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After a years-long environmental justice battle, Louisiana court revokes permits for plastics plant

“Stopping Formosa Plastics has been a fight for our lives, and today David has toppled Goliath,” said Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of RISE St. James.

For years, environmental justice groups like RISE St. James and the Stop Formosa movement, have worked to prevent the plant from being built on the banks of the Mississippi River, further contaminating a predominantly-Black community already ravaged by big industrial polluters.

On Friday, September 14, Baton Rouge district Judge Trudy White ruled in favor of the people, revoking the air and water pollution permits the company needs to operate their planned, massive complex in St. James Parish, La.

The rampant pollution in the region has already given the corridor between Houston and New Orleans the nickname “Cancer Alley,” or “Death Alley,” indicative of those who “live and die there” due to the toxic emissions released into the environment over decades.

Indeed, the pollution in St. James is a decades-old problem.

“St. James is different because of the sheer size of facilities that are moving in,” Anne Rolfes, Director of Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said in a Consider It video. “What’s also different is how transparent their intent to wipe the Black community out is. It is obvious. Usually, it’s a little bit slower and maybe it happens over decades. In this case, there’s a super highway to destruction.”

It’s not an understatement to say chemical plants and pipelines surround St. James. Plastic plants line the streets. A pipeline runs all the way from an Indigenous community in North Dakota to the Black neighborhood of St. James. This is the same pipeline residents of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation fought against in 2017.

A few blocks away, a high school in the area was sold to a chemical manufacturer for $10.1 million. While a replacement high school opened, it’s 10 miles away in a neighboring district, and St. James is stuck with the polluting plant in its place.

“If you ride along highway 18, you would see it’s really bad,” long-time resident Chasity White said in the same video. “We’re loaded with chemical plants along this riverwalk from one end to the other and it’s not just one or two here and there. It’s four, five, six, seven in one spot,”

The Formosa plant, known as the so-called “Sunshine Project,” was announced in April 2018 as a $9.4 billion petrochemical complex. If approved, it would’ve been one of the most expensive industrial projects in Louisiana’s history, and one of the largest plastic-making plants in the world. The complex’s 10 separate chemical manufacturing plants would’ve sat on a massive 2,400-acre site.

The state’s Democratic Governor, John Bel Edward even championed the project, touting the 1,200 direct jobs and 8,000 indirect jobs the plant was bound to bring. He dubbed the project a “brighter economic future for Louisiana,” sure to funnel millions of dollars into the state.

Along with the jobs and money, 800 tons of additional toxic pollution would’ve been emitted into the air annually, along with poisonous chemicals discharged into the water.

Lavigne said that it would also equate to 13.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses each year, equivalent to 3.5 coal-firing plants, all to produce single-use plastics.

A climate protestor holds a sign reading "We need a change" at a march for climate action.
Image Credit: Wix

Notably, the Sunshine Project would’ve added St. James to a long list of communities and ecosystems the multi-billion-dollar Taiwanese corporation has damaged from Illinois to Vietnam to Texas.

In 2004, Formosa’s Illinois plant exploded, causing five fatal injuries and two deaths. In 2017, the company’s steel plant caused a massive toxic oil spill in Vietnam, causing extensive fish deaths, impacting local fishermen, and poisoning residents.

Most recently, Formosa’s Texas plant was fined $2.9 million in 2021 for endangering its workers and the public’s health due to a series of explosions, fires, and toxic chemical releases. Two years prior, Formosa was sued for $50 million due to water pollution at the same site. The judge ruled that Formosa was a “serial offender.”

The plastic giant has been operating in Louisiana for decades and has three existing facilities, in East Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupee parishes.

But, St. James is different from the rest of Louisiana and most communities in America.

A 2019 ProPublica investigation found that the air around Formosa’s proposed site already contained more cancer-causing pollution than 99.6 percent of industrialized areas of the country. If the complex was to be built, the analysis estimated, the level of cancer-causing industrial pollution in some parts of the parish could more than triple.

Already, St. James ranks in the top 1% nationwide for cancer chemical concentration.

“The judge’s decision sends a message to polluters like Formosa that communities of color have a right to clean air, and we must not be sacrifice zones,” Lavigne said. Lavigne founded the faith-based grassroots organization RISE St. James in 2018 when the Formosa planned to move into her hometown.

Since that announcement, Formosa has dealt with swathes of legal trouble.

Charged in 2019 on behalf of RISE, the environmental watchdog Earthjustice sued the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for its decision to grant Formosa its permits to emit air pollution.

The same year, the Army Corps of Engineers was sued by the Center for Biological Diversity for issuing Formosa its Clean Water Act permits, leading to a voluntary suspension of the water permits. The federal agency is now requiring its staff to provide a full “environmental impact statement.”

Despite the judge’s ruling, calling the agency’s environmental justice analysis “arbitrary and capricious,” the company, reportedly, still intends on building its complex in St. James. Formosa spokesperson Janile Parks said the company believes it has “performed its duty to protect the environment,” still without the permits, Formosa will have to “go back to the drawing board,” said Corinne Van Dalen, a senior attorney at Earthjustice.

“This decision is the nail in the coffin for Formosa Plastics. They won’t build in St. James Parish, and we will make sure that they won’t build this monster anywhere,” said Anne Rolfes.

These clouds over the Sunshine Project comes days after a victory against the South Louisiana Methanol petrochemical complex, which was also planned for St. James Parish.

It would have been the largest methanol production facility in North America, sitting between two historic Black neighborhoods, including Freetown, a Reconstruction Era community established by people who had been formerly enslaved. If built, the complex would’ve wrapped around a public park, endangering residents using its playground, ball fields, community gathering shelter, walking path, and senior center.

These companies are “accustomed to breezing through the permitting process that has ignored community concerns and allowed toxic plants to move into predominantly Black neighborhoods,” said Van Dalen. But the residents of St. James Parish, Louisiana are giving them a run for their money.


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