Millions of deaths every year are the result of air pollution, according to the World Health Organization. It’s tied to health conditions like lung disease, stroke, and cancer. In one part of Louisiana, the pollution concerns are so strong that the area has received a nickname that no community would want.
“They call our area ‘Cancer Alley’ and that’s a hurting thing to know that we are considered as ‘Cancer Alley,’" said Sharon Lavigne.
It is a label that casts a shadow over the part of Louisiana where Lavigne's roots run deep.
“When I grew up, we had everything over here. We had clean air, clean water, productive soil," said Lavigne.
She has lived in St. James Parish all her life but change there has become as constant as the flow of the Mississippi River.
“The first industry started in the late ’60s and they grew, as came along, one came along, and the next one, and the next one," said Lavigne.
The dozens of plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge produce around a quarter of America's petrochemicals, materials used in everything from toiletries to paint.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the area has one of the highest cancer risks from exposure to toxic air in the country.
"My neighbors on this side died with cancer, a neighbor on that side died with cancer, and so forth, we could go on and on and on," said Lavigne.
In 2019, Lavigne led an effort that stopped an overseas company from building a billion-dollar plastics plant in her parish.
This year, Lavigne was awarded Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts, an international award that goes to grassroots, environmental activists.
“Our lives are worth more than a chemical plant," said Lavigne.
Lavigne is worried about pollution again. She's fighting Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics, which the local council approved to build a $9.4 billion plant on an industrially zoned lot not far from her home, in part of St. James Parish that is mostly Black.
“When they said they were going to come two miles from my home, it did something to me," Lavigne said.
Tulane University researchers recently found that higher levels of air pollution were linked to higher cancer rates among Black or high-poverty communities in Louisiana.
“Race disparities in Louisiana are a big issue that is bigger than one factor. It’s bigger than pollution. It’s bigger than access to health care. We see those disparities on a lot of different levels, but certainly, one factor is the disproportionate location of plants in African American communities," said Dr. Kimberly Terrell, who helped write the study.
The burden of pollution on communities of color isn’t just a weight felt in Louisiana.
In Philadelphia, the largest oil refinery on the east coast closed in 2019 after an explosion. The EPA had reported the refinery was emitting high levels of benzene, a known cancer-causing chemical there for years.
To understand the evolution of the place now known as “Cancer Alley,” Dr. Joy Banner said to look to history.
“I think the heavy industry was attracted to this part of Louisiana because the infrastructure was already there. What I mean is infrastructure was placed there by the former plantations," Dr. Banner said.
In the Louisiana town where she’s lived all her life, Dr. Banner is fighting plans to build a grain complex near an old plantation where she teaches people about the past.
She worries about the dust that could come from it.
"It would contribute to the already heavy pollution burden that we as a community are bearing," Dr. Banner said.
As far as Lavigne’s fight, her group is filing legal challenges in hopes of stopping the multi-billion-dollar plastics plant.
“We want clean jobs, we want green jobs, we don’t want jobs that are going to pollute us and poison us," Lavigne said.
Formosa Plastics sent a statement saying its project will create hundreds of good-paying jobs, the company will pay millions in state and local taxes, and the project has met state and federal standards to protect the community.
The statement reads, "Any claim that FG will greatly increase 'toxic emissions' in the area is a misrepresentation and inaccurate."
"They’re not going to build. Trust me. They will not build. Not two miles from me? I do not think so," Lavigne said.
If one wonders why people would stay in a place called “Cancer Alley,” you don’t understand that its meaning, to many who live here, goes beyond a nickname and lifetime.
“I don’t want to leave because this is what my grandparents left here for us," Lavigne said. "They worked this land, they paid for this land, and for me to give it up, it’s like I'm giving up the legacy of my grandparents.”