Citing ‘Racial Cleansing,’ Louisiana ‘Cancer Alley’ Residents Sue Over Zoning

Legal experts describe a new environmental justice lawsuit as significant, timely and ambitious. But will conservative judges agree?

Gail LeBoeuf, a lifelong member of St. Michael Catholic Church in St. James Parish and co founder and co executive director of the group Inclusive Louisiana, was part of a delegation of Black elders from Louisiana to speak last summer before UNESCO. Credit: James Bruggers
Gail LeBoeuf, a lifelong member of St. Michael Catholic Church in St. James Parish and co founder and co executive director of the group Inclusive Louisiana, was part of a delegation of Black elders from Louisiana to speak last summer before UNESCO. Credit: James Bruggers

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Making the case that their local government was built on a culture of white supremacy, Black residents of St. James Parish in the heart of Louisiana’s “cancer alley” have filed a federal lawsuit claiming land-use and zoning policies illegally concentrated more than a dozen polluting industrial plants where they live.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New Orleans by the environmental justice groups Inclusive Louisiana and RISE St. James, and the Mt. Triumph Baptist Church, traces Black history since European settlement in the 1700s through the legacy of slavery and post-Civil War racism, to assert that parish government officials intentionally directed industry toward Black residents and away from white residents.

Outside the Hale Boggs Federal Building in New Orleans on Tuesday, leaders of the two environmental justice organizations and the church said “enough is enough” and called for a permanent moratorium on chemical plants and similar facilities along with a cleaner, safer economic future in their communities.

The plaintiffs said they have been calling for a moratorium and relief from heavy industry for several years, but to no avail.

“This is the day that the Lord has made and we shall rejoice and be glad therein because we smell victory,” said Barbara Washington, co-founder and co-director of the faith-based group Inclusive Louisiana. “Every one of us has been touched by the parish’s decisions to expose us to toxic plants. We all have stories about our own health and the health of our friends. It’s time to stop packing our neighborhoods with plants that produce toxic chemicals.”

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Shamyra Lavigne with RISE St. James said: “Over and over, the St. James Parish Council has ignored us and dismissed our cries for basic human rights. We will not be ignored. We will not sacrifice our lives.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights based in New York and the New Orleans-based Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic are counsel for the plaintiffs. Chief among their claims: the parish’s land use system violates the Thirteenth Amendment as a vestige of slavery as well as the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which bars discrimination.

“To our knowledge, this (lawsuit) is the first of its kind in the way it uses the Civil Rights statutes and Constitutional provisions to challenge this kind of pattern and practice,” said Astha Sharma Pokharel, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. The harms that persist today, she said, are linked to “slavery and its afterlife.”

St. James Parish officials did not immediately return requests for comment.

The Challenge of Proving Intent

Legal experts not involved in the case on Tuesday described the lawsuit as ambitious, timely and significant in its ambition and approach.

Craig Anthony (Tony) Arnold, a land-use and property rights lawyer at the University of Louisville’s Louis D. Brandeis School of Law, described the lawsuit as “strong and innovative.”

“Typically, environmental justice groups have raised allegations of discriminatory local land-use practices in lawsuits against specific land-development projects or specific regulatory decisions,” said Arnold, author of the 2007 book, “Fair and Healthy Land Use: Environmental Justice and Planning,” and the forthcoming book, “Racial Justice in American Land Use.”

“When environmental justice groups have addressed systemic environmental injustices in local land-use practices, they’ve often worked with local governments to seek regulatory and policy reforms, although perhaps in the shadow of threats of lawsuits.”

What makes the St. James lawsuit distinctive, Arnold said, is that it challenges  “the entire set of local land use practices and supports its arguments with a detailed history of how these land use practices have discriminated against and unequally harmed Black communities, which have ongoing impacts.”

A pipeline crosses Highway 18 in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Credit: James Bruggers
A pipeline crosses Highway 18 in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Credit: James Bruggers

Because this pattern of racially unjust land use practices isn’t unique to St. James Parish, “perhaps we will see more such lawsuits in the future,” Arnold said.

The lawsuit illustrates a continued and welcomed emergence of the significance of environmental justice within the field of environmental law, said Patrick Parentau, an emeritus professor of law and senior fellow for climate policy at the Vermont Law and Graduate School. “This has been a long time coming,” Parentau added.

“This is the right team of lawyers to do it,” he said of the lawsuit. “It’s the right clients and the right state.”

