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Enslaved people are buried on the site of a proposed plastics plant in Louisiana, and locals say the company has lied to them about its knowledge of the graves.
The unmarked burial grounds are on the site of an enormous proposed petrochemical development owned by Formosa Plastics, a Taiwan-based multinational company worth $22 billion. Dubbed the Sunshine Project, the new, $9.4 billion complex would comprise 14 different plants over 2,300 acres in a part of Louisiana nicknamed “Cancer Alley” because of the pollution from petrochemical facilities there.
The activists in St. James Parish oppose the project because they don’t want their community to become more polluted than it already is. Sharon Lavigne, who lives near the proposed site of the plant, says she’s already buried a number of family members and friends who’ve contracted illnesses due to the poor air quality. The new plant would nearly double the amount of air pollution in the parish, according to the Guardian.
“Our community cannot handle another chemical plant,” Lavigne said on a call with reporters Wednesday.
The activists also say the company knew more than a year ago that more graves might be on the site of its new project but kept that information from the surrounding community. Based on their review of documents obtained through public records requests and shared with VICE News, the company knew as early as July of 2018 that there could be grave sites on its property. But Formosa didn’t say anything publicly about the graves until this past June.
“This is a fact Formosa Plastics learned 17 months ago,” Lavigne said on the call. “The company chose not to share this information with my community while it was seeking a land use permit from parish officials.”
The people who live near the plant want to use the grave sites as leverage to keep the facility from opening. They’re asking the parish council to nix air-quality permits it already approved for Formosa because the project could disturb the grave sites.
Formosa Plastics did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
The activists, who feel they’ve already been lied to, think there might be even more unmarked graves on the land Formosa wants to develop — and that the company might still be hiding the extent of its knowledge of those graves. They worry that if Formosa finds more graves, the company might move quickly to remove them.
“We are concerned that there might be other grave sites out there,” said Pam Spees, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, on the call Wednesday. “Every time they've had to go back, they’ve found more [graves].”
“I think they’re hiding it, I really do,” Lavigne said. “They lied so much, and now they’re hiding stuff from the parish council.”
The plantations that used to stand where Formosa wants to build its plant represent a painful history for the residents of St. James Parish. After enslaved people staged a nearly successful revolt in 1811, the owners of those plantations impaled the heads of their leaders on spikes and lined them up along the banks of a 60-mile stretch of the Mississippi.
“The land that once destroyed people’s lives, both psychologically and physically,” said Rev. William Barber, who leads the Poor People’s Campaign, a national organization that advocates for racial and economic justice. “That land is now being used to destroy people’s lives through toxins and through pollution that is literally and has literally killed people.”
“Now the oppression has gone another step further,” he added. “Not only has this land people been a place where we put people in graves, now they even want to disturb the graves.”
Cover image: In this Friday, April 27, 2018, file photo, trees in a cutback sit between an existing pipeline channel, left, and a new pipeline channel, on Bayou Sorrel in the Atchafalaya River Basin in Louisiana.(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)