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Residents of Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ unveil lawsuit against local officials

Residents of St James parish, Louisiana, have unveiled a federal lawsuit accusing local government officials of civil rights and religious liberty violations by repeatedly approving the construction of petrochemical plants in two majority Black districts.

The lawsuit, part of a wave of litigation in the heavily industrialised corridor known as “Cancer Alley”, also calls for a moratorium on the construction of new plants and the extension of existing facilities in St James parish.

Launched in New Orleans on Tuesday by a coalition of environment groups founded by Black women, many of whom trace their ancestry back to the days of slavery in the parish, the lawsuit argues that the approval of more than a dozen facilities in majority Black areas bears a direct correlation to the vestiges of slavery and segregation.

It argues the local council has “intentionally chosen to locate over a dozen enormous industrial facilities in the majority Black fourth and fifth districts [of the parish], while explicitly sparing white residents from the risk of environmental harm”.

The lawsuit states that despite pleas from Black residents to halt new approvals in the districts, the local government has approved “every single request by heavy industrial corporations to locate their facilities in majority Black districts in the parish while rejecting requests to locate them in white districts”.

A spokesperson for St James parish did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In recent years the parish has approved land use plans which have designated swathes of the majority Black districts in St James as “industrial” or “future industrial” despite communities living there.

The designation gives industry greater planning flexibility to expand current sites and, advocates argue, highlights local government intention to push residents off the land, to allow greater industrial proliferation.

“It’s time to end this discriminatory and harmful land use system in St James parish that has roots in slavery and its afterlife, and is now the cause of public health emergencies,” said Myrtle Felton, a St James parish resident and member of Inclusive Louisiana, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs.

“We need to stop adding harmful chemicals that are impacting our health and homes.”

At a news conference on Tuesday, a St James resident, Barbara Washington, said: “When we win this case, I’m looking forward to a future where I can come out of my house and not look at all the smog and emissions. I’m looking forward to a healthier and more sustainable life.”

Local environmental groups have enjoyed a series of victories. Last year a state court revoked air pollution permits for a proposed gargantuan new plastics facility in St James parish, which was halted after intervention by the Biden administration in 2021.

Last month the US Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] and Department of Justice announced a lawsuit against the operator of a chemical plant in neighboring St John parish, over alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.

Louisiana environment and health agencies face an ongoing federal civil rights investigation examining whether permits issued throughout areas of “Cancer Alley” have violated Black citizen’s rights.

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