(ST. JAMES, La.) — Along a winding stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the sugar cane fields that had surrounded small residential neighborhoods for generations were gradually being replaced by smokestacks and chemical flares.
Sharon Lavigne, a retired schoolteacher from St. James, Louisiana, and founder of Rise St. James, an organization dedicated to environmental justice, recalls the days before the industry arrived in the 1980s.
“We had clean air and could drink water from the hydrant. We can’t do that anymore. You can’t go outside and sit on your porch for long periods of time because of the pollution and the smell,” Lavigne told ABC News. “I’d like that back.”
Many residents of this 85-mile stretch of Louisiana refer to it as “Cancer Alley,” an area formerly known for its agriculture and the remains of former slave plantations and cemeteries. But today, the region’s predominantly black communities are surrounded by 150 industrial plants, a situation the United Nations calls “environmental racism.” The region has a 95 percent higher risk of cancer than the rest of the country because of air pollution, according to the EPA.
Local residents have protested the industrial facilities for years, saying the facilities are affecting their health. Now several companies and the state of Louisiana are proposing new industrial plants that they say will be carbon neutral through a process called carbon capture. But after years of industrialization, many local residents and environmental activists are skeptical about the proposals.
The new projects are in response to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ initiative to make Louisiana net-zero emissions by 2050. Carbon capture is said to be a key component of government plans. In October 2021, Bel Edwards and the CEO of Air Products and Chemicals announced a $4.5 billion blue hydrogen facility that would be the world’s largest industrial facility utilizing carbon capture at the time of the announcement. The proposal comes as Congress and the Biden administration approved $3.5 billion for carbon capture plants across the country in the most recent infrastructure bill.
Air Products and Chemicals plans to capture carbon dioxide directly from its proposed blue hydrogen facility and ship it via a 35-mile pipeline to a sequestration site on Lake Maurepas. The carbon dioxide is injected into rock formations a mile underground. The plant will extract methane from natural gas to produce hydrogen, which will be used to generate electricity to power cars, buses and planes.
“With the advanced technology we are using, we can capture over 95% of CO2 and safely sequester 5 million tons of CO2 per year to produce this low-carbon, clean hydrogen for the energy transition,” Simon Moore, Vice President of Investor & Corporate Relations & Sustainability at Air Products and Chemicals, to ABC News.
according to dr Cynthia Ebinger, a geology professor at Tulane University, Louisiana’s geology also makes it a good place for carbon capture and sequestration. “In Louisiana, we know where conditions are favorable,” Ebinger told ABC News. “What we have is layer after layer after layer of sand, salts, clay, limestone – and combinations of these provide storage and sealing.”
However, many environmental activists have concerns about the carbon capture proposals. Beverly Wright, founder of the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and advisor to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, questions the science behind the process and believes carbon capture is a wrong solution that “is too pretty , to be true. ”
“So you really think that the industry that caused this problem is going to be the industry that is going to fix it?” Wright told ABC News. “No chance.”
Distrust of the industry runs deep among many residents of the area. Travis London, an environmental activist who tracks air quality for Public Lab, lives in Donaldsonville, near an industrial ammonia plant. “I see a big impact. I’ve seen kids who had problems with allergies and also had asthma,” London told ABC News. “I’ve seen people like that on my street who have cancer.”
Many environmental campaigners, including London, are now trying to educate the public about the risks of carbon capture. In Baton Rouge, organizers hosted the Gulf Gathering for Climate Justice and Joy, a gathering of environmental activists from across the South fighting what they call “false promises” by the oil and gas industry.
The crowd also included Sharon Lavigne, who attended the rally to inspire others to take action against the industry. Industrial plants were built next to many of their neighbors’ homes. “We were all healthy people and all of a sudden we realized people were dying,” Lavigne said.
Lavigne, whose family has lived in St. James for generations, dedicates her post-retirement years to work to prevent the construction of new industrial plants in her hometown.
“This is our home. We love our home. And this is where we want to be,” Lavigne said.
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