ST JAMES, La. (CN) – Construction of a Taiwanese company’s $9.4 billion plastics complex in Louisiana began this week, despite a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus and high water levels that make construction near levees illegal.
A spokesman for Entergy, a local power company that is setting up utility poles at the site, said in an emailed statement Wednesday afternoon that the new construction that began this week at the Formosa Plastics site along the Mississippi River has been halted by the Taiwan-based company as of Wednesday morning.
“Work at the site was halted this morning at the customer’s request,” spokesman David Freese said, adding that “electric utilities are officially designated as critical infrastructure under federal guidelines and Gov. Edwards’ order.”
Freese declined to say whether construction was halted by Formosa because of the high level of the river. He referred the question to Formosa, which did not immediately respond to email requests for comment.
Governor John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order went into effect Monday morning in response to the high number of Covid-19 cases statewide. As of Wednesday, 1,795 cases were reported across the state, including 65 coronavirus-related deaths.
The Democratic governor’s order exempts “electricity and utility industry employees” as well as construction work from ceasing. However, state law requires that construction within 1,500 feet of levees must stop when the Mississippi River enters flood stage – 15-feet high.
The river is currently at flood stage, as it has been on and off since the beginning of this year due to heavy rains in the north and west.
Formosa’s site is 2,400 acres of farmland and swamp near the Welcome community in St. James Parish, a low-income, predominantly black area in “Cancer Alley” – named for residents’ poor health and environmental pollution due to the large number of petrochemical factories. The plastics plant would sit one mile from an elementary school.
Area residents have fought vehemently in recent years to keep Formosa out. At least two lawsuits have been filed challenging the validity of Formosa’s permits, and a federal appeal was filed in February asking the government to evaluate the air permit issued to Formosa by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
Officials statewide, including Governor Edwards, say the Formosa plant will transform the local economy. But environmentalists say it will further burden the already struggling region, dumping more toxins into the air and river and contributing to the world’s plastic pollution.
Formosa’s plant, which is slated to become one of the largest, single-site ethylene production complexes in the world, will emit thousands of tons of volatile organic compounds, particulates and nitrogen oxides a year, according to its permit application. Environmentalists also claim it will result in the destruction of 100 acres of wetlands in St. James Parish and construction will interfere with as many as seven recently discovered suspected slave burial sites.
The plant will also emit toluene and benzene, store hazardous and potentially explosive chemicals and release treated wastewater into the Mississippi River upriver from New Orleans. New Orleans’ drinking water comes from the river.
Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of Rise St. James, lives two miles from the plant site.
In a Facebook Live post Wednesday, Lavigne spoke to reporters and activists from Formosa’s site, with utility trucks and piping visible behind her. She said Formosa trucks blocked the highway Monday, with no prior notice given to residents that construction was slated to begin.
“We were concerned because we live here and no one thought enough of us to let us know that the highway would be blocked, for hours, with no police officer to direct traffic,” Lavigne said.
She called on the governor to force Formosa to stop construction and said she wasn’t sure if parish councilmembers even knew the digging was set to begin. She also pointed to the ban on construction when the river is at flood stage.
“The water behind the levee is the Mississippi River. That river is already high. If something happened and that levee burst, we are in severe danger,” Lavigne said.
Lavigne said she was told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had issued a special permit allowing Formosa to dig. The Corps did not immediately reply to a request for permit information, but a paralegal for the Corps said over the phone Wednesday that a permit for Formosa sounded familiar.
“Formosa is allowed to do things that we in St. James Parish [are not] – we are the residents, we live here. Our church right down the street is not allowed to dig but Formosa is allowed to dig,” Lavigne said.
Lavigne said she recently heard that Formosa has hired the law firm Gibson Dunn in Washington D.C.
“This signals to us that even in the time of financial and health crisis, Formosa is serious about building their facility on this property in St. James Parish, disregarding the residents,” she said. “We live here. They are disregarding us. They don’t care if they come here and pollute us, and if we die from their poisoning. They don’t care.”
“But Rise St. James is serious about stopping Formosa, and we will stop Formosa because this is our home. This is where we live,” Lavigne said.
The plant will make plastic pellets that will be turned into single-use plastic products such as grocery bags, water bottles, drainage pipes and auto parts, and when the plant opens – slated for 2022 – hundreds of local residents will face double the toxic levels of cancer-causing chemicals than they currently face, according to one study.
A report conducted by ProPublica and local newspapers found the air surrounding Formosa’s site already contains more cancer-causing chemicals in emissions than 99.6% of industrialized areas nationwide.
Governor Edwards’ office did not immediately reply to an email request for comment.