Federal judge tosses lawsuit alleging environmental racism in St. James Parish

NEW ORLEANS -- A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit that accused a south Louisiana parish of using land use policies to guide industries that pollute into communities with majority-Black populations.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier of the Eastern District of Louisiana tossed the lawsuit on procedural grounds, saying that it was filed by community groups several years too late, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported.

"Although plaintiffs' claims are procedurally deficient, this court cannot say that their claims lack a basis in fact or rely on a meritless legal theory," Barbier wrote in his Nov. 16 decision.

In March, Rise St. James, Inclusive Louisiana and Mt. Triumph Baptist Church of Chatman Town filed the lawsuit calling for the state's first ban on new petrochemical plants to halt a decadeslong trend in St. James of concentrating petrochemical plants in areas with large minority populations "while explicitly sparing White residents from the risk of environmental harm."

The groups will likely appeal Barbier's decision, said attorney Bill Quigley, who helped the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and the Center for Constitutional Rights in representing the groups.

"We felt that the judge really respected the concerns of our clients," Quigley said Thursday. "He never said what folks are saying isn't true, and the decision makes that clear. It's essentially saying we were too late."

The groups' claims were based on the parish's adoption in 2014 of a land-use plan that allowed plants to be built in some predominantly Black areas of St. James, resulting in reduced property values and increased health risks. While those claims may have merit, Louisiana's one-year statute of limitations would have required the groups to file their legal challenge in 2015, Barbier wrote.

Rise and other groups have repeatedly asked for a halt to new plants in their communities, which include small towns and rural areas along the Mississippi River. But the only significant action parish officials have taken to limit the siting of industries has been against solar farms that were proposed in majority-White areas.

Last year, the parish banned large solar complexes after a proposed 3,900-acre project upset those living in the mostly White neighborhoods of Vacherie. Residents cited concerns over lower property values and the potential for flying debris during storms. Similar concerns were ignored when raised by Black residents about petrochemical plants, according to the lawsuit.

Parish officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Activists have had some success stemming the tide of plants in St. James. Rise and other groups helped block the development of the $1.9 billion Wanhua plastics complex and put a temporary halt on the $9.4 billion Formosa plastics complex planned near the Sunshine Bridge.

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