sharon Lavigne  03:32

She was always so vocal I like always thought she was a little quiet. Yeah, I’ll talk to you but not really like a public speaker. And I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know. I had to become more educated to understand it.


Gloria Riviera  03:47

That kind of doubt that can make some people scared second guess themselves. That for Sharon, she doubled down.


Sharon Lavigne  03:55

I think that for most of them, they are shame because they have all this money and let us one against them by David beat Goliath. And so they are shame, because shame him out of the whole state.


Gloria Riviera  04:11

The win itself is surprising. But how this all happened, how this whole fight went down. That’s even wilder and uncovered an even bigger and more complex history of cancer alley. I’m your host Gloria Riviera. This is DISCARDED. Sharon built this when from the ground up. She had zero experience organizing. Remember, she is a retired Special Education School teacher from a place most people just speed right on paths. This just doesn’t happen every day. I wanted to know how she pulled it off. I met Sharon outside her home in St. James, Florida. Hurricane Ida tore through the area and severely damaged that house. So Sharon is now living in a trailer down the street. And tell me about your house. I mean we’re this is a big house for this area.


Sharon Lavigne  05:13

Well when I built the house I had six children, make room for these children.


Gloria Riviera  05:17

And now you’re getting it fixed up after the most recent hurricane?


Sharon Lavigne  05:22

It was destroyed. The middle it was curled up. It used to rain in my living room. Right. But all of that comes down off the roof. I was tired of putting a bucket for the water.


Gloria Riviera  05:35

This house is also where the first rise St. James meetings happen. She told me all about it. Those early meetings there are about eight or nine people circled in her den with her daughter Chanel on note taking and server duty Sharon prides herself on two things. The first is her gumbo, which she prepped for that initial rise meeting. The second is more surprising, and it’s more recent. It’s her ability to galvanize her community into action. They wanted to do something big, more than just signs and banners. They wanted to take over the highway and call out the governor by name. Sharon just lights up when she talks about that March. Her best church friends Beverly and Geraldine were there with her right by her side.


Sharon Lavigne  06:24

Oh boy, we had the bulls on and we’ll tell him Governor John Bel Edwards. We don’t want this plant to come we have enough and we’re not gonna take anymore and enough is enough. He said all kinds of stuff like that. Jared, he was sitting there in with her walker. And she put the seat down when she spoke on the board. I thought his singing I say victory is my thing.


Gloria Riviera  06:59

If I hear what you’re saying your message was very simple for most is not coming this.


Sharon Lavigne  07:05

The end. This is the stop. That’s what I told him. You went to Texas, you went to Baton Rouge which wasn’t come in here. And after we finished with our bullhorn and talking and everything. One man walk up to me to my right. And he said, oh God, you got the spirit on you.


Gloria Riviera  07:22

Something is going on. When you talk to Sharon about her work. Her entire demeanor just shifts so radically, her whole body language changes. The look on her face. She sits up a little straighter. Sharon felt like she was on a mission from God. And it was huge. But she wasn’t scared. This sense of purpose emboldened her, that inner voice that Sharon talked about hearing in the first episode, it became her own fierce voice for her community.


Michael McClanahan  07:53

In talking with her, you understood it, she was not gonna sell out. You knew she was gonna sell out.


Gloria Riviera  07:59

That’s Michael McClanahan. He’s the Baton Rouge NAACP president that we met in the first episode, he was at her very first meeting back in the day, when she was organizing in her den.


Michael McClanahan  08:11

Sharon, she commands attention because she had been an educator for about 30 plus years. And so she knew how to get persons from that area kind of in order, right. And the people that were around her spoke the same language had the same passion as Sharon. And so for me, it’s a no brainer, we have these people willing to fight and lay their lives on the line for this cause.


Gloria Riviera  08:36

Yeah, laying down their lives. That sounds extreme. But when you think about it, Sharon and Rhys members felt the health and lives of the people in this community were already at stake. So as a group, they were all in the plant had already been approved and rise members, they were determined to be heard. They took that energy to parish council meetings.


Michael McClanahan  09:00

When one of the council members was talking about the item, and you would hear somebody in the background, you’re lying. You’re a liar. You’re a liar. So we will be talking about there I had no justice, no peace, right, put my finger at him. And I said, you don’t care about the death and destruction that you’re causing these people. You don’t care. You concerned about the dollar. You can’t take that money with you when you go to hell. And we tell them that kind of stuff.


Gloria Riviera  09:42

The rise members put pressure on politicians, and it was having an effect.


Michael McClanahan  09:47

You can see their faces, if some of them would leave out the room because they didn’t want to know because we were trying to get to their heart to their conscience. We know if you have a conscience and you hear persons talk about what’s going on in their families. They’re saying any others if you have any heart, you’d like, I need to rethink my thoughts and the way I’m thinking or way I’m bowing down to these chemical companies.


Gloria Riviera  10:10

We did contact the parish council for an interview, but we never heard back, Rise’s message, it was reaching far outside of cancer alley. They started noticing lots of new faces their marches.


Michael McClanahan  10:23

And we would always find there might be a march on Saturday, I would see literally, like busloads of environmental soldiers jumping out ready to fight. There’ll be they’d be from lots of other small towns in Southwest Louisiana, or a town have been Texas or someplace up in, in Mississippi, they will converge, and they’d be ready to fight that inspires you?


Gloria Riviera  10:50

Yeah, it does. Because the battle against petrochemical plants is happening all across the country. Sharon was building a community within her community. And she wanted to raise awareness to her cause. So she took a reporter to the site of the sunshine project. But before she could get there.


Sharon Lavigne  11:10

They ran us. The security guards. They were on the site. And we went over to the next trip. And he told us, they don’t want you on this trip, either. I say but this is not the most aside. This is somebody else’s property. And he followed us over there and told us that the people that own this, they don’t want us there either. When the police can come assemble, they come in, I say I’ll be waiting for them. I say I don’t care. So they came. So you told me for most say it. They don’t want you on the property. If you come on your property again, you will be arrested. I said, Okay, I won’t come on a property again.


Gloria Riviera  11:50

Sharon makes it sound like it’s just no big deal. But can you imagine? I don’t know your grandmother just strolling up to a petrochemical plant. Sharon would never say this. But she was getting radical. Even with all the marches and council protests. She knew that to battle a billion dollar company, she’d need a hefty weapon. So what do you do here in the land of litigation, Sharon lawyered up, she was part of a group who filed a lawsuit and they needed lawyers, all lots of them. I kind of imagined them like The Avengers, only the lawyer version and they’re all coming together in this massive conference room, poring over huge boxes of endless documents. I can’t wait for the blockbuster movie to come out either. Here’s lawyer number one.


Devin Lowell  12:36

I am Devin Lowell. I’m one of the supervising attorneys with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic was always sort of my dream job.


Gloria Riviera  12:50

Devin is originally from Kansas. He went to law school at Tulane in New Orleans.


Devin Lowell  12:56

I love this place, South Louisiana. I love the people. Louisiana has a lot of challenges, and a lot of very inspiring people taking on those challenges.


Gloria Riviera  13:05

And he’s seen those challenges up close.


Devin Lowell  13:08

I practiced environmental law in Louisiana, representing landowners who had previously leased their property out for oil and gas development. And we’re now suing the oil companies to come back and clean it up after they left it contaminated.


Gloria Riviera  13:22

So Devin knew how to battle a petrochemical plant and Sharon in school.


Sharon Lavigne  13:26

I’m gonna go all the way. So I’m gonna whatever we can get on him. Let’s get it on him.


Gloria Riviera  13:31

Sharon and Rise St. James wanted to sue the state to stop the sunshine project from going ahead. Sharon wanted to sue Louisiana. This was a whole different world compared to the meetings in her dead with the gumbo, Devin and the rest of the Avengers got to work each taking on a different part of the case. When you want to build a multibillion dollar plant, you need to get permits, a lot of them land permits water permits, the team of lawyers decided to narrow in on phimosis air permits. And just to note, the air permits are issued by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality or D EQ. So you’re gonna hear that name pop up.


Devin Lowell  14:14

The first step of this kind of thing is to read the permit.