Still, Parentau said, proving intent won’t be easy. It won’t be enough to merely map out the location of the industrial plants in Black neighborhoods, he said. “You have to get inside their heads,” he said of the parish land-use decision-makers. “You have to have minutes of meetings. Is there something in writing? Do they have recordings?”

The plaintiff’s lawyers could potentially face skeptical appellate judges and a Supreme Court with its 6-3 conservative majority, should the Louisiana case get that far. Louisiana is in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has been described as the nation’s most conservative.

Despite those obstacles, Parentau said he is “happy as hell to see this,  God love them.”

Pokharel agreed proving intent can be a challenge but said the team’s lawyers have been looking closely at the history of decisions that were made, statements by people who were making the decisions and various land use practices. “We have facts throughout our complaint about how racially discriminatory these actions were, not just the consequences,” she said.

She cited as one example a decision by local officials to offer two-mile buffer zones separating industrial sites that protected certain buildings in white communities but not Black communities. The lawsuit claims that officials agreed, for example, to establish buffer zones for Catholic churches, which were majority white, and schools in white areas, but not churches or schools in Black areas. 

Environmental Injustice as Vestige of Slavery

In Louisiana, parishes are like counties; St. James has five electoral districts. The 5th District is 88.6 percent Black and the 4th District is 53 percent Black, the only two that are majority Black.

The plaintiff’s group’s members live in the areas where their enslaved ancestors labored on brutal sugarcane plantations, and want access to the graves of their ancestors, which have been covered over or fenced off by industries, infringing on religious liberty, according to the lawsuit.

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The parish had no zoning ordinance or land use plan until 2014, a practice that the lawsuit claims benefited white people with large landholdings at the expense of long-marginalized Black residents.

“White landowners and corporations who could sell their large tracts of land to petrochemical companies benefited from this approach; small, Black landowners with no resources to leave, were harmed by it,” according to the lawsuit.

“As a result of the vestiges of the slavery in Louisiana and in St. James in particular, plaintiffs’ members reside in some of the most polluted, toxic—and lethal—census tracts in the country, situated within a stretch of land along the Mississippi now widely known as ‘Cancer Alley.’ The defendants, obviously mindful of this historically segregated land distribution, have intentionally chosen to locate over a dozen enormous industrial facilities in the majority Black 4th and 5th Districts, while explicitly sparing white residents from the risk of environmental harm,” the lawsuit claims.

From ‘Racial Cleansing’ to a Better Future

Cancer alley is a 130-mile stretch along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge that is dotted with more than 200 industrial facilities including oil refineries, plastics plants, chemical plants and other factories that emit significant amounts of harmful air pollution.

The industrial plants in the region have stirred a vigorous environmental justice movement,  largely led by Black women of faith.  Plaintiffs Inclusive Louisiana and RISE St. James are both faith-based environmental justice groups, and Mount Triumph Baptist Church is led by the Rev. Harry Joseph, who is active with RISE and previously fought against an oil pipeline planned for St. James Parish.

“We need to listen to what God has said to the people,” Joseph said. “God gave us his clean land and we have desecrated what God has given us,” he said. “God gave us clean air, and we have destroyed all that.”

In recent years, St. James Parish has been a focal point in part because of the massive proposed $9.4 billion Formosa plastics manufacturing complex on 2,400 acres in Welcome, Louisiana.

A state judge last year blocked Formosa, but the company is still fighting for its permits. The lawsuit cites Formosa’s large environmental footprint—emissions of 800 tons per year of toxic pollution and 13 million tons per year of greenhouse gases, roughly equivalent to the emissions of 3.5 coal-fired power plants—and a decision by local officials to approve the plant as another example of environmental racism.

A land use plan adopted in 2014 and amended in 2018 designated large swaths of the 4th and 5th District as “industrial,” despite the heavy residential concentration in those districts. It marked residential areas as “Existing Residential/Future Industrial,” clearly signaling their planned demise, a zoning category the lawsuit describes as a “racial cleansing plan.”

The suit claims that parish officials have “granted 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.”

“As much as we love St. James Parish, it has also been the site of grave injustices,” said Gail LeBoeuf, a co-founder and co-director of Inclusive Louisiana, citing industrial pollution.

She said in the press conference that she’s currently fighting cancer. “I cannot say for sure what caused it,” she said. “But no one can tell me that a known carcinogen did not cause it.”

Myrtle Felton, another co-founder and co-director of Inclusive Louisiana, said the lawsuit is intended to help build a better future. 

“We want to imagine a new economy for St. James Parish, one that isn’t weighed down by pollution and dying industries, and one where everyone has an opportunity and no one needs to suffer.”