NOEL KING, HOST:
There's an industrial corridor in southeastern Louisiana that people call Cancer Alley. It has more than 140 chemical factories and oil refineries. And now there's a boom in natural gas, and so industry there is expanding. So are efforts to stop it. Here's Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO in New Orleans.
(SOUNDBITE OF STARTING CAR)
TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: On a sunny Saturday morning, I meet Sharon Lavigne for a little tour of her neighborhood.
SHARON LAVIGNE: See. That's my son's house right there - Terrence (ph).
WENDLAND: Oh, great.
She grew up here in rural Welcome, La., in St. James Parish along the Mississippi River. And most of her kids have stuck around, too. But now she's on a mission to stop a proposed chemical megacomplex less than a mile from her house. We drive just around a curve and see a big, empty field where there's some construction underway. In the distance, there's a metal fence.
LAVIGNE: Can you see the gate back there, the fence back there? That silver thing is new. It's like a L shape.
WENDLAND: That's where the graves are?
LAVIGNE: That's where the gravesites are.
WENDLAND: There used to be a plantation here. So when the giant factory was approved, state archaeologists investigated the site and found graves of enslaved people. We stopped to look.
LAVIGNE: I'm pretty sure a lot of us here have ancestors that are buried in that grave, in one of those gravesites.
WENDLAND: Lavigne's hoping the historic graves will force the company, Formosa Petrochemical, to stop building. The Taiwanese company is one of the biggest plastic manufacturers in the world. And this is a good place to build. The river provides quick access to an international port, and the state offers tax breaks. It gave Formosa a $12 million grant. But Lavigne sees the plant as a threat to a place she loves.
LAVIGNE: My little morning coffee.
WENDLAND: Back at her house, which she built on family land with her husband, she describes how the rich, fertile soil along the river made for great farming 50 years ago.
LAVIGNE: It was wonderful back then - beautiful land and everything nice. My daddy grew all of our vegetables and fruits.
WENDLAND: They'd take the vegetables to New Orleans and sell them at the French market.
LAVIGNE: We had to get up early in the morning to go pick butter beans. I used to hate that.
WENDLAND: Now her country home is surrounded by giant factories. There are more than 10 in St. James Parish, their smokestacks forming huge clouds that cast shadows over miles. Lavigne thinks all of that industry is making her family and neighbors sick.
LAVIGNE: I feel like if the pollution don't stop, we're going to slowly die.
WENDLAND: Her husband died of heart problems. Many of her neighbors have died of cancer. She says the air often smells bad. It's hard to link specific illnesses to certain pollutants, even though St. James Parish, where she lives, has an above average rate of cancer for Louisiana, which has one of the highest rates of cancer in the country. According to an analysis by ProPublica, the Formosa complex would more than double toxic air emissions here. Lavigne organized her neighbors to fight the plant, forming a group called Rise St. James.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Not for profit.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Inaudible).
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Not for profit.
WENDLAND: Last fall, she marched with other environmental advocates all along the Mississippi River, up to the capital, Baton Rouge. They got lots of media coverage. They delivered their demands to lawmakers - no new development in the region. Matthew Block is Governor John Bel Edwards' chief counsel.
MATTHEW BLOCK: Well, obviously, the governor does not agree that there should be some moratorium on manufacturing facilities.
WENDLAND: But his office did agree to do a small public health study. It'll survey people within a 1 1/2 mile radius around a single plant - five miles away from where Levine lives.
BLOCK: There's no question that this is a limited study. It doesn't pretend to be otherwise. But it's also a start in how we can start to look at these communities and whether or not there is arisen a higher incidence of cancer. And then we can make decisions from there.
WENDLAND: But the study won't look at future emissions from the Formosa plant or a handful of others being built. Advocates say it's the only public health study the state's ever done in the region and that it's not enough. They accuse lawmakers of putting profit over people's lives. The plants have brought a lot of jobs and money, says economist Loren Scott.
LOREN SCOTT: It's just like nothing I've ever seen before.
WENDLAND: A spokesperson for Formosa Petrochemical says the new plants in Levine's neighborhood would create 1,200 new high-paying jobs. Scott says Louisiana competes with other places for these plants. And when communities like St. James push back, it's bad for business.
SCOTT: One thing we know for sure is the larger the pushback, the more expensive it is to locate here. And that's just one of the factors that has to be considered when figuring the rate of return on investment here versus Texas.
WENDLAND: This tension between economic growth and health concerns has played out for years. Beverly Wright is the director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and has advocated for people in the chemical corridor for more than three decades.
BEVERLY WRIGHT: It's hard for me to stay calm about this.
WENDLAND: She says they've won a few fights - stopping some plants from being built, getting relocation money for an entire community in one case. Yet since the '90s, more and more plants have been built.
WRIGHT: I look at all of our work that we did. I mean, this was my life for years. And watching it just being washed away - and a lot of the people that we work with are dead and gone.
WENDLAND: Now Rise St. James is suing the U.S. Army Corps to stop the Formosa plant. They've appealed to the state to revoke the permit. And they're leveraging the historic gravesites as a reason the company shouldn't be allowed to build. Still, as much as it pains her, Wright says the best way for people in the region to protect their health may be to just move.
Sitting at our kitchen table, Sharon Lavigne says she would never consider it.
LAVIGNE: We were here first. The chemical plants tried to invade our privacy and our property. Why don't they go somewhere and not come to us? This is our home. This is not their home.
WENDLAND: She neatly packs up her fliers and the pecan clusters she made for a meeting tonight. She's organizing her neighbors to continue to fight the Formosa plant, even as construction is underway just down the road. For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in St. James, La.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.