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Lawsuit Filed Against St. James Parish Over Alleged Secret Meeting About Proposed Plant

Travis Lux
Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James, speaks at a public hearing for the Formosa chemical plant on July 9th, 2019. RISE St. James is also opposing the proposed Wanhua chemical plant and is listed as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against St. James Parish.

Residents and a pair of environmental activist groups are suing St. James Parish over an alleged secret meeting that plaintiffs claim violated Louisiana Open Meetings Law.

Wanhua Chemical US Operation, LLC has proposed construction of a polyurethane facility on a 250 acre tract of land in Convent, Louisiana. On May 20th, 2019, the St. James Planning Commission voted 5-3 to approve the company’s industrial land use application for the site.

The lawsuit lists Genevieve Butler and Pastor Harry Joseph, Sr. as plaintiffs, as well as activist groups RISE St. James and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. St. James Parish, St. James Parish Council, and St. James Parish Planning Commission are listed as defendants.

The lawsuit alleges that six days prior to the May 20th Planning Commission meeting, parish officials held a secret meeting to discuss the Wanhua plant. Citing emails obtained by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, the suit claims that St. James Parish Director of Operations, Blaise Gravois, “set up a meeting in two back-to-back sessions expressly in an attempt to avoid having a quorum of the Council or Commission present in the same room at the same time, purposefully circumventing the strictures of the Open Meetings Law.”

Lisa Jordan, Director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic which is representing the plaintiffs, says the proposed Wanhua plant is an important issue for the public and “has the right to observe the deliberation of public bodies,” and that the land use permit application process should be restarted.

“It is very important that [parish officials] do their business on behalf of the public, before the public,” Jordan says, “and not behind closed doors where the public can’t know what went on.”

Jordan says residents are concerned about the plant’s chemical emissions, and the fact that it’s proposed in a parish that is already home to several industrial facilities.

Officials with St. James Parish were not yet prepared to comment on the lawsuit at press time.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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