Gloria Riviera  14:17

Okay, read the permit. That makes sense. I don’t know if you’ve seen an air permit, but it is pages and pages filled with sections like public trust duty, toxic inventory, and pollution burden. There is fine print on top of fine print. The lawyers, they love this stuff. This is the part of the podcast fair warning where we get into a whole bunch of numbers and pollution talk. But I promise you stay with me. I’m going to translate all the lawyer talk for you. It is critical to understanding Sharon’s case. One of the numbers in the permit that jumped out to Devon was something called cancer risk from toxic air pollution. So let me break this down for you To the EPA takes in all of this pollution data about a neighborhood from things like industrial facilities, traffic airports. And from those numbers, the EPA gives each neighborhood a percentile based on how likely a resident is to develop cancer from toxic air pollution. The higher the number, the worse it is for your health. Devon found the cancer risk number for St. James listed in the permit.


Devin Lowell  15:27

They said, oh, there’s no problem here. It’s about the 56th percentile in the state. It’s kind of on average, it’s not sort of more burden than anywhere else.


Gloria Riviera  15:38

But there was a problem. That number was old from 2011. The most current report told a very different story.


Devin Lowell  15:46

The next set of data showed that that same community was actually the 86th percentile in the state for a cancer risk from air pollution. But that’s Louisiana. If you compare it to every other community in the United States, it’s more like the 99th-100th percentile


Gloria Riviera  16:06

86th percentile. If Devin’s analysis is correct, that would mean the actual cancer risk from toxic air pollution was significantly higher than what was stated in the permit. And remember, petrochemical plants here are like corner stores in the rest of the country. It’s as if you can find one in every neighborhood, and these chemicals can potentially create hazardous conditions for nearby communities. Numbers and news reports do help give an idea of what’s happening. But they don’t really tell the full story. And the state appeared to be doing some fuzzy math. It said the emissions of one pollutant benzene had gone down in St. James. So


Devin Lowell  17:07

like there’s benzene a million facilities in the next parish over that are right on the line. But benzene emissions don’t know where the parish line is. So it doesn’t really make sense to look at it from a scope of you know, a political subdivision. Air pollution doesn’t care what imaginary lines on a map, but it seemed a lot like I don’t want to impugn their motives, but it seemed like just reading the decision that they were just looking for a way to explain away the problem.


Gloria Riviera  17:33

When we reached out to the DEQ. They told us their Louisiana Department LDEQ maintains that its permits are issued in a fair and impartial process that is prescribed by state and federal law. And according to Devin.


Devin Lowell  17:48

It would have been the largest greenhouse gas emitter in Louisiana. At that point, it would account for 6% of Louisiana’s greenhouse gas emissions by itself.


Gloria Riviera  17:57

And that’s for a state that comes in at number four in highest carbon dioxide emitters in the US, sorry, Louisiana, you’re just missing out in meddling in the Olympics for greenhouse gas polluters after Texas, California and Florida. The team of lawyers was building a convincing case of violations. But they were going up against a petrochemical company with deep pockets and a deeper playbook. The team would need even more evidence. Enter Pam Spees. Hello, how are you?


Pamela Spees  18:29

I’m a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. These are very humble offices. I’ve got a very dated decor.


Gloria Riviera  18:38

Pam, have been working on a different case, also targeting for Mosa. She’s based in New York, but was raised in Lake Charles, that’s a town in Southwest Louisiana, just north of the Gulf of Mexico. And that part of the state has its own industrial corridor.


Pamela Spees  18:53

So I grew up seeing industry I grew up seeing flares, smelling things having test alarms go off every Monday at noon, and just in case there were ever a chemical release or spill. So you’d hear that sound.


Gloria Riviera  19:10

What she saw growing up, it really stuck with her and she knew she wanted to help people back home. Pam specializes in human rights law. She had her own checklist to go through.


Pamela Spees  19:21

There were members of Rise in particular someone named Gail above who lives just across the river. And they stood to be affected by the Formosa facility as well because even people across the river would be affected by ethylene oxide. But gala buff had always said we know that there are people buried here.


Gloria Riviera  19:40

Of course, even knowing the little I did going into this story, it makes complete historical sense that enslaved people would it be buried on plantations, in this case, the very site of the proposed sunshine project.


Pamela Spees  19:54

The thing about this stretch of the Mississippi River is there were formerly plantations all along the river And so people who were enslaved there obviously did not have a choice and where they were buried.


