Cancer Alley, climate advocates hold out hope for Rep. Richmond but 'can't be patient forever By Halle Parker
Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
With climate change high on President-elect Joe Biden's agenda, one might think local environmentalists would have high hopes for U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond’s ascent to the role of key White House adviser.
But the leaders of local environmental and citizen groups have tempered expectations, saying Richmond has been largely absent from conversations between activists and industry in his own district during his decade in Congress. Still, they're ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, for the time being, at least.
In the coming weeks, Richmond is expected to step down from his congressional seat — which includes most of New Orleans, part of Baton Rouge and some of the areas in between — to lead the Biden administration’s Office of Public Engagement.
As the lone Democrat in Louisiana's eight-member delegation, he has worked with his Republican colleagues on legislation surrounding flood insurance and coastal restoration funding. But he hasn't highlighted concerns about pollution or environmental racism, issues that matter greatly to some of his constituents.
They're hopeful, though, that Richmond's new perch will allow him to provide more vocal support and fill his seat with someone who will be a better advocate in environmental battles happening in the River Parishes.
Rise St. James Director Sharon Lavigne, who was spurred to activism when plans for the controversial $9.2 billion Formosa Plastics plant were announced in 2018, said she's only spoken with Richmond once during her group's crusade against the plant. That was earlier this year, when she called Richmond to ask him to help fight a state bill that would have made it a felony to protest too close to a petrochemical plant or a pipeline protesters. The bill was ultimately vetoed by the governor, and it's unclear if Richmond lobbied for that decision.
The congressman has never met with her group in person.
"We are understanding because I know he’s busy, and it’s a lot of work to get Biden to win, so I'm being patient, but I can't be patient forever," said Lavigne.
Several weeks ago, her group spoke with Earl Flood, who serves as Richmond's counsel in the House, who said he would tell Richmond that the group wanted to meet with him.
"Since Biden won, I'm hoping he will have more time to come down to St. James," said Lavigne. "I want to speak to him myself, face to face, and I want him to come down to St. James and see what we're going through."
Ideally, Lavigne wants that visit to happen before construction begins on the Formosa plant on the west bank of the Mississippi River near the Sunshine Bridge. The project is in limbo at the moment for several reasons, including a recent decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to suspend its wetlands permit.
Robert Taylor, president of the Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish, has also been underwhelmed by Richmond's attentiveness to his group's concerns.
Taylor and his fellow activists have been focused on fighting the Denka Performance Elastomer plant in Reserve, a major emitter of chloroprene, a suspected carcinogen. Concerned Citizens has tried protesting outside Richmond's office in attempt to garner his attention, managing to stop him once when he was leaving a town hall in April. But those efforts haven't resulted in any further talks.
For now, Taylor, like Lavigne, is also in "wait-and-see mode."
"Since he’s what we’ve got, I'm still hopeful. I want to see what this new position is going to bring," he said. "I don’t know what we can expect from this guy."
Taylor's group has also made contact with one of Richmond's representatives since the appointment, but, like Lavigne, hasn't had any direct communication with the congressman.
"I'm as hopeful as I was last year and the year before that these people will become more responsive to the needs of the people in the 2nd District, particularly on the effect that the petrochemical industry has," he said.
Robert Taylor, 79, a lifelong resent of St. John Parish, talks with U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond about the correlation of sickness with pollution and the coronavirus, at 840 St. Charles Ave. in New Orleans, Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
Louisiana Bucket Brigade Director Anne Rolfes was less generous than Lavigne or Taylor, calling Richmond missing-in-action in the environmental justice battles playing out in his backyard amid a recent boom in the construction of petrochemical plants.
"With all of this raging in his district, he was nowhere to be found," she said.
But Rolfes also believes there's a chance that once Richmond leaves Louisiana, he'll become more vocal — thanks in part to his new boss. Unlike Richmond, Biden has publicly acknowledged the pollution in St. James Parish, referencing the community and "Cancer Alley" when he released his $2 trillion climate plan.
"I’m hoping that a stronger indicator than his past will be the environment that he finds himself in," said Rolfes. "He’s going to be in an environment where people care about this."
After interning in Richmond's office — and later rallying outside of it while calling for a plan for climate justice — Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy regional organizer Troy Robertson thinks the congressman has heard the concerns raised by environmental activists.
"But like I teach my students all the time, there's a difference between listening and hearing," said Robertson, who also teaches at a New Orleans high school. "I'm charging him with the task of listening, especially now that he's in the position that he's serving in the Biden administration."
Robertson credited Richmond with fighting for other causes championed by progressives, like health care and criminal justice reform, during his decade in office. He said the congressman has been in "a difficult position" because of the outsized role energy companies play in Louisiana. Richmond's campaign accepted $341,250 from oil and gas donors over his career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"This is not about tearing Congressman Richmond down at all. He is a son of Louisiana," he said.
However, now is the time for him to be "more cognizant of climate change" and transitioning toward renewable energy, said Robertson.
Neither Richmond's campaign nor the Biden transition team responded to requests for comment for this story. But in a recent talk during the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council, Richmond promised the Biden administration would be "willing to listen" to industry, according to a Dec. 7 Bloomberg article.
“Nobody’s going to persuade me that somehow, some way that CEOs in this country are bad people,” he told the council. Business leaders, he added, “are creating jobs and they deserve a seat at the table.”
In a recent interview with The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate, Richmond stated he was fully behind Biden's goals for the country to be carbon-neutral by 2050, and he wants to work with companies to get there.
"I think some of our friends think that, just because Democrats want it, it’s going to happen,” he said. "If we learn from the past, it takes a majority of both houses to pass legislation. It is going to take some bipartisan support, but also some coalitions, to protect our environment and to really battle climate change … the truth is everybody has some ideas, and I think everybody should be brought in."
Richmond made his first public comments on air pollution in his district in a January letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. He commended a move by the departments to change the way they monitored Denka's chloroprene emissions but asked both agencies to hold a community meeting to explain the change.
Eleven months later, that community meeting still hasn't happened. Taylor wants the next District 2 representative to commit to being present in St. John Parish's fight, "not just going up to Washington and forgetting about us."
A special election to replace Richmond will be set after he resigns, and the timeline remains uncertain. Rolfes said her group will send surveys to everyone who qualifies for the seat to pin down their views on air pollution.
To her, the ideal candidate would "reflect the residents' wishes for a moratorium on any new petrochemical facilities in the area," she said.
"What's important to note about that part of the state is that there's quite high voter turnout," Rolfes added. "We expect that the River Parishes will again flex their muscle on election day."
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