Sharon Lavigne has lived in St. James Parish, Louisiana, a predominantly Black community, all her life. She remembers when the air wasn’t covered with thick gray smog, when the water was still safe to drink, when the gardens were productive and fertile.
But now, she says, “we are sick and we are dying.”
Lavigne has watched her neighbors die from cancer and suffer from respiratory illnesses. About five years ago, she too was diagnosed with pollution-linked autoimmune hepatitis, with tests showing she had aluminum inside her body. The reason for the community’s decline in health, environmentalists say, is a burgeoning fossil fuel industry right in their backyards.
Over the past three decades, roughly 150 chemical plants and refineries have been building facilities up and down the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that straddles New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which includes St. James Parish. According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), seven out of 10 US census tracts with the country’s highest cancer risk levels from air pollution are located in this corridor, known as “Cancer Alley.”
So when Lavigne heard that the Taiwanese plastics manufacturer Formosa was going to build a $9.4 billion petrochemical complex just two miles from her home, she retired from her teaching job in 2018 and started the faith-based environmental justice group RISE St. James to fight the new development project.
Formosa’s vast 2,400-acre site, currently marked off with fences, sits on two former 19th-century sugarcane plantations and a burial ground for the enslaved, which the company failed to disclose until RISE St. James filed a public records request. Still, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality approved permits last year for Formosa to build the complex of 14 plastics plants, despite the company’s own models revealing that it could more than double the amount of toxic pollutants in the area and emit more of the carcinogenic chemical ethylene oxide than almost any other facility in the country.
The predominantly Black communities of St. James Parish and the rest of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley are not alone in this problem. According to the National Black Environmental Justice Network, Black Americans in 19 states are 79 percent more likely to live with industrial pollution than white people. Researchers also found that Black people breathe 56 percent more pollution than they cause, whereas white people breathe 17 percent less pollution than they generate.
Lavigne said industries “come to Black communities because they think no one’s going to say anything. They think no one is going to fight.”
Environmental groups like RISE St. James usually have one ally in their corner when fighting industrial polluters: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a bedrock law that requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of proposed infrastructure such as the construction of major highways, prison complexes, airports, pipelines, landfills, and refineries. Passed by Congress in 1969, NEPA, followed by the Clean Air and Water Acts, was part of a broader plan to protect the environment from any point source of pollution or contamination.
The law is not perfect, though. Since the link between racism and the environment didn’t click for many in the late 1960s and ’70s, when these environmental laws were created, NEPA’s lack of civil rights protections resulted in the further oppression and exclusion of Black communities across the country. Polluting industries would set up shop in marginalized neighborhoods with no regard to the systemic injustice baked into the fabric of the community, and there was little recourse to stop these polluters from doing so.
But with the rise of the environmental justice movement in the late 1970s, Black environmentalists and policy experts began floating the idea of stronger environmental policies that draw from the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The idea was to protect historically disadvantaged neighborhoods from racist policies that could exacerbate a community’s social and environmental burdens.
“People often forget the legacies of slavery, of Jim Crow segregation and out of that chain, laws that were deeply entrenched within the social structure of the Southern environment that worsened our quality of life,” said Beverly Wright, the founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, who has advised President Joe Biden on environmental justice policies. “That legacy resulted in communities that had been inundated with toxic facilities, impacting our health, the value of the homes where people live, causing them to have higher cancer rates, and to eventually be relocated from within the midst of these facilities.”
With a new Democratic administration, activists say now is the time to marry civil rights protections with NEPA. Strengthening NEPA — often called the “Magna Carta” of environmental laws — by invoking the Civil Rights Act would give underserved populations, like St. James Parish, a greater chance of eliminating the legacy pollution that has choked their communities. Adding these protections, without creating an entirely new policy, wouldn’t be very complicated for the Biden administration to do. It wouldn’t even need the help of Congress.
The birth of the environmental justice movement started with Black people
Environmental injustice — the disproportionate harm that low-income communities and communities of color face from both the causes (fossil fuel pollution) and effects (extreme heat and severe flooding) of climate change — has long been a product of systemic racism.
For instance, a 2019 study found that redlining, the government-sanctioned effort to segregate communities of color that began in the 1930s, is a strong indicator of which neighborhoods suffer the most from extreme heat. While white neighborhoods historically received more community investment in clean green spaces that help cool the area, Black neighborhoods were deprived of resources and slotted next to traffic-choked highways and other industrial infrastructure.
Fossil fuel companies exploited this segregation. In places like Mossville, Louisiana, a small, unincorporated town founded by formerly enslaved people in 1790, nearly all its Black residents have been bought out by the South African petrochemical giant Sasol to build a gargantuan chemical complex. A similar scenario played out in the East End neighborhood of Freeport, Texas, labeled as the “Negro District” in the 1930s. Housing, residents, and once-thriving businesses in East End have dwindled, a trend recently accelerated as officials voted to use eminent domain to expand the port’s shipping channels to make room for large polluting industrial ships.
