Battle Lines Drawn Over Plan for Louisiana Plastics Factory

Ann Rolfes, second from left, protests Formosa Plastics outside Louisiana’s 23rd Judicial District courthouse on June 18, seeking entrance to an old slave cemetery for a Juneteenth observance. Her attorney Pam Spees is to her left. (Courthouse News photo/Sabrina Canfield)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Conservationists demanded an injunction Tuesday to block construction of a Taiwanese plastics plant in an already-polluted stretch of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley. 

Environmental racism is at the heart of the case, said Center for Biological Diversity attorney Julie Teel Simmonds, explaining that a community whose population is 90% Black has been targeted to host a massive facility twice the size of Central Park to build small plastics.

“This is a massive industrial city that they’re planning to build,” Simmonds said during a press conference Tuesday.  

Formosa Plastics plans to build one mile from an elementary school, across 1,500 acres along the Mississippi River in St. James Parish — a low-income area of Louisiana dotted with other petrochemical factories. In addition to 10 chemical plants, construction will include power-generating facilities and a wastewater-treatment plant.

“People are dying. And with the Covid-19, we have more people dying,” Sharon Lavigne, president of the grassroots organization RISE St. James, said during the Tuesday press conference. “Formosa don’t care. They don’t care if we live or die.”

Formosa Plastics plans to build a plant that would stretch across 1,500 acres of Mississippi River wetlands. (Map courtesy of Healthy Gulf via Courthouse News)

On behalf of Lavigne’s organization, the Center for Biological Diversity brought the federal complaint at issue back in January. In a Tuesday brief supporting its motion for injunctive relief, the group says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to comply with environmental laws when it permitted the project. 

Formosa’s plant in the Fifth District of St. James would be one of the world’s largest plastics facilities.

“Rather than conducting the careful analyses required by law, the Corps simply adopted the self-serving statements of Formosa Plastics — an entity a federal court found to be a ‘serial offender’ with ‘enormous’ violations of environmental laws, including spilling billions of plastic pellets into Texas creeks and bays and failing to report its violations,” the motion states. 

Pollutants would flow freely into the St. James Canal and Mississippi River, both main municipal water sources for the densely populated area, Tuesday’s motion warns. 

The government asserts that Formosa holds the necessary state permits to build the plastics factory but has not filed an environmental impact statement. 

“In due course the petrochemical complex will double the air pollution in the parish,” the new memo for injunctive relief states. “Air pollution not only increases the risk of dying from Covid-19; but the plant’s emissions also include harmful pollutants that endanger human health and the environment.”

Attorneys and activists warn that the planned complex will release over 800 tons of toxic air pollutants annually. 

“EPA regulates 19 of these as hazardous air pollutants that may cause serious adverse health impacts such as neurological harm or birth defects,” the brief states, citing heart attacks, asthma and cancer as some of the health risks caused by the toxic discharge. 

St. James residents fear that construction workers coming in from out-of-state to build the Formosa Plastics complex will only increase the number of Covid-19 cases in their already hard-hit community. (Graph courtesy of Healthy Gulf via Courthouse News)

As Covid-19 cases surge across the Sunbelt states, several St. James residents shared during the Tuesday press conference that their district is fighting to survive. They worry that construction workers coming in from states hit hard by the pandemic will exacerbate the health crisis.

Tuesday’s motion also claims construction would increase the risk of floods during hurricane season, faulting Formosa for not taking the necessary precautions like building a levy. Historic properties, including the graves of enslaved people, face harm as well, according to the brief.

“When paying respects or engaging in quiet contemplation at the graves on the property, if ever allowed access, future visitors will experience a backdrop of one of the world’s largest petrochemical complexes — with smokestacks, chemical tanks, utility plants, foul smells, and pipelines,” the motion states. 

Lavigne, a longtime resident of St. James who lives just two miles from the proposed site of the plastics plant, said the company barred her and other Black community members from visiting the gravesite of their enslaved ancestors last month on Juneteenth — a holiday celebrating emancipation.

Even after a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order allowing them access to the property, Formosa still raised issue with the ceremony.

“They didn’t want us to park close enough to the gravesite — so we had to walk,” Lavigne said. “So people were rushing trying to get to the services, because for most of us it took a lot of our time.”

Formosa has faced other recent court battles in the U.S. The plastics company last year settled a separate lawsuit over the dumping of millions of plastic pellets into the water around a Texas refinery, handing over $50 million to the state. 

Excavators are already on site in St. James, Louisiana, as residents battle to stop the construction of the plastics plant that conservationists warn will pollute nearby waterways. (Image courtesy of Healthy Gulf via Courthouse News)
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