Formosa Plastics permit suspended by Army Corps

The Louisiana Weekly

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on last Wednesday announced through a court filing in federal court in Washington its plans to suspend its permit for a proposed 1,500-acre Formosa Plastics facility in St. James Parish. 

The announcement came before today’s Nov. 5 filing deadline for the Corps to defend its issuance of a permit to Formosa after environmental justice groups filed a lawsuit claiming the permit was improperly granted. The Corps has asked the federal court to stay proceedings in the case.

“During its review of the permit, it has now come to the Corps’ attention that an element of the permit warrants additional evaluation,” the agency says in Wednesday’s court filing. “The Corps expects to take regulatory action on the permit and issue a formal decision consistent with its established process for doing so.”

“We hope this is the beginning of the end for this terrible project,” Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a written statement last Wednesday.. “It’s not in the public interest to pollute a Black community and destroy its cultural resources just to crank out more throwaway plastic. We still need to see if the feds will meaningfully revisit their permit, because simply papering over their deficiencies will not do.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, a national, nonprofit conservation group, filed a lawsuit in January, alleging that the Corps hadn’t followed the law in giving Formosa the go-ahead to build, The Corps, that lawsuit says, failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Rivers and Harbors Act. 

Environmental groups RISE St. James, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Healthy Gulf are also plaintiffs in that lawsuit. They all say the Corps ignored the water, air, and health impacts of the proposed complex and failed to adequately protect burial sites of enslaved Black people that have been discovered on and around the property.

Formosa’s planned manufacturing complex, plaintiffs say, would “deepen environmental racism and harm a Cancer Alley community already sickened by exposure to industrial pollution.” 

The Corps’ decision to re-evaluate the permit it issued to Formosa will halt construction, at least temporarily, of what is planned to be one of the world’s largest petrochemical plants. It’s planned for a stretch of Louisiana along the Mississippi River known as “Cancer Alley” because its concentration of industrial facilities has been linked to the high rates of cancer among the mostly Black residents who live there.

Formosa’s proposed $9.4 billion facility would emit 800 tons of toxic air pollution each year, which would roughly double toxic air emissions in St. James Parish, according to Formosa’s published plans.

Reached by email, the Army Corps of Engineers would not comment on the litigation.

Louisiana Illuminator ( is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization driven by its mission to cast light on how decisions are made in Baton Rouge and how they affect the lives of everyday Louisianans, particularly those who are poor or otherwise marginalized.

This article originally published in the November 9, 2020 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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In the most polluted part of America, residents now battle the US’s biggest plastic plant

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Plastics factory will not only contribute to pollution in Louisiana town of Gramercy, but will also be a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions

Gail LeBoeuf makes an unlikely climate justice campaigner. Although the 67-year-old resident of Gramercy, a small town in south Louisiana by the banks of the Mississippi River, has been fighting against local pollution for the last few years, she spent most of her career working at an area plastics manufacturer.

“These plants just kept popping up, one after another, built by these billionaires who decided they just want to make money. So they come into these little river parishes, and sweep everyone else aside,” she said.

Stood by a soggy roadside, surrounded by sugarcane fields, she pointed to the horizon where the latest polluting plant in this heavily polluted region of the US, known locally as Cancer Alley, is due to be built.

Named the Sunshine Project, the sprawling plastics facility owned by the Taiwanese plastics giant Formosa, has become a focal point in the fight against industrial pollution in the region. St James parish neighbours St John the Baptist parish, home to the most toxic air in America and the subject of a year-long Guardian series, Cancer Town.

In January Louisiana’s Environment Department [LDEQ] granted the Sunshine Project its final set of permits, allowing for 800 tons a year of toxic pollutants to be blasted into the air around the complex’s 14 separate plants.

The air here is already among the most polluted in America, and local campaigners like LeBoeuf have been arguing for years that the cocktail of new pollutants, including the cancer causing compounds ethylene oxide, styrene and benzine, mark an intolerable risk to their health. In the fifth district of St James parish, an area just 103 sq miles, there are already eight industrial plants operating. The new project is slated across 2,300 acres of land.

The Sunshine Project will not only be a major contributor to local toxic pollution, but will also be a significant source of greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions. LDEQ has permitted Formosa to release an astonishing 13.6 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of three and a half coal fired power stations.

A spokeswoman for Formosa said that the facility could emit less GHG than permitted, as the totals in the permit “were generated based on the facility operating at maximum levels, 100% of the year”. The spokeswoman did not cite a separate figure however.

The spokeswoman said the company would “perform a variety of emissions testing and monitoring activities” at the facility.

The permit marks the project as the single biggest emitter of climate pollution under construction in the US, according to an analysis of oil and gas industry proposals conducted by the Environmental Integrity Project, a DC based advocacy group. The sector announced about $204bn in spending on 340 new or expanded projects since 2010, according to the American Chemistry Council. Many of them are to produce plastics – which the research firm IHS Markit forecasts will grow an average of 3.5% to 4% per year through 2035.

This boom in plastic production isfueled by cheap oil and gas released by fracking. The industry is planning 157 new or expanded plants and more drilling over the next five years, according to a report from the Environmental Integrity Project. These projects will release up to 227m tons of additional greenhouse gases by the end of 2025 – a 30% rise from the industry’s footprint in 2018.

Steven Eric Feit, an attorney for the Center for International Environmental Law’s climate program, said oil companies are banking on plastics growth for when oil demand for transportation peaks.

“The story from the oil industry for how they’re going to see growth in the 21st century is plastics, that’s what they’re saying,” Feit said.

Many of the biggest facilities are along the Gulf Coast – with eight of the top 10 by size in Texas or Louisiana. The other two are in Appalachia, a region already struggling with the toxic legacy and decline of the coal industry.

Like other environmental justice battles in the deep American south, the fight to stop Formosa is being fought by a group of local black women, like LeBoeuf and Sharon Lavigne, founder of Rise.

Sat at her home in Welcome, less than a mile from the proposed Formosa site, she argued that presidential candidates in the Democratic field, should be doing more to view the struggle against toxic polluters like Formosa in the context of the climate crisis.

“The federal government needs to step in on this,” she said. “And I think all the candidates for president talking about fossil fuels need to be in our corner too.”

More recently, however, campaigners here have begun to realize they are also part of a global struggle against the climate crisis.

At a private town hall meeting on 20th January held with newly elected St James councilman Mason Bland, LeBoeuf and other activists from the environmental group Rise St James recalled pushing their representative to rescind a series of land use permits granted to Formosa. LeBoeuf said she also asked her local representative to think about Formosa’s direct links to the climate crisis.

“Do you believe in global warming and climate change?” LeBoeuf recalled asking.

“I’m not going to answer that question,” Bland replied, according to LaBoeuf.

The Guardian contacted all seven members of the St James parish council, including Bland, to ask whether they were concerned about the climate crisis and Formosa’s contribution to it. None responded with answers to the questions.

The discovery of fracking – a method of injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure to release oil and gas – vastly expanded the supply available to drillers. In turn, oil and gas prices plummeted. Fracking has also made it cheaper to make plastics, which come from a byproduct of the extracted gas.

And experts agree that the rapid boom in plastics production has been overlooked as the lower-emitting gas has allowed the US to phase out coal plants, at a benefit to the environment.

“Industry is saying this is good because we’re replacing coal, but they don’t talk about what else they’re doing with it – which is making plastic and chemicals,” said Courtney Bernhardt, research director at the Environmental Integrity Project.

According to a recent legal complaint filed against Formosa by lawyers representing local residents, the amount of greenhouse gases released by the plant will be the equivalent of 6.5% of Louisiana’s total energy related emissions by 2016 standards. The permits issued by LDEQ actively skirt the issue of greenhouse gas releases, arguing that because there is no way to measure precisely how the surrounding area will be affected by the emissions, there is no reason to block the construction.

Beyond greenhouse gases, the 157 oil and gas projects planned around America could emit thousands of tons of pollution that contribute to smog and the particle pollution that contributes to asthma and heart attacks. They will also emit sulfur dioxide – which damages the lungs, and nitrogen oxides – which feed fish-killing “dead zones” in waterways.

Last month, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, a staunch supporter of the Sunshine Project, announced a new initiative to confront the climate crisis in the gulf coast state, which faces severe coastal erosion and rising sea levels as a consequence of global heating.

“Louisiana will not just accept or adapt to climate change impacts,” Edwards, a Democrat, said at a news conference in Baton Rouge. “Louisiana will do its part to address climate change.”

The governor has created a new “Climate Initiatives Task Force” to reduce emissions among the dominant oil, gas and petrochemical industries in the state, and has committed at least a further $115m to coastal restoration. Notably, Edwards did not announce any binding emissions reduction targets.

Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, described the plan as “laughable” and said the most effective and meaningful way to combat climate change in the state would be for a moratorium on new petrochemical facilities in the state.

“If we’re serious about reducing carbon emissions, let’s move towards halting them,” Rolfes said.

LeBoeuf and other members of Rise had not been contacted about the governor’s new taskforce and did not expect to be part of the initiative.

As she stood at the grounds of the sprawling site, on which Formosa plan to begin construction this year, she spoke about the recent news that two suspected slave graveyards had been found on the land.

Formosa did not inform the community of the archaeological discovery, which was only made public following a public records disclosure. The information has led Rise St James to argue that the parish council should reconsider its permits, an argument that has thus far had little traction.

“It’s still a plantation,” said LeBoeuf, who traces her ancestry back through generations here. “Those people were slaves on the plantation back then. Now we’ll be slaves to an industrial plantation.”

Read the article in The Guardian

Who benefits from the petrochemical industry in St. James Parish?

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Population numbers have been dropping in St. James. Some people say they don’t want to live in an area surrounded by industry, like Burton Lane.

NEW ORLEANS — As members of the St. James Parish Council met in January, they decided not to allow public comments, but members of Rise St. James showed up anyway, demonstrating their opposition to industrial plants near their homes.

Attorneys and environmentalists have been working alongside Rise St. James, as the movement began working to protect St. James Parish residents from the hazards of more industrