NEW ORLEANS (CN) — The Army Corps of Engineers will temporarily suspend a permit it issued for a $9.4 billion plastics complex in Louisiana as it takes another look at the project’s environmental impacts, government lawyers said in a motion filed Wednesday.
Taiwanese company Formosa Plastics’ proposed petrochemical plant in St. James Parish would be one of the largest facilities of its type in the world.
The Army Corps will explain by Tuesday why the “intended construction activities authorized under the permit” may not go forward, according to the Justice Department’s motion to stay filed in Washington federal court.
The government had until Thursday to reply to issues raised in a federal lawsuit filed in January by four environmental watchdog groups – the Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulf, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Rise St. James – who said that in issuing the permit, the Corps merely accepted Formosa’s assessments of the project’s environmental impacts.
"The plant would pollute a predominantly Black community, disturb unmarked burial sites of enslaved people, degrade wetlands and add to the ocean plastic pollution crisis," the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement Wednesday announcing the suspension. The lawsuit estimated that if plastics production continues unchecked, by 2050 plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish.
“I’m overjoyed by this news. This hopefully marks the beginning of our victory over Formosa Plastics,” said Sharon Lavigne of Rise St. James. “We’ve always said this project will harm our community. Now we need Formosa Plastics to leave St. James.”
Formosa Plastics’ Louisiana affiliate, FG LA LLC, plans to build 10 chemical plants and four other major facilities on 2,500 acres along the Mississippi River in St. James Parish, in a stretch of land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge already so polluted it has been nicknamed “Cancer Alley.”
Formosa spokeswoman Janile Parks said the company will continue to cooperate with the Corps as it reconsiders the permit.
"The company has been very diligent to make sure it has done everything required to ensure proper issuance of, and compliance with, its permits and will continue to do so,” Parks told the Associated Press in a statement.
The environmental and community groups who sued to overturn the permit said the Corps took only a superficial look at probable environmental effects of the complex called The Sunshine Project.
Thursday was the deadline for the Corps to reply to a request for U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss to decide the case against the Corps without a trial, but the Justice Department instead asked Moss to give the Corps time to reevaluate parts of the project’s environmental review under the Clean Water Act.
"It's kind of a wild turn," Julie Teels Simmonds of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement to the AP.
Simmonds said the motion indicates the permit has been suspended, but another Formosa spokesman said was not.
Simmonds said the entire environmental assessment should be thrown out.
"We'll be pushing for more specifics on what exactly this new review is going to entail and what the process will be," she told the AP. "I think the public needs a chance to weigh in."
The state and parish have offered FG LA about $1.5 billion in tax breaks. Construction is expected to take about 10 years.
Formosa has been doing site preparation a long while. Construction began in March, despite a statewide stay-at-home order to stop the spread of coronavirus, and came as a surprise to local residents.
“There is no way to defend the damage Formosa Plastics would do to St. James Parish and our oceans. We hope this is the beginning of the end for this terrible project,” Simmonds said in a statement Wednesday.
The Corps declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Environmental racism is at the heart of the case, plaintiffs have continually said. During a press conference last summer, Simmonds told reporters that the population of the community where the plant would be located is 90% Black. She said the proposed complex would be twice the size of New York’s Central Park.
“This is a massive industrial city that they’re planning to build,” Simmonds said then. She said in her statement Wednesday that “it’s not in the public interest to pollute a Black community and destroy its cultural resources just to crank out more throwaway plastic.”
The massive facility planned for St. James is part of a larger trend, the groups challenging it claim.
“An oversupply of cheap fracked gas in the United States is driving a boom in domestic plastics production, with $204 billion of new investments announced for hundreds of new and expanded projects by 2025, with more investment on the horizon,” the 36-page lawsuit says. “By 2025, domestic production of capacity of the chemical components needed to manufacture plastic is expected to increase by more than a third. As a result, it is estimated that by 2050, plastics could outweigh fish in the oceans. This new infrastructure would lock in generations of plastic production, undermining public efforts to reduce plastics consumption to reverse the plastic pollution crisis.”
The lawsuit quotes a federal judge in Texas who called Formosa a “serial offender” in a 2019 decision that later resulted in unprecedented $50 million settlement over the company’s discharge of plastic pellets, also known as nurdles, into the state’s waterways.
The complaint says much of the same can be expected in Louisiana if the new plant is built.
Two environmental activists with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade were arrested on felony charges in June after placing a box of nurdles on the doorstep of an oil lobbyist for Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, and after Formosa lost a request to a state judge that would have prevented members of the St. James community from going to its property for an hourlong prayer ceremony at a slave burial ground in commemoration of Juneteenth.
The nurdles were left in a box along with a note explaining that the plastic pellets inside were from Formosa Plastics and were an example of what state waters could expect to see much more of if the company begins operations in St. James.
“These are just some of the billions of nurdles that Formosa Plastics dumped into the coastal waters of the state of Texas,” the note said. “These were used as evidence in a landmark lawsuit filed against Formosa under the Clean Water Act.”
The lawsuit listed other, much more harmful contaminants that will likely be discharged from the plastics plant.
“The plastics facility is expected to discharge pollutants that are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, as well as plastic pellets and other materials, into the Mississippi River,” the complaint states. “This pollution would harm wetlands, wildlife, and public health. Nearly one million people downstream from the proposed site rely on the Mississippi River for drinking water. In addition, the plastics facility will create the building blocks for single-use plastic products that already litter our oceans and choke marine life.”