Massive Plastics Plant Granted Air Quality Permits for Construction in Louisiana

CONVENT, La. (CN) – Louisiana granted a series of air permits Tuesday to a massive industrial complex for producing plastics, a move that many in the state lauded for its promise of creating 1,200 permanent jobs while environmentalists oppose it vehemently.

Formosa Plastics issued a statement Tuesday saying it has received all environmental permits from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality needed to construct its proposed $9.4 billion plastics facility in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.”

The proposed site is 2,400 acres of farmland and swamp near the Welcome community of St. James, a low-income area whose residents are predominantly black.

A handful of plastic pellets spilled from a train in Pineville, Louisiana. (gentlemanrook via Wikipedia CC BY 2.0)

The name “Cancer Alley” originated in the 1980s because of residents’ poor health caused by 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 growth and several new facilities have applied for building permits in the past few years.

Officials statewide, including Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, have said the Formosa Plastics facility will transform the local economy.

But environmentalists say the plant 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 new 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 two 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. That city’s drinking water comes from the river.

The plant will make plastic pellets that will be turned into single-use plastic products such as grocery bags, soda 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 about the Cancer Alley area found the air surrounding Formosa’s site already contains more cancer-causing chemicals in emissions than 99.6 percent of industrialized areas nationwide.

The report found that Formosa’s emissions would double in toxicity in areas surrounding the plant and in an area one mile from the plant, toxic emissions could triple.

The state’s Department of Natural Resources and the office of Governor John Bel Edwards did immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

FG LA LLC, a member for Formosa Plastics Group, issued a statement Tuesday saying it can begin construction now that it has all of the necessary permits. 

Formosa will receive roughly $1.4 billion in local property tax exemptions, according to calculations done last year by Baton Rouge newspaper 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.

“Given the history of St. James Parish, this will be the largest industry ever welcomed,” outgoing St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said in a statement in summer 2018 that announced the parish’s plan to lure Formosa in with tax incentives. 

Louisiana has parishes instead of counties.  

In addition to the 1,200 permanent jobs Formosa has promised, with a median annual salary of $84,500, by its own estimates, the company also says the plant will result in 3,400 temporary construction jobs in the St. James area, $362 million in local and state tax collections from construction and $33 million in state and local taxes per year, even with property tax exemptions.

A federal judge in Texas last month approved a record $50 million legal settlement against Formosa for polluting Texas waterways with billions of plastic pellets and called the company a “serial offender.”

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 Formosa by Diane Wilson, executive director of San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, who used to be a shrimp boat captain in Calhoun County, Texas, and became an environmental activist in 1989 after realizing her county has the most toxic waste disposal of any in the US due to the massive illegal discharge from Alcoa Corporation and later Formosa Plastics’ construction of a PVC plant.

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 told Courthouse News last year. “I have fought Formosa Plastics for 30 years in Texas and my one regret is that I didn’t fight harder.”

Ethicon noted that Formosa is on Taiwan’s top 10 list of worst polluters and accounts for about 25% of Taiwan’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Local and national environmental groups organized a series of marches and demonstrations against Formosa. They claim that plastic plants such as Formosa’s can emit more than 100 different chemicals and that air pollution from such plants can lead to chronic conditions such as lung cancer, brain damage and liver and kidney damage.

Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, one of the environmental groups involved in vehemently opposing the plant, said Louisiana is not prepared to provide oversight for “this monster.”

“This approval signals that our state government is willing to sacrifice our health, our clean air and water to cheap plastics,” Rolfes said Tuesday. “The good news is that we the people do not accept this decision. The fight has just begun.”

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