Gloria Riviera  20:05

I just hadn’t connected all the dots in this case. So when Pam said that it completely floored me, going into this story I expected to hear about the environmental impacts, the tainted water and hazy air, and the possible health effects on people living in these neighborhoods. But this larger humanitarian violation wrapped up in the business as usual history of how we operate in this country, and just how far back that went, that I was not prepared for. We’ll learn more about that history after the break. Before the break, we heard about a big twist in Sharon’s case, one of her lawyers, her chatter in the community that there might be an enslaved burial site on the sunshine projects property.


Joe Banner  23:31

It’s shocking, but really it shouldn’t be shocking. Whenever there’s plantations that burial grounds for the enslaved.


Gloria Riviera  23:39

That’s Joe banner, co-founder of the descendants project who we heard from in the first episode. She also works in tourism. It’s another huge industry here in Louisiana. She knows the history of the area, especially the stories most people don’t talk about. One of the big draws for visitors to Wallace are plantation tours. Joe’s working to be sure that the stories of enslaved people are told not about their lives on the plantations, but about their culture of food and families. I met up with her to take a tour of the street she grew up on. Thank you so much for having me.


Joe Banner  24:15

Thank you all for being here.


Gloria Riviera  24:17

as well where we need to be here. Joe lives here in Wallace. It’s in St. John Parish about two bends in the river away from Sharon’s house. We met under a huge oak tree. There are a handful of houses surrounded by open fields and really not much else. It’s a quiet street. A little windy today. But you still can see the petrochemical plants peeking out from across the river. Joe still lives here today. Tell me where we are.


Joe Banner  24:46

Well, we are on Alexis corn. Okay. It’s named Alexis court because my great grandfather was Laura Alexis, and he purchased land actually to the back of his street so my family has been On this one street for over 100 years, And so we’re headed to where this is where I grew up. And this house right here is from 1806. This is one that we are restoring. Okay, um, it was moved to the property. I fell in love with this house when I was about 10 years old. No way, I had no idea why I really thought that it belonged that we should have it.


Gloria Riviera  25:24

I mean, I should have tried that with my parents.


Joe Banner  25:26

But it took a few years before the house became available. And as we’re looking through the history, we realized that it was a plantation home number one, and that my family descends from this plantation, we descend from the inhabitants. My cousin lives here, my parents live in the next house. So my great grandfather, and my great uncle essentially sold more land to the black families who couldn’t get land anywhere else.


Gloria Riviera  25:52

So a century ago, before the Civil Rights era even started in this country, it was next to impossible for Black families to buy land, Joe’s great grandfather built his own neighborhood, to keep his family and friends safe.


Joe Banner  26:07

What it did was it created this village, you know, this village that I have the luxury of growing up, and as a child and still live here now. And before we even came to this land, my family has been in this area for 300 years, when the first Germans came in 1720. That was my family. These Germans were given enslaved Africans, that was my family.


Gloria Riviera  26:28

These enslaved burial plots, they are a part of the history of this area. And Joe has seen how they marked their loved ones.


Joe Banner  26:36

It didn’t have access to stone, a true grave markers. Trees were used in order to like as a headstone, essentially, sometimes a circular pattern and understand the meaning of it is really the most beautiful way to pay tribute to the dead.


Gloria Riviera  26:52

Louisiana actually created a commission to protect these enslaved burial sites, there are just that many around the state. These graves dot the banks of the Mississippi River. So there was a chance that what Rhys members were saying was true. But remember what Joe said, they can be really hard to spot because there are not always markers, maybe just a row of treats. Pam Spees, being the Human Rights Avenger lawyer that she is, well, she wanted hard evidence, she submitted a public records request to the Louisiana division of archaeology. That’s the agency that keeps tabs on this type of information. And what she got back was a stack of emails, reports and letters. And there was a lot of back and forth happening


Pamela Spees  27:39

Formosa had hired a company and they had said they hadn’t found anything.


Gloria Riviera  27:43

Formosa hired an archaeology crew and they gave the all clear. So case closed, right? Well, not exactly. Pam continued to investigate what she had heard from […] the Rise member about a burial site. She kept digging through all these reports. And she found a letter from an independent archaeologist.


Pamela Spees  28:02

The Independent archaeologists was this person named Don Hunter, who in his off time, you know, instead of playing video games or something, it actually just goes and looks at these old historic maps and does cartographic regressions where he can sort of look at anomalies on the land and geo locate them with reference to these 1877 maps.


