Louisiana OKs Permit for Plastics Plant in ‘Cancer Alley’

CONVENT, La. (CN) – Spurring claims of environmental racism, Louisiana granted a permit allowing a Taiwanese single-use plastics manufacturer once named the worst polluter in the world to build a new plant in a mostly black community known as “Cancer Alley.”

A street in St. James Parish. (Photo via St. James Parish Comprehensive Plan)

The name “Cancer Alley” originated in the 1980s because of residents’ poor health and environmental pollution within an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The area is home to many petrochemical factories that opened during a period of rapid industrial growth.

Formosa Plastic’s new plant – which will 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 say it will also result in the destruction of 100 acres of wetlands in St. James Parish.

The plant will also emit, but to a lesser extent, tolune and benzene, and will store hazardous and potentially explosive chemicals and release treated wastewater into the Mississippi River.

The water treatment process will produce a sludge that will have to be disposed of at a permitted facility, according to a Baton Rouge Advocate report.  

The plant’s coastal use permit was approved by Louisiana officials last week. Another permit for air emissions is pending.

Neither the state’s Department of Natural Resources nor the office of Governor John Bel Edwards replied Monday to emails seeking comment.

Formosa Plastics will receive roughly $1.4 billion in local property tax exemptions, according to calculations from the Advocate and the local government, which include a $12 million grant to offset infrastructure costs and a hold on property taxes collected for the next decade. 

A store in St. James Parish. (Photo via St. James Parish Comprehensive Plan)

“Given the history of St. James Parish, this will be the largest industry ever welcomed,” St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said in a statement last summer announcing the parish’s plan to lure the company in with tax incentives. Louisiana has parishes instead of counties.

But local residents and environmental groups say more pollution is the last thing the state needs and the location for the plant – smack in the middle of a mostly black, mostly residential community – is intentional. 

The community, known as District 5, sits in Cancer Alley and has been designated by the parish as residential-future industrial since 2014, despite adamant opposition.

The Formosa plant, which will operate 24/7, is slated for construction on 1,600 acres of a 2,319-acre site one mile from an elementary school, several churches and a residential area with roots that go back six generations.

St. James Parish officials “basically changed the black district into the petrochemical district,” said Anne Rolfes, founder of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a health and justice organization that works with communities near the state’s oil refineries and chemical plants.

“Parish leaders and our own governor are inviting Formosa in to pollute, to destroy the community, and all for plastic bags and throwaway plastics,” Rolfes said in a recent email to Courthouse News. “There is no sound justification for this project. Our state is giving Formosa huge tax breaks and all we get is pollution. This is madness.”

Many years ago, Cancer Alley was a site of “fabulous plantation life in St. James. Acreage was counted by thousands and slaves by hundreds,” according to a 148-page document compiled by the parish in 2011 titled Comprehensive Plan 2031, a 20-year plan.

The plans says its goal is “to articulate a vision or future growth within the parish in a manner that will sustain the values of its citizens.” It was developed over a period of 18 months, with public discussion involving many St. James Parish residents.

But residents of District 5 say their input wasn’t part of the parish’s decision-making process.

“I would like to know how they went about making where I live industrial,” Sharon LaVigne, president of Rise St. James, said in an email. “Parish officials say that people of the 5th District – my district – were in favor of the land-use plan, but everybody I talk to who lives here is against more industry coming here.”

In 2009, German ethics and environmental foundation Ethicon selected Formosa Plastics Group, the parent company of Formosa Plastics, for its “Black Planet” award, which is given annually to the world’s most egregious polluter.

The award was presented to the company by Diane Wilson, executive director of San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, who used to be a shrimp boat captain in Calhoun, County Texas. She became an environmental activist in 1989 after reading an Associated Press story that said the county had the most toxic waste disposal of any county in America due to the massive illegal discharge from Alcoa Corporation and later Formosa Plastics’ construction of a PVC plant there.

Wilson’s activism resulted in “zero discharge” agreements with Formosa and Alcoa in 1994. 

“If the citizens of Louisiana value the health of their communities, fisheries, bays, and bayous, then they should fight with every means to stop this Formosa expansion,” Wilson said in an email. “I have fought Formosa Plastics for 30 years in Texas and my one regret is that I didn’t fight harder.”

Ethicon said Formosa took advantage of an international push to outlaw PVC for ecological reasons to ramp up its production of PVC. It noted also that Formosa is on Taiwan’s list of top 10 worst polluters and accounts for about 25 percent of Taiwan’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Just last month the company was fined $122,000 for illegally discharging plastic pellets into a Texas bay.

In a separate matter, Formosa was tasked with spending $10 million on pollution controls and was fined $2.8 million for Clean Air Act violations in 2009 after inspectors found numerous breaches in the company’s PVC-manufacturing plants in Baton Rouge and South Texas, according to the Department of Justice.

In 2016, the company was fined $500 million for discharging toxic waste from a steel plant in Vietnam – the highest fine ever assessed in that country for such violations — forcing thousands of people to relocate and causing massive fish deaths in what was called the worst industrial environmental disaster to date there.

Two required local meetings were held prior to the plant’s approval in St. James Parish, with dozens of residents and environmental groups speaking out against the plant. No one aside from paid employees of Formosa Plastics spoke on behalf of the company.

Parish representatives cut off the microphone during the Dec. 6 meeting and said comments were no longer on the record, according to an account from the DeSmog Blog, after activist Cherri Foytlin told government officials present, “You don’t give a shit about black and brown people,” and called the meeting a “dog and pony show.”

When the hearing officer cut Foytlin off, New Orleans human rights activist Pat Bryant stood up to speak, saying he didn’t care whether his words were on the official record or not.

“What is going on here is very profane. What you are doing is against humanity,” Bryant reportedly said. He added, “If Jesus were present, he would say, ‘Fuck you.’”

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