Such systemic injustices are as old as America. But there’s growing scientific awareness and pushback against these inequities. Environmental lobbying groups had long been overwhelmingly white, focusing more on nature conservation and less on community impact. It wasn’t until recently that Big Green groups began to reckon with their racist past. In the wake of last summer’s nationwide protests for racial justice, for example, Sierra Club put out a statement that acknowledged the role it played in perpetuating white supremacy in the movement.
Meanwhile, environmental justice pioneers such as Wright and Robert Bullard, a professor of environmental policy at Texas Southern University, have put out academic research on the ties between systemic racism and its environmental impact on vulnerable communities, which has led to more people being educated and involved in making those connections. It wasn’t until Lavigne attended a community advocacy organization meeting in 2017, for instance, that she linked what’s been happening to their environment and public health to industrial pollution in her backyard.
“Environmental justice is not a footnote anymore; it’s a headline,” Bullard said. “Over the last four decades working on this, I realized while we’ve been able to make a lot of changes over the years, there’s still a lot of work that still needs to happen — and it needs to happen in warp speed, because we don’t have a lot of time since climate change is with us right now.”
The modern environmental justice movement is often traced back to 1978, when a private contractor hired by a transformer-manufacturing company discharged a carcinogenic chemical known as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) in 14 counties in North Carolina. In response, alarmed residents brought a barrage of complaints and lawsuits against the state and involved parties. This litigation led the state to excavate the 31,000 gallons of soil laced with toxic PCBs, but they needed a place to put it. They chose the small Warren County town of Afton — an overwhelmingly Black, rural, and poor community — as a “suitable” home.
Many environmental scientists questioned just how suitable the location was. Warren County’s Black community was especially agitated. Afton residents relied on the town’s local wells for drinking water, which could be contaminated by this landfill. For six weeks, residents alongside civil rights groups across the country protested the move. Black activists linked their arms and lay on the ground to block the 6,000 dump trucks rolling into their backyards, headed for the newly constructed hazardous waste landfill. Hundreds of protesters were arrested.
“The truth of the matter is that the only way that we got communities of color, especially Black folks, involved in the [environmental justice] movement was by making them see that there was a discriminatory aspect or civil rights violation involved,” Wright said. “So when we talk about some communities having cleaner air than others, it’s because of discriminatory policies and for certain it goes directly to civil rights.”
In court hearings, NEPA was a first line of defense for communities fighting the landfill. But North Carolina courts carved out an exception to requirements that the state prepare an environmental impact statement, claiming that formal compliance with the law was unnecessary. It was clear to community members and activists that the decision was more politically motivated than based in science: Majority-white governmental institutions, likely sympathetic to corporate interests, ultimately allowed a Black, poor, rural, and politically powerless community to be home to a toxic landfill.
Though the residents of Warren County lost and the toxin-laced soil ended up in the landfills, the incident is still studied by environmental researchers as the hallmark of the environmental justice movement. It was the first major environmental disaster in which civil rights groups, environmentalists, and Black residents fought in solidarity against an act of environmental racism, a term unused until much later.
Today there continues to be no shortage of polluting facilities and infrastructure — factories, highways, waste incinerators, and refineries — being built and erasing low-income communities of color, especially Black neighborhoods. Historians and environmental experts say regulatory agencies, industry executives, and politicians believe it is easier to build in these communities, since many cannot afford to hire legal expertise, or do not have the means to fight back.
“These communities who are affected by disparities in air pollution or just toxic contamination, in general, come from a place of feeling that they are being discriminated against or somehow treated differently from white people,” Wright said.
Activists call these places “sacrifice zones,” but industrial giants have underestimated how much these typically segregated Black communities will fight for clean air and water, even if they have to do it on their own.
For example, in Port Arthur, Texas, its predominantly Black residents are challenging the mammoth oil and gas refineries that dot the port’s skyline and cover the area in thick gray smoke. In Philadelphia last year, Black activists led the fight to shut down the largest oil refinery on the East Coast after years of suffering from facility explosions, bad air quality, and pollution-linked asthma and cancer. In Flint, Michigan, the water that the city’s predominantly Black residents had been consuming for years has resulted in serious public health and environmental issues, particularly lead poisoning, that government officials both exacerbated and tried to ignore. Residents are still fighting for a large class-action settlement and government accountability today.
Why it’s vital to marry two historical policies for environmental justice legislation
Although NEPA has long been a vital tool to shield communities from forms of environmental racism, it isn’t a foolproof policy. It requires federal agencies to prepare an environmental impact statement that describes any environmental or public health ramification that a development project would pose; however, what a state or federal agency does with these reports is left entirely to their discretion. This often means that projects often go forth, regardless of community concerns for potential environmental and public health impacts.
In most cases, the decision-makers behind the NEPA process also have financial ties to oil and gas lobbyists or the fossil fuel industry. Additionally, the public comment process required under NEPA raises accessibility questions, since state agencies tend to hold hearings far from the proposed site and don’t actively reach out to communities for public input, making it difficult for impacted communities to engage in the review process. These loopholes then make it easier for agencies to approve permits for development projects.
What is in communities’ favor is that the NEPA process can take years, allowing room for activist protests. This has been a major concern for polluting industries, and it was the driving reason behind the Trump administration’s decision to slash the mandated timeline under NEPA review in 2020. Trump’s environmental agenda focused on weakening, rolling back, and dismantling more than 100 critical environmental regulations, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the NEPA.
His administration’s overhaul of the Magna Carta environmental policy included narrowing the scope of the environmental review process, limiting consideration of safer project alternatives, and scrapping the requirement to evaluate any project’s contribution to climate change. While Biden might be able to reverse the previous administration’s new rules, another Republican president could undo it again through the same process.
That’s why, environmental justice advocates say, vulnerable communities need a stronger policy now.
Bullard said that taking an integrative approach toward strengthening environmental regulations such as NEPA to include a racial justice framework is the best way to address the historical neglect in pollution-burdened communities. He and Wright believe the early steps the Biden administration has taken in centering environmental justice across his climate and economic agendas, as well as appointing Michael Regan, the first Black man to lead the EPA, creates an urgency to right the wrongs of the previous administration.
“As climate policies get pushed out, what often gets lost is the policy framing of climate which has historically been more about dealing with just the science — the parts per million, the greenhouse gases — and not, until the last five to 10 years, the justice framing or equity framing,” Bullard said. “We have to come up with frameworks that would allow the environmental justice part to get lifted up into the climate framework, because it is a racial justice issue.”
Some policy experts say that applying Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — which prohibits federally funded entities from discriminating on the basis of race in their programs, policies, and projects — to NEPA would help dismantle the environmental inequities rooted in systemic racism that communities face. Title VI alone outlaws intentional discrimination, which many activists allege happens whenever an industrial facility sets up shop in marginalized communities like Afton and St. James Parish.
The task of strengthening NEPA under the Biden administration — including adding back the Trump administration’s removed regulatory requirements and adding a civil rights protection mandate — would fall under the domain of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The council would need to solicit new rule recommendations to the bedrock policy, propose new regulations, gather public comments, and conduct public hearings, which could take roughly a year. Biden’s new offices of environmental justice under the EPA and Justice Department, which he included in his sweeping executive order on climate change, could also look into avenues that could solidify and protect these vital changes.
In drafting the rules for NEPA to include civil rights protections, CEQ can conduct a Title VI or disparate impact analysis to identify the cumulative environmental and health impact of adding another polluting facility within a community. If the chosen location is an overwhelmingly Black community already inundated with polluting facilities, for instance, then the state agency shouldn’t be allowed to approve permits to develop another project since it will only compound the area’s underlying environmental and health conditions.
To enact more permanent change than what can be done through executive action, there are several bills floating around Congress. In February 2020, Democratic Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona and Donald McEachin of Virginia introduced a comprehensive bill called the Environmental Justice for All Act — which came as a result of community engagement and more than 350 public comments from community members and leaders of the environmental justice movement.
The bill strengthens NEPA and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and codifies Bill Clinton’s longstanding 1994 executive order that directs federal agencies to identify the disproportionate environmental and human health impacts of any federal actions on low-income communities of color. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has also introduced a separate environmental justice bill that includes reinstating giving individuals the right, under the Civil Rights Act, to bring actions against entities engaging in discriminatory practices.
These are effective yet ambitious policies in addressing the environmental harms Black and other marginalized communities often face. But they may take some time for Congress to take up, despite overwhelming support from Democrats and environmental activists. Adding and strengthening NEPA with civil rights protections, though, does not need to go through Congress — just the CEQ review process that Biden could get started on once his nominee to head the CEQ, Brenda Mallory, the first Black woman to lead the office, gets confirmed.
Bullard is hopeful that Biden will carry out his environmental justice promises: “Knowing the history of the environmental justice movement, it’s very important to see how the climate-framing in this new administration, and the policies as they get moved out, that they have taken that justice lens,” Bullard said.
Lavigne and the rest of the activists in St. James Parish will continue to hold their ground — and to hold the administration accountable. “Industry will continue to sacrifice Black people’s lives to make billions of dollars off of our community,” Lavigne said. “It’s the new form of slavery. I want President Biden to come down here in Cancer Alley to see what we’re going through.”
Julie Dermansky is an independent photojournalist and multimedia reporter based in New Orleans, Louisiana.