There is a place in America where Black people dying of cancer is alarmingly normal. It’s called “Cancer Alley” but of late the locals are calling it “Death Alley” because of the severity of the matter — even the water is poisonous by now. St. James Parish, Louisiana, according to census figures, has a little over 22,000 residents. The majority of them are Black people. Chemical plants have, over the decades, moved in and as a result cancer rates have skyrocketed, according to locals. Most disturbing in all of this is that no one seems to care.
Sharon Lavigne was raised in St. James Parish and has been a teacher there for 39 years. By her recollection the plants started showing up in the 1960’s and initially everyone was excited. The plants brought jobs, after all. But soon after people began getting sick and increasingly, air and water quality began to take a nosedive. Present day, parents are afraid to let their children go outside to play for extended periods of time and cancer is undefeated. According to Lavigne, there are 12 plants in a 10 mile radius and there are plans for 10 more, perhaps. The St. James Council — 7 persons, 3 Black and 4 non-Black — generally votes yes to anything the plants want, despite the concerns of residents. The money is just too powerful. According to Lavigne, her Congressman hasn’t been responsive. The Governor won’t respond to letters and wouldn’t even talk to them after Lavigne and a group marched to the Governor’s Mansion.
Lavigne has been told that she should just accept her fate — the plants have too much money and power to fight. The plants also, according to her, have a strong racial bias. They’ve made it a pattern to buyout residents in order to move in or expand. One plant, she recalls, recently entered St. James by buying out a good number of white residents — many were already well-to-do — but didn’t buy property from any local Blacks. In 2015 Lavigne joined an association in which folks were discussing which plants would move to the area and other community concerns. She learned a lot. Asthma, diabetes and of course, cancer were the norm for families all over the Parish and she wasn’t sure what to do about it. She prayed and asked God if she should just let it all go. The plants were, after all, trying to buy people out and maybe she and others should just hope for that outcome. But land is precious and according to Lavigne, God told her to fight.
Lavigne held her first meeting at her home October 20, 2018. That meeting was attended by 10 and the next by 20. On September 8th of last year Lavigne helped to plan a march protesting the conditions people were being subjected to by the plants. Later in the year Lavigne received donations for shirts and other materials for another march on November 3. As new plants are seeking to move in the Parish Council, according to Lavigne, won’t even prioritize a health study to determine what the true impacts of the plants are to the community’s health, its children. Further, the Council isn’t to be trusted — the President was indicted for improperly using Parish funds. In the face of all this Lavigne continues her fight. On July 9 there is a public meeting on these matters and later this month she’s going to Washington. God told her to fight, so she fights.