Gloria Riviera  28:23

Don had pored over these maps, and he spotted these anomalies, something not naturally in the ground. And he saw not just one but two sites where enslaved burial grounds likely existed. Don went back to the Division of archaeology instead. Okay, wait a minute, hold up. There is something here that looks like burial sites.


Pamela Spees  28:45

Now, for most of them knew this when it’s when the parish council was deliberating whether to grant its land use application and it didn’t tell the parish council and it didn’t notify anybody in the community.


Gloria Riviera  28:58

So according to Pam, the company decided, you know, what, hey, let’s just keep this little preservation violation, you know, amongst ourselves and the Louisiana division of archaeology. They didn’t tell rise St. James or the parish council about it. Legally, they were not required to disclose any of it. For most it didn’t tell anyone in the local community but the news it was already in the wind


Pamela Spees  29:22

Rise members and others were going out and visiting and singing and praying on the site. Then the sheriff’s office would start showing up and tell them to leave. They were trespassing. Sharon was visited at her home by sheriff’s deputy at one point.


Gloria Riviera  29:48

No one was allowed near the plant or these burial sites. But if you haven’t noticed Sharon doesn’t back down. She wanted to organize a prayer service on Juneteenth to come out emirate the enslaved people who lived on the plantation and are buried there. I wish I could tell you it went off without a hitch. But nothing comes easy in this battle. A week before Pam had to petition a judge to get permission for Sharon or anyone in the community to step foot on for most property, burial grounds included. For most they denied their request to visit the grounds. There were court and restraining orders. But they were finally granted access for one hour, Sharon dressed in her bright yellow Rise t-shirt with dozens of protesters marched across the sugarcane fields up to the burial site. There was a different feeling in the air with this event, the energy of the fight, it had changed. This wasn’t just about pollution and one petrochemical plant. This became about honoring generations of families. This was true for Michael from the NAACP, and for Joe of the descendants project.


Michael McClanahan  31:17

You know, they’re rolling over in their grave, they get no peace. Because now these chemical plants have come in have sent the tranquility of their place.


Joe Banner  31:27

The land is should not be used except for a memorial, it should be a public space, like a park, are something that recognizes the sacredness of the land, and descendants like myself should have access to the land and we shouldn’t have to walk through an industrial complex in order to get to our loved ones.


Gloria Riviera  31:47

There is a new urgency to the fight. This was about St. James and all of cancer alley, reclaiming its past. And it wasn’t just people in Louisiana, who were having this conversation. The United Nations declared what was happening in cancer alley as environmental racism. Joe explains it this way.


Joe Banner  32:04

The way is zoned and the way things are configured, you’re still looking at plantations and how they were set up. Because it is the same game plan that the heavy industry companies Yeah, and petrochemical keeps using against us when they infiltrate and exploit Black communities. Rich people literally by quiet and peace, they pay to not be here. But they make their money in communities like this. So as they’re making their money, they’re free and have their space. We’re here dealing with a lot of times how their money is made.


Gloria Riviera  32:43

And there’s a lot of truth to this. As far as we know, none of the CEOs of these billion dollar global petrochemical companies live in cancer alley next door to these plants.


Joe Banner  32:55

Environmental racism is the fact that Black lives are constantly being sacrificed for perceived economy. We’re not really getting the money from it. So we’re now suffering with the impacts of dirtier air, dirtier water, what have you. And we’re not even getting like any money off of that.


Gloria Riviera  33:19

Joe was part of a group of cancer alley residents who testified in front of a UN committee, Sharon and Rhys, they made cancer alley part of a bigger worldwide conversation. All eyes were on the sunshine project, Formosa was feeling the pressure for Sharon, the discovery of these burial grounds and the UN dubbing cancer alley environmental racism felt like a golden ticket that just might push the case in her favor. But there are a lot of pieces that go into this type of lawsuit. Remember Devon level, he was one of Sharon’s factfinding and venger lawyers, we left them back in the conference room a little while ago, he was still digging into the numbers. And he found a section in the sunshine projects permit that was key.


Devin Lowell  34:08

They had a section in there called environmental justice. But it was more of a explaining why there is no problem rather than actually tackling the facts on the ground.


