St. James Residents Sue Parish over Secret Meetings about Toxic Wanhua Plant
Parish Officials Face More Questions about Industry Bias as Emails Expose Efforts to Sidestep Open Meetings Law
St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel and Operations Manager Blaise Gravois face new questions after a lawsuit was filed late yesterday afternoon by St. James residents alleging that Parish officials arranged secret, illegal meetings about the proposed Wanhua chemical plant. These allegations come in the wake of a recent report that raised questions about Roussel’s and Gravois’ involvement in developing St. James’ current Land Use Plan, which has allowed rapid industrialization of historic African American communities within the Parish.
“Many people trusted our parish officials, but they are focusing on aiding foreign plants that are coming in,” said Barbara Washington, a member of RISE St. James who lives a mile from the proposed Wanhua site. “I’m concerned that Wanhua will be another problem added to the pollution and the cancer that we already face with industry. People have respiratory problems and asthma and chronic illnesses.”
The new lawsuit is based on emails obtained by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic that exposed a May 14, 2019 secret meeting arranged by Gravois that included most members of the Parish Council and Planning Commission. The lawsuit alleges that Gravois tried to sidestep Louisiana Open Meetings Law, which prohibits private meetings of public bodies, by dividing the attendees among two back-to-back sessions, in order to avoid having a majority of the Parish Council or Planning Commission present at once. The lawsuit alleges that Roussel knew about the secret meeting, which was organized after St. James residents expressed strong opposition to Wanhua and just days before the Planning Commission narrowly voted to approve the toxic plant.
“The Open Meetings Law clearly prohibits these types of games,” said Lisa Jordan, Director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. “This was an obvious attempt to circumvent the requirement for the public to be involved whenever public bodies gather information or discuss matters within their control.”
The lawsuit was filed by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic on behalf of RISE St. James, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Genevieve Butler, and Pastor Harry Joseph, who are currently appealing to the Parish Council the Parish Planning Commission’s 5-3 decision on May 20, 2019 to grant Wanhua a Land Use Permit for its toxic chemical plant. The appeal contends that many of Wanhua’s contracts have already been filled outside of St. James, and that the company, partially owned by the Chinese government, plans to build its plant with $300 million of modular equipment imported from China.
“I wonder if that’s why we have so many plants now – because they had secret meetings where they arrange yes votes in advance and just allow anybody to move in here, ” said Pastor Harry Joseph, a resident of St. James Parish who has long stood up for the health of the community. “People should have the right to know what’s going on.”
The residents involved in the lawsuit have spoken out against the unfair concentration of toxic industrial plants in the parish’s African-American districts and the resulting decline in home values. According to documents submitted by Wanhua to St. James Parish and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, the proposed plant would emit more than 300,000 pounds per year of toxic pollution, including various amounts of cancer-causing substances and phosgene, a chemical warfare gas that is deadly in very small quantities.
“Our health and our homes are at risk from Wanhua. St. James public officials took an oath to look out for the welfare of the people, and they shouldn’t be holding secret meetings,” said Myrtle Felton, a lifelong parish resident whose home is a mile from the proposed site.
Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy of the law suit.
RISE St. James is a faith based organization fighting for the removal of harmful petrochemicals in the land, air, water and bodies, of the people, of St. James Parish.
Tulane Environmental Law Clinic provides free legal assistance and outreach to help low-income residents influence environmental decisions that affect their communities.
Louisiana Bucket Brigade uses grassroots action to support communities impacted by the petrochemical industry and hasten the transition from fossil fuels
Barbara Washington, RISE St. James, (225) 678-6857
Anne Rolfes, Founding Director, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, (504) 452-4909, email@example.com
Lisa Jordan, Director and Supervising Attorney, Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, 504-314-2481, firstname.lastname@example.org