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Opponents of Louisiana plastics plant celebrate order revoking permits  

A ruling revoking air permits issued to Formosa Plastics cites environmental racism in a stretch of former agricultural land along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as “Cancer Alley.”

BATON ROUGE, La. (CN) — Environmentalists and residents of a small, mostly Black community in Louisiana’s "Cancer Alley" are celebrating what they consider a “nail in the coffin” for Formosa Plastics after a judge threw out air permits the Taiwanese company needs to build a massive plastics complex there.

Formosa’s proposed Welcome, Louisiana, site sits one mile from an elementary school and would sprawl over 2,400 acres of once-agricultural land to include 10 chemical manufacturing plants and numerous support facilities. It would be one of the largest plastics facilities in the world and its operations would double to triple the levels of cancer-causing pollutants in the air.

“Remarkably, the Black residents of Welcome are descendants of men and women who were kidnapped from Africa; who survived the Middle Passage; who were transported to a foreign land; and, then sold on auction blocks and enslaved. Their ancestors worked the land with the hope and dream of passing down productive agricultural untainted land along the Mississippi to their families,” Judge Trudy White of East Baton Rouge Parish Court wrote Wednesday in a searing 34-page ruling in which she granted environmental groups' request to revoke air permits they say Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality issued in error.

Under the permits revoked in the ruling, more than 800 tons of toxic pollution would have been allowed from the plants, deepening an already pervasive environmental racism issue and posing a major threat to the health of an already vulnerable community.

The project would have emitted somewhere around 13.6 million tons of greenhouse gases a year, or the rough equivalent of 3.5 coal-fired power plants.

Judge White found that Formosa’s proposed $9.4 billion plant would emit – by its own calculations – pollutants in such high quantity and so harmful into the surrounding air that even brief exposure would pose a threat to human health in an area she noted is notorious for already containing more cancer-causing toxins than 99.6% of other industrial areas nationwide. The region is widely known as "Cancer Alley."

“Simply put, LDEQ failed to address the core problem posed by FG LA’s model, the only record evidence on point: people working, living, travelling, or recreating in St. James Parish could suffer serious health consequences from breathing this air, even from short-run exposure,” White wrote.

“LDEQ’s decision to authorize these potential public health violations, without offering evidence to show it had avoided the risk to the maximum extent possible, was arbitrary and capricious and against the preponderance of the evidence under the agency’s public trust duty,” the judge added.

As White noted in her decision, by Formosa’s own models, once Formosa’s plants were up and running the air in parts of St. James Parish would violate the EPA’s standards for soot and ozone-forming nitrogen dioxide.

In 2020, despite 15,500 public comments in opposition to Formosa’s proposal, the LDEQ approved Formosa’s application for 14 air permits.

A month later, Rise St. James, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Healthy Gulf, No Waste Louisiana, the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks and the Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, sued to challenge the permits.

“This decision is a nail in the coffin for Formosa Plastics,” Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said in a press release Thursday. “They won’t build in St. James Parish, and we will make sure that they won’t build this monster anywhere.”

Rolfes continued: “Louisiana state officials and local parish government rolled out the red carpet for this megapolluuter, doing everything in their power to make sure this project would go through. Thank God for the people of St. James who stood up and provided real leadership, for the judge who made this decision, and for the incredible team of lawyers.”

Corrine Van Dalen, a senior attorney at Earthjustice who represented the groups opposing Formosa, said the ruling shows things are changing in Louisiana.

“This decision marks an end to business as usual in St. James Parish, where the state of Louisiana has been allowed until now to hand out permits in highly toxic facilities without considering the people who are forced to live in their shadows,” Van Dalen said in the press release. “This decision forces LDEQ to abide by the Clean Air Act and its public trustee mandate and fully assess the impacts of toxic pollution that Formosa Plastics would have greatly exacerbated in an overburdened Black community.”

Janile Parks, a spokeswoman for FG LA LLC, part of the Formosa Plastics Group, said in a statement that the company respectfully disagrees with the judge’s decision.

“We believe the permits issued to FG by LDEQ are sound and the agency properly performed its duty to protect the environment in the issuance of those air permits,” Parks said.

She added, “FG intends to explore all legal options in light of Judge White’s ruling as the project continues to pursue successful permitting.”

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