Gloria Riviera  34:19

Remember that fuzzy math, the old cancer risk numbers the state was using kinda hand waving over Lego just go over there. Well, those numbers were crucial when it came to how the state had issued permits to the sunshine project.


Devin Lowell  34:33

Part of our argument was that here under these facts where you have a community that’s 90% Black, right, and you have this pollution burden that they face, one of the worst sort of cancer risks from air pollution the entire country. Basically, our complaint was that the DEQs air permitting program is causing a disproportionate burden of air pollution in Louisiana to fall on Black residents.


Gloria Riviera  34:59

Devon and the Teamster of the state with papers. One of the main arguments of the lawsuit was that the DEQ did not consider the environmental and pollution burden put on black communities in St. James, and that was environmental racism. In the fall of 2022, Judge Trudy white agreed. In the lawsuit, the team of lawyers listed out a series of 10 violations, and judge white agreed on all counts.


Sharon Lavigne  35:28

I didn’t think we would rule on all counts and death before they get to me.


Gloria Riviera  35:34

And the burial grounds did play a big role.


Devin Lowell  35:37

And it was clearly important to the judge and in the same sense of like, this is not a light decision to be making because of the history of this place.


Gloria Riviera  35:48

This win was huge. In addition to this blow, the Army Corps of Engineers had also pulled their permits. We spoke to Ricky Boyett from the New Orleans branch of the Army Corps.


Ricky Boyett  36:00

We did become aware of some public interest in some public concerns. And we agreed with those concerns. And so we decided to suspend the permit so that we could go back and look deeper at the alternatives for that specific site.


Gloria Riviera  36:19

And even the EPA designated cancer alley an example of environmental racism. We contacted the sunshine project for an interview. They declined. However, they gave us a statement. Here’s part of it. And what about Judge White’s verdict on the future of their proposed plastics factory? But for most says seems very determined to win, they wrote. And so it goes in the land of litigation. The Sunshine project has been put on pause for now. Even with this victory, Sharon will continue to fight.


Sharon Lavigne  37:49

We are going to win. We’re not going to lose. Whenever we get it completely done. We can celebrate. After the break we’ll reimagine what St. James could look like in the future. I talked with Sharon a few months after that ruling at her daughter Chanel’s house. She was heading to Egypt with her daughters and granddaughter the very next day to speak at the UN’s climate change conference. It was a very Sharon like way to prepare for a big overseas trip. First, she allowed me to trail her for hours. She kept making comments about how she had to go buy paint for her hurricane damaged house. And she also kept talking about, oh, I need to go to this store or that store to buy new clothes for her trip happening in less than 24 hours. While everyone else was getting ready to sit down to dinner. She was still checking her emails. Honestly, she never stopped. This was just one victory in a much, much bigger battle. Sharon knew that. And she was not letting her guard down. What are your next steps are you going to take a break?


Sharon Lavigne  40:43

And a lot of Michael try to come in, the wife the parents cause a real close because they allow these energies to come in here. And once we hear about it, we are be able to start off early going to the meetings and telling them we don’t want this plant here. So that’s what we’re gonna do. Continue watching them.


Gloria Riviera  41:06

I sat down at the dinner table with her family. We had ordered the entire Cajun spread. There was not a centimeter of free space on my plate. I was seated next to Sharon’s daughter, Shamara. She sees this ruling as a win, definitely. And not just for Louisiana.


Shamara  41:43

I think we’re winning because we have people paying attention. We are winning because you all are paying attention and you’re not from here. And you’re concerned and you care. Every time we travel. When we meet people who are like we heard your story. We’re inspired by that. We feel like we’re winning. When we meet other communities as fighting nuclear plants or their kids having cancer, which is some people that we’ve met. And they and we told them, we won this court case and they’re like, oh, we’ll keep fighting. And they feel that they went. Even though we’re fighting two different things, we’re still fighting the same things.


Gloria Riviera  42:17

This is the power I see in all of this. Sharon was able to connect all of the struggles in cancer alley, not just with residents in the neighboring parishes. But those in small communities across our country who do not have a Sharon, a voice to speak out. Devon, the lawyer from Tulane who was part of the case, he said something that stuck with me about what this really means.


Devin Lowell  42:41

If it’s defeated, then that’s a whole different story that’s creating a new story for St. James Parish for cancer alley, and the opportunity to do something different.


Gloria Riviera  42:49

Maybe it will help change what cancer alley can be in the future. This story, it was created by companies and politicians, the narrative reinforced for decades, that change is impossible that those with money wield power. And that idea, it has held up from plantation road to cancer alley, growing up, Shamara, didn’t think there could be anything else.


Shamara  43:12

It’s like I’m desensitized, almost, you know, the plants are just they’ve been there my whole life. I’m 33. I’ve known these plants and passed by these plants. It’s normal. It’s almost I had a moment recently where I was like, what are we going to do if all these plants move like what’s going to be here? Just not because I want them. But just because this […]. I’m used to it.


Gloria Riviera  43:34

You had a moment where you felt like what are we going to do if they leave. Because that’s your normal?


Shamara  43:38

Isn’t that weird? I still crazy to admit that out loud. But yes, I had a moment when I was like, this is all I’ve ever known. And we’re fighting it. And I don’t want it in here. But it’s like, what are we gonna do you just imagine these plants are going what’s going to be there. So you have to also think I have to also think about what we’ll be doing replacing with.


Gloria Riviera  43:58

Shamara now works with Sharon and Rhys. Her official title is executive assistant, but she says her real job is really doing anything her mom says. Shamara now lives in Baton Rouge about an hour away from St. James. She heard bits and pieces about what her mom was doing. But she really didn’t understand it. Like she said, growing up her normal was these backyard petrochemical plants. Working with her mom and hearing about all the struggles happening across the country. It’s really opened her eyes.


Shamara  44:28

So it’s not just connecting the dots and it’s like, oh, wow. Because you know, you don’t believe that people can really just do this. And when I say do this, I mean, pollute us right in front of our faces. I didn’t want to believe the audacity. So like, you know, these plants are poisoning us. You know, these plans are polluting us. And they just in our face, we pass by him every day and no one’s doing anything about it. That’s what made me upset like our lives are disposable.


Gloria Riviera  45:00

Sharon and her daughters are now in the fight together to reimagine what they want St. James to look like in the future. For Sharon, it’s a pretty humble ask for one of the richest countries on the planet.


Sharon Lavigne  45:13

Breathe clean air, drink some clean water sometimes and go back to planting a garden. That’s what I would love. And really, I would like bearing in. So when I’ve turned my faucet on, it smells good. It does smell full of chemicals.


Gloria Riviera  45:30

Do you think it’s possible?


Sharon Lavigne  45:33

It’s possible, but it’s gonna take a while to get it done. It’s possible, yes. That’s like taking back our town, taking back our culture. I think it could be done.


Gloria Riviera  45:47

I asked Shamara, what her goal is.


Shamara  45:49

For St. James. I would see some type of eco-friendly job that produces clean energy that people in the community can work at. I would like to see the unmarked graves of my ancestors to have some type of commemorations have some acknowledgement in their place. I want to see subdivisions of houses where people come here because they see the beauty of St. James they see the sanctuary that it is and they want to retire there and they want to live there I see tour boats coming on of Mississippi and people pulling up and come into view St. James and take a tour and to see our ancestors graves, to see buildings that we put up for rise in commemoration of what we’ve done. Once we’re able to get the soil in the air clean. Let’s depend on ourselves. Let’s be a community again. Let’s welcome football on Friday night. Let’s be with St. James used to be before the plants.


Gloria Riviera  46:54

There is never a replacement for being on the ground. We had done all the research, but it’s nothing like standing in someone’s front yard and realizing the view is post-apocalyptic, a behemoth of metal and stacks going 24/7 plants everywhere you look more or less, Sharon won her fight. But there are places like St. James all over this country, like in Texas and the Ohio River Valley. The story may be personal to Louisiana, but it’s not unique. And all of these places. They’re fueled by our addiction to plastics. But here’s the thing. reporting this story has been a huge wake up call for me. And yet, if I’m being honest, I still use a ton of plastic products. Even after seeing the devastating impact of these products up close. They’re just embedded in my day to day life. And I’m not alone. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at plastic. What is it made of and where does it go when we throw it away? And how did we even get here? How did plastic start is a miracle material and turn into our current addiction.


CREDITS  48:23

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 to join a community who wants to make life suck less together. Go to for a list of current sponsors and discount codes for this and all other Lemonada series. To follow along with a transcript go to, 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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