A Louisiana court just revived plans for the country’s biggest plastics plant

When a judge in Louisiana struck down the air permits that Formosa Plastics needed for its new project in St. James Parish in 2022, it seemed like the long battle to block construction of the largest plastics manufacturing complex in the country was finally over. But late last week, a state appeals court reversed that decision, clearing the way for the Taiwanese chemical giant to start building its $9.4 billion Sunshine Project along a stretch of land on the lower Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley, where hundreds of chemical plants spew toxic pollution into the air of predominantly Black communities. 

While disappointed, residents and advocates in the parish told Grist that they were prepared to keep the fight against Formosa going.  

“I know we’re gonna win this battle,” said Sharon Lavigne, the founder and executive director of the local advocacy group Rise St. James, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. She vowed to pursue the case in the state’s Supreme Court. “It might take us a little longer, but we are going to win.”

[Listen: Sharon Lavigne shares the story of how she went from school teacher to climate leader]

Formosa first announced plans to build its massive plastics manufacturing complex in St. James in 2018. The Sunshine Project would include 16 separate facilities spread across 2,400 acres, an area approximately the size of 80 football fields, and produce resins and polymers that can be used to manufacture products like single-use plastic bags and artificial turf. Then-Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, celebrated the company’s decision to build in St. James, proclaiming that the project would help create “a brighter economic future for Louisiana, one with an estimated 8,000 construction jobs at peak, even more permanent jobs upon completion, and a multibillion-dollar impact on earnings and business purchases for decades to come.”

Plastics manufacturing is a notoriously polluting enterprise that involves combining fossil fuel byproducts with chemicals to produce polymers. When the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality granted Formosa its air permits in 2019, it authorized the plant to release 13.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases every year, the equivalent of 3.5 coal-fired power plants. The agency also greenlit the release of more than 800 tons per year of toxic air pollution, including chemicals such as benzene and ethylene oxide, which studies have linked to various forms of cancer. 

The investigative newsroom ProPublica used a model developed by the Environmental Protection Agency to estimate the effect these emissions would have on communities in St. James Parish, and found that in the town of Convent on the river’s east bank, hundreds of residents’ exposure to cancer-causing chemicals could double. One mile east in the town of St. James, it could more than triple. The analysis noted that even without Formosa’s plant, residents in some parts of the parish were in the top 1 percentile nationwide in terms of their exposure to cancer-causing industrial air pollution. 

Beyond the toxic emissions, residents are wary of Formosa’s poor track record. The state has cited the company’s PVC manufacturing plant in Baton Rouge for “high priority” Clean Air Act violations for multiple years in a row. In Texas, the company was required to pay $50 million for illegally dumping plastic pellets and other pollutants into Lavaca Bay on the Gulf Coast. And in 2016, a Formosa plant in Vietnam dumped enough chemicals into the sea to cause a major fish die-off that devastated the livelihoods of 4 million fishermen.

A group of residents and advocacy groups represented by Earthjustice sued the Department of Environmental Quality in 2019, alleging that the agency had failed in its role as a public trustee by granting Formosa permission to pollute without accounting for the cumulative impact of the project’s emissions on residents of Cancer Alley. People living in and around St. James are exposed to pollution from a number of large industrial operations, including Occidental Chemical’s plant and Valero Energy’s asphalt terminal just up the river. The state agency argued in the appeals court that it had considered these emissions when granting Formosa its air permits, but advocates pointed out in their lawsuit that regulators had only examined toxic chemicals in isolation without computing the overall cancer risk from all the chemicals and facilities in the area. 

Even after last week’s court ruling, the odds may not be in Formosa’s favor. In 2021, the Army Corps of Engineers threw another wrench in the company’s plans when it ordered Formosa to conduct a full environmental review of the St. James project before it could receive permits to pollute the parish’s waters. Such a review can take years as it requires a thorough analysis of the public health, environmental, climate, and cultural impacts of a proposed enterprise. 

Anne Rolfes, a veteran environmental advocate and head of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, one of the plaintiffs in the case, told Grist that Formosa had yet to start that multiyear process. She also pointed to a recent report from the financial analysis firm S&P Global that warned of the possibility of difficult times ahead for Formosa on the basis of sluggish economic growth in the chemical industry. It’s another reason she’s hopeful that the company — and the state — will eventually give up on the megaproject before construction ever begins.  

“We are in Louisiana, a state dominated by the petrochemical industry,” Rolfes said. “If I got discouraged when we had setbacks from our government, I would have quit long ago.”

*Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that the state of Louisiana has cited Formosa’s Baton Rouge plant for violations.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A Louisiana court just revived plans for the country’s biggest plastics plant on Jan 23, 2024.