David, Goliath and a slingshot loaded with the truth

The smell is the thing that caught Sharon Lavigne’s attention.

Just about every day at 6:30 a.m., as soon as the special education teacher at St. James High School opened the front door of her house in St. James on Highway 18 on the west bank of the Mississippi River, her nose told her something wasn’t right.

“Oh, it smelled so awful I wanted to go back in the house,” said Lavigne, who is now retired. “I’d say, ‘Dear Lord, what is this smell?’ I didn’t know.”

Some days it smelled like chemicals, other days like ammonia or rotten eggs.

“Sometimes it’s just unknown and I can’t even describe it,” she said. “Sometimes when I’m in the back part of my house or on the porch, it feels like it’s coming from the left side.”

To the left of Lavigne’s home, about three miles upriver, are two chemical plants, part of a cluster of 140 oil refineries and petrochemical facilities that hug the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, a region dubbed by environmental groups as “Cancer Alley” for its high rates of cancer among residents in the largely low-income and African-American communities.

Kimberly Terrell, a research scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, did the most recent, peer-reviewed study on Cancer Alley, and her 2021 report indicated nearly every census tract between Baton Rouge and New Orleans ranks in the top 5% nationally for cancer risk from toxic air pollution and in the top 10% for respiratory hazards. Moreover, Terrell said, exposure to high levels of toxic air pollution is estimated to cause 85 cancer cases per year in Louisiana.

All Sharon Lavigne had to go by was her nose.

As bad as the mysterious smells were, until 2018, Lavigne pretty much treated the unpleasantry as the cost of living in the Sportsman’s Paradise. She was a St. James girl, and absolutely nothing was going to get her to think about pulling up stakes and moving.

That all changed when Lavigne got wind of a plan by Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group to build one of the world’s largest plastic factories – a $9.4 billion facility with 14 plants on 2,400 acres near the Sunshine Bridge in Donaldsonville, upriver from Lavigne’s house. The massive facility would produce ethylene and propylene, key chemicals in the manufacture of plastics.

“Nobody talked about it until we went to this health association meeting, and that’s how we found out about all these plants,” said Lavigne, who sings in the 40-member choir at St. James Catholic Church and who on May 15 will receive the prestigious Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame, the university’s highest honor, for her grassroots organizing of a faith-based coalition, Rise St. James, that has slowed and perhaps even imperiled the mammoth industrial project.

“I didn’t know anything about these plants,” Lavigne said. “It was like, ‘Stupid me, all my life I’ve been breathing this stuff, not knowing where it was coming from.’ I thought it was all over the world that we were breathing dirty air.”

Environmental opponents said the Formosa facility would be permitted to release as much greenhouse gasses as the equivalent of 3 1/2 coal-fired plants.

Lavigne’s epiphany fueled her righteous anger. After that meeting, Lavigne hosted a small gathering of 10 people inside her home on River Road, and then she held another a few weeks later in her garage for more than 20.

“I made a big, old pot of gumbo to draw a crowd, and it worked,” Lavigne said, creating with a unanimous vote “Rise St. James,” comprising residents of the civil parish’s Fifth District.   

Still, there were plenty of skeptics because the land had been sold, and the state and parish governments had approved $1.5 billion in tax breaks, primarily in property tax exemptions. Officials touted the projected 1,200 new jobs, with an average pay of $85,000 plus benefits, and 8,000 construction jobs.

It was a done deal, but not to Lavigne.

“We’re not against the jobs – we just want to breathe clean air and drink clean water,” she said.

As inspirational as her environmental advocacy has been, Lavigne’s transformative work as a special education teacher also has changed one life at a time. She patiently taught one high school student to read, using compassion, cookies and potato chips.

“You had to make it fun,” she said. “I would get the words and let him pronounce the words and teach him the words – over and over. And then, we went to a sentence and then to a paragraph. When he finally picked it up, he ran to a coach and said, ‘I can read! I can read!’ That gave me all the joy in the world. He walked across the stage.”

After Mass at St. James Church on Sundays, Lavigne would eat breakfast and then drive to Donaldsonville to spend an hour in the adoration chapel at Ascension Catholic Church to pray about how she should fight the proposed chemical plant. She also prayed on her porch.

“I went to (God) crying and asking him, ‘What should I do?’” Lavigne said. “I asked him if I should sell my home, and he told me, ‘No,’ because the land he gave me was from my grandparents. I was stunned because I thought he was going to tell me to leave. In the health meeting, they had told us to move because all these industries were coming into St. James, and we couldn’t stop them. I decided to go to God and stopped listening to all these negative things. God told me not to sell my home and not to move.”

With the advocacy of Rise St. James, environmental groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the project’s federal permits. A more stringent review of the environmental impact of the plant, which could take more than two years, has been ordered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“I don’t think we’re going to win the battle – I know we’re going to win,” said Lavigne, a grandmother who turns 70 on May 3.

People across the country are taking notice. The University of Notre Dame will bestow the Laetare Medal on Lavigne during commencement ceremonies on May 15. The medal was first presented in 1883 and honors a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the church and enriched the heritage of humanity.” Previous winners have included Dorothy Day, novelist Walker Percy, Sister Thea Bowman, Vatican ambassador Lindy Boggs and Sister of St. Joseph Helen Prejean.

“When they told me, I said, ‘Why me? What did I do for them to choose me?’” Lavigne said. “Then I said, ‘Let me stop asking all these questions and just be happy.’ This is all through God. God is doing this.”

“She always says yes,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which monitors pollution levels associated with the state’s petrochemical industry. “The reason she is so successful is that at any moment when she is needed, she steps up to save the community. She’s a woman of ‘yes.’”

While Lavigne waves the flag for environmental justice, for the last eight months she has lived in her front yard in a small travel trailer, too tiny even for her clothes, pots and pans. She can’t cook her gumbo. Her home sustained roof damage during Hurricane Ida and sits idle, in need of major repairs.

The woman who has spent the last four years trying to protect her and neighbors’ lives is only a few steps from home – but, in reality, so many miles away.

“They told me it’s going to cost $3,400 a month to get a bigger trailer, but I’m so depressed that I’m going to borrow the money,” said Lavigne, who wants to have her clothes at hand and get back to her cooking. “If I can get a bigger trailer, we can go from there.”

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