How a woman of faith stopped the world's biggest plastics factory

How a woman of faith stopped the world's biggest plastics factory

November 8, 2022

ST. JAMES PARISH, Louisiana – On Aug. 29, 2021, Hurricane Ida pummeled central Louisiana. Intense winds tore the roof off Sharon Lavigne’s two-story brick home just west of a levee on the Mississippi River, and rain soaked into the wood frames.

More than a year later, Lavigne is still living in a mobile home. She gets by on her meager teacher’s retirement benefits, plus $10 per hour she earns working for a community nonprofit. She’s not sure she has enough to pay the carpenter to finish repairing her house so she can move out of her temporary quarters and back home.

What Lavigne has in abundance is determination and faith. On Sept. 14, a judge ruled in her favor in one of the biggest David vs. Goliath court battles in American history. Judge Trudy White of Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District in Baton Rouge reversed a State-issued permit for the construction of what would have been the largest plastics factory in the world: the $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics petrochemical complex in St. James Parish.

Despite having little money and struggling with the death of close friends to illness in a part of Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley,” Lavigne fought tenaciously against Formosa Plastics' so-called “Sunshine Project.” She battled the plant because it would have pumped tons of toxic air pollutants into a Black community already overburdened with high cancer rates. The facility would also have been built on a site that many consider sacred because it contains the cemeteries of slaves.

Ever since the judge ruled in Lavigne’s favor, people have been asking her the same questions: “How did you beat such a powerful industry? What’s your secret?”

Lavigne says there is no secret. "I just know we're going to stop it." 

When Lavigne started her campaign in 2018, few people outside her community knew her name. She said the grass-roots campaign against the plastics plant proposed on former plantation land beside the Mississippi River "just went viral." 

"It was just so powerful that we knew it wasn’t us, it was God," she said.

Lavigne, a retired special education teacher, founded her community group called RISE St. James to protect her home parish from Formosa's pollution. For her tireless battle for public health, she won a prestigious international award in 2021: the Goldman Environmental Prize.

In 2018, Lavigne first learned of the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastic Corp.’s plans to build a plant on a 2,400-acre property near her home in St. James Parish, located in an area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans with a high concentration of refineries and petrochemical plants. St. James Parish alone is already home to a recently shuttered Shell refinery, a Koch methanol plant, a fertilizer plant, a polystyrene manufacturing plant, and multiple oil terminals.

In August 2021, Hurricane Ida's intense winds tore the roof off of Sharon Lavigne's home in St. James Parish.

On top of these existing pollution sources, the Formosa plant would have emitted 7.7 tons per year of ethylene oxide and 36.6 tons per year of benzene, two chemicals known to cause cancer, according to court records. It would also add 1,600 tons per year of volatile organic compounds, 2,700 tons per year of carbon monoxide, and 1,200 tons per year of nitrogen oxides, according to permit data compiled in the Oil and Gas Watch database.

In October, the EPA released a letter detailing a pattern of environmental discrimination against majority-Black residents of St. James Parish, nearby St. John the Baptist Parish, and the 85-mile Mississippi River Chemical Corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Lavigne knew about the toll such facilities take on people’s health.

When she learned of Formosa’s plans, Lavigne seriously considered leaving the community where she’d spent her entire life, where her parents are buried, and where her siblings, children, and grandchildren still live.

Instead, she stayed and fought. A woman of strong Catholic faith, Lavigne says the decision to fight wasn’t hers, but God’s.

Lavigne says she heard God’s voice as she sat on the porch of her home. Before the hurricane, a line of trees once followed the driveway. Lavigne liked to sit there and watch the bright red cardinals flitting back and forth among the branches.

“I asked Him if He wanted me to sell the land-- the land that He gave me,” Lavigne said.

She describes hearing the answer out loud. Turning her head to the side, it was like a voice in her ear.

“And then I asked him, ‘What do you want me to do?’” she said. “And He said, ‘Fight.’ And the tears came down my face like a faucet, and I knew I had gotten my answer."

'We were not sick'

By 2018, the oil, gas, and chemical industries had already dramatically reshaped the St. James Parish of Lavigne’s youth. Born in 1952, Lavigne grew up the daughter of a mechanic who had a shop right next to the family home. She had five brothers and sisters. A tiny street in the parish still bears her maiden name of Cayette.

As Lavigne remembers it, she and her siblings drank water from the fire hydrants with no worries of contamination. The air seemed cleaner, and families grew their own produce and livestock. She was raised on fresh vegetables from the garden, fruit from the trees that grew on their property, eggs and pork from the pigs and chickens they raised, and fresh milk from the family dairy cow.

“We were not sick,” Lavigne said. “I’d only go to the doctor to get my immunizations. ... Now we have everything you can name.”

Things started to change in St. James Parish when the first plants began showing up in the 1960s and 1970s. On land that in the 1800s held slave plantations, the companies built acres of tanks, boilers, tubing, stacks, pipelines, and other energy infrastructure. The industry now dominates the landscape, with white tanks rising only a few hundred feet behind homes. Flares burn in the distance behind the fields of sugarcane. The parish’s major road – Highway 18 – passes below dozens of pipelines that extend under the Mississippi River.

Stacks from Shell's Convent oil refinery in St. James Parish. The facility has been shuttered since 2020.

Last week, Lavigne led a documentary film crew and a small group of fellow activists from around the country on a tour of her home. One of the stops was the cemetery where she pointed out her mother’s and father’s graves.

Lavigne went to college in Baton Rouge, but she returned to St. James Parish in 1977 to live on the family’s land at her mother’s urging. She married her former husband that year as well. Lavigne studied business in college but didn’t know what she wanted to do with the degree when she got out. A friend asked her to join her in applying to be a teacher. She was skeptical at first, but she ended up loving the students and the job.

She lived a relatively quiet life – teaching in the local school district, going to church on Sundays, singing in the choir, raising her three daughters and three sons. Looking back, she said she’s surprised that she’s the one in her family who turned to activism. Lavigne’s cousin, Emelda West, led a campaign in the 1990s that stopped a petrochemical plant proposed by Tokyo firm Shin-Tech in St. James Parish.

“Emelda West and my daddy used to be in the kitchen talking, and my mom would be in there with them,” she said. “She said she was going to fight, she said, ‘That plant is not coming, in Jesus’s name, that plant is not coming here.’”

In 1998, West won a major victory when Shin-Tech switched its location to Plaquemines Parish to the southeast. However, because of the existing concentration of heavy industry along the Mississippi River, new facilities are constantly being proposed for Lavigne’s area.

Ata press conference in April 2018, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that Formosa would build a $9.4 billion plastics plant known as the “Sunshine Project,” intended to make ethylene, propylene, ethylene glycol, and polymers. The products would be used in everything from fake grass and plastic grocery bags to antifreeze and polyester clothing, a Formosa spokeswoman said at the time. Officials expected construction work to begin as early as 2019.

Edwards touted estimates of 1,200 “direct, permanent” jobs and 8,000 construction jobs“ on a temporary basis,” he said.

“We don’t talk numbers like this very often in Louisiana,” Edwards said.

By then, Formosa had already developed a reputation as a serious polluter because of a plastics plant it operates six hours west along the Gulf Coast, in Point Comfort, Texas, which constantly spewed tiny plastic pellets, called nurdles, into nearby bays and estuaries. In 2019, Texas environmental groups won a $50million settlement from Formosa after suing the company under the Clean Water Act for this plastics pollution.

People in St. James Parish told Lavigne here was no way she could fight something that had blessings from the governor’s office.

“They told us in the meeting that you can’t fight what the governor approved,” she said. “They said the industry got money and they’re going to get what they want.”

The industry also curried favor among elected officials by doling out money: $56,470 in campaign contributions between 2017 and 2022, including $11,355 to the Republican National Committee and $9,068 to Donald Trump, according to public records analyzed by

The rise of RISE St. James

In April 2018, Lavigne hosted a meeting at her home anyway. About eight people attended.

They started by joining the meetings of a broader local community group. She found them willing to share information, but not act, at least not the way she wanted them to. Still, in September 2018, the group held a march to draw attention to illness and deaths in the community and the connections to industry.

“People from New Orleans came and marched with us down Burton Lane,” Lavigne said. “And the police were out here with their cars and kept us in order. But it was more like a sad thing because people were dying. So they didn’t do nothing radical, they did a peaceful march.”

Afterwards, “we asked them what did they want to do next?” Lavigne said. “But they didn’t want to do anything next.”

In October 2018, Lavigne started RISE St. James as a separate organization. In November, when RISE held its first march, Lavigne spoke in public for the first time. From there, “people heard about us, they had us everywhere on social media, and they wanted to help us,” Lavigne said.

She began meeting other people from New Orleans and St. John the Baptist Parish She realized how many people were engaged in similar fights around the state. They called the broader group Coalition Against Death Alley.

Sharon Lavigne speaks with other environmental advocates during a tour with a documentary film crew on Oct. 31, 2022.

“We feel like they joined this fight with us because they have fights in New Orleans that were was 50 years old,” she said. “They hadn’t solved those issues. So they tagged along with us to bring attention to what was going on in New Orleans.”

Lois Booker Malvo met Lavigne at a 2019 protest in Baton Rouge. A resident of the Fisherville neighborhood of Lake Charles, Malvo had dealt with her own environmental problems in her neighborhood for many years. In 1983, a train spilled thousands of gallons the carcinogenic solvent perchloroethylene along the tracks, including on a property that had been her grandfather’s. Many residents developed cancer and other health problems for years afterward, she said.

During the protests in October 2019, Lavigne and Malvo both watched as police arrested Gregory Manning, a New Orleans pastor, in the hallways outside of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry office in Baton Rouge. Photos published in the outlet DeSmog shows an officer pinning Manning to the ground with his knee and handcuffing him behind his back.

Later, Lavigne invited Malvo to return to St. James Parish for a visit. Malvo remembers having a dream about fighting her way to get to a grassy slope along the banks of a vast river. When she arrived in the parish for the first time, it looked just like her dream, she said. They prayed there together on the edge of the river.

“They’re going through some battles, but they’re holding onto God as I’m holding onto God,” Malvo said of Lavigne and RISE St. James. “I’ve got to hold onto God; there is no other way.”

Even as Lavigne gained new friends, she lost two of the eight people who had attended her original meeting that would form the foundation of RISE St. James. The first was Geraldine Mayho, who died in August 2019 and was buried at the St. James Catholic Church Cemetery, the same resting place as Lavigne’s family. Lynn Nicholas, Jr., who also attended Lavigne’s first meeting to oppose Formosa, died in October 2019.

The fight continues

Despite the challenges and the loss of her friends, Lavigne fought on – and won her first’s first tangible victory came in September 2022, when a state district court struck down the air permit the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had granted to Formosa. The ruling was in favor of RISE St. James, and several allied groups, including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, who had all appealed the DEQ’s decision.

In the ruling, Baton Rouge District Judge Trudy White wrote that the Louisiana’s DEQ’s “decision to authorize these potential public health violations, without offering evidence to show it had avoided the risk to the maximum extent possible, was arbitrary and capricious and against the preponderance of the evidence under the agency’s public trust duty.” |

She also ruled that the agency had failed to account for cumulative emissions from multiple plants in the area, as well as failing to conduct a sufficient environmental justice analysis.

Formosa officials immediately released a statement saying they would “pursue all legal options” to continue building the plant. Within two weeks, the State of Louisiana had filed notices that they would appeal the decision to a higher court. “It’s going to be an even bigger victory when they throw out the appeal,” Lavigne said.

For now, Lavigne’s struggle continues, because she believes Formosa Plastics won’t give up. She admits that she’s in the minority in her community, where some are too afraid to fight or work for the petrochemical industry.

“There’s more people that don’t stand behind me than stand behind me,” she said. “But I don’t care because they’re eventually going to see the light.”

Some of her family have joined the cause. Two of Lavigne’s daughters, Shamell and Shamyra, both work with her on RISE St. James. Other family members are supportive, too. But it can be hard on family when a woman they love doesn’t have as much time to spend with them as she used to, because of the huge amount of time required for advocacy and organizing, Lavigne reflected.

“They don’t understand that this is a full-time job,” Lavigne said. “Instead of helping me, they talk about me: ‘You don’t go nowhere anymore, you don’t come out to dinner anymore, you don’t go to the movies anymore’… I say I would love to, but I’ve got to do some work.”

This story has been updated to reflect the year that Lavigne won the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Brendan Gibbons
Oil & Gas Watch Reporter

Brendan joined EIP in June 2022 after working as an environmental reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, San Antonio Report, and the Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In the nonprofit sector, before joining EIP Brendan served as assistant manager of a Texas clean water advocacy organization, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.

How a woman of faith stopped the world's biggest plastics factory

How a woman of faith stopped the world's biggest plastics factory

November 8, 2022
Brendan Gibbons
Oil & Gas Watch Reporter

Brendan joined EIP in June 2022 after working as an environmental reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, San Antonio Report, and the Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In the nonprofit sector, before joining EIP Brendan served as assistant manager of a Texas clean water advocacy organization, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.