“Cancer Alley” Residents’ Zoning Lawsuit Cites “Racial Cleansing”

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Legal experts call the action significant, timely and ambitious.

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

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 US 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.”

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.

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