Rural St. James community struggles living next to expanding oil and gas industry

    A once quiet, rural community along a stretch of River Road between La. 20 and the Sunshine Bridge in St. James Parish is now industrial land dotted with refineries, massive oil storage tanks and pipelines rising 30 feet into the air.

    It’s been this way since 2014 when St. James Parish adopted a land use plan that designated this portion of the parish, officially known as St. James District 5—a vast swath of land running from the Sunshine Bridge to Vacherie—as industrial, Business Report details in its new cover story.  

    In the years since NuStar Energy and Plains Marketing LP have added more oil storage tanks to their River Road sites. And Chinese chemical giant Yuhuang Chemical Inc. has begun development of a $1.85 billion methanol facility near the campus of the former St. James High School.

    But for the dwindling number of mostly low-income, African-American residents who still live in St. James’ 5th District, the industrialization of land that has been in many of their families for generations is a problem.

    Not only do they object to the noise and inconvenience of heavy trucks and machinery along their narrow roads, they have health concerns. Their vegetables don’t grow. Their kids have asthma. Their friends have alarmingly high rates of cancer. Their skin breaks out in strange rashes. The evidence is anecdotal, but compelling nonetheless.

    Most of the wealthier residents of the area, who owned large tracts of property, have sold out to the chemical plants and relocated. Fewer than 6,000—the poor and elderly—remain. Their small properties aren’t worth very much to industry. They’re stuck.

    But now, the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana Environmental Action Network, or LEAN, is spearheading an effort to negotiate a buyout for about 60 homes in a neighborhood located in the heart of the 5th District called Burton Lane. If successful, they’re hoping the deal can serve as a framework for other communities being hemmed in by industry—a process where industry comes out not as the bad guy, but, rather, as the good guy.

    “The idea is to build a community that is responsible for everybody—for the people who are there, the government and the economic interests—and to have everyone on the same page,” says LEAN Communications Director Michael Orr, who works with his mother Marylee Orr at the environmental advocacy organization she founded in the 1980s. “This can be a solution to communities, like St. James, where there is a lack of comprehensive zoning and comprehensive planning.”

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