When a judge in Louisiana denied the air permits Formosa Plastics needed for its new project in St. James Parish in 2022, it appeared that the long battle to stop the construction of the largest plastics manufacturing complex in the country was finally over. But late last week, a state appeals court overturned that decision, clearing the way for the Taiwanese chemical giant to begin construction on its $9.4 billion Sunshine project along a stretch of land on the lower Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley. where hundreds of chemical plants spew forth. toxic pollution in the air of predominantly black communities.
While they were disappointed, residents and advocates in the parish told Grist that they were prepared to continue the fight against Formosa.
“I know we are going to win this fight,” says Sharon Lavigne, the founder and executive director of the local advocacy group Rise St. James, one of the plaintiffs in the case. She vowed to pursue the case in the state Supreme Court. “It may take us a little longer, but we are going to win.”
Formosa first announced plans to open its massive plastics manufacturing complex in St. James in 2018 to build. The Sunshine Project will include 16 separate facilities spread over 2,400 hectares, an area roughly the size of 80 football fields, and produces resins and polymers that can be used to produce products such as single-use plastic bags and artificial grass. Then-governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, criticized the company’s decision to locate in St. James celebrated construction, stating that the project will help create a brighter economic future for Louisiana, one with an estimated 8,000 construction jobs at peak, even more permanent jobs upon completion, and a multibillion-dollar impact on earnings and business purchases for decades to come.”
Plastic manufacturing is a notoriously polluting enterprise that involves combining fossil fuel byproducts with chemicals to produce polymers. When the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality granted Formosa its air permits in 2019, it authorized the plant to emit 13.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 3.5 coal-fired power plants. The agency also greenlit the release of more than 800 tons of toxic air pollutants a year, including chemicals like benzene and ethylene oxide, which studies have linked to various forms of cancer.
The investigative newsroom ProPublica used a model developed by the Environmental Protection Agency to estimate the effects these emissions have on communities in St. James Parish would have to estimate, and found that in the town of Convent on the river’s eastern bank, hundreds of residents’ exposure to cancer-causing chemicals could double. One mile east in the village of St. James, can more than triple that. The analysis noted that even without Formosa’s plant, residents in some parts of the commune were in the top 1 percentile nationwide in terms of their exposure to cancer-causing industrial air pollution.
Besides the toxic emissions, residents are wary of Formosa’s poor track record. The EPA quoted the company’s PVC manufacturing plant in Baton Rouge for a “high priority” Clean Air Act violations for several years in a row. In Texas was the company obliged to pay $50 million for the illegal dumping of plastic pellets and other pollutants in Lava Bay on the Gulf Coast. And in 2016, a Formosa plant in Vietnam dumped enough chemicals into the ocean to cause a big fish dies which ruined the livelihood of 4 million fishermen.
A group of residents and advocacy groups represented by Earthjustice sued the Department of Environmental Quality in 2019, alleging that the agency failed in its role as a public trustee by granting Formosa permission to pollute without considering the cumulative impact of the offsetting project’s emissions on residents. from Cancer Alley. People living in and around St. James lives exposed to pollution from a number of large industrial operations, including Occidental Chemical’s plant and Valero Energy’s asphalt terminal just upriver. The state agency argued in appeals court that it took these emissions into account when it granted Formosa its air permits, but attorneys pointed out in their lawsuit that regulators only examined toxic chemicals in isolation without considering the overall cancer risk of all the chemicals and factor in facilities. the area.
Even after last week’s court ruling, the odds may not be in Formosa’s favor. In 2021, the Army Corps of Engineers threw another wrench into the company’s plans when it order Formosa to get a complete environmental overview of the St. James project before it can receive permits to pollute the parish’s waters. Such a review can take years as it requires a thorough analysis of the public health, environment, climate and cultural impact of a proposed enterprise.
Anne Rolfes, a veteran environmental attorney and head of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, one of the plaintiffs in the case, told Grist that Formosa had yet to begin that multi-year process. She also pointed to a recent report from financial analysis firm S&P Global which warned of the possibility of difficult times ahead for Formosa based on sluggish economic growth in the chemical industry. It’s another reason she’s hopeful the company — and the state — will eventually give up on the megaproject before construction ever begins.
“We’re in Louisiana, a state dominated by the petrochemical industry,” Rolfes said. “If I had gotten discouraged when we had setbacks from our government, I would have quit a long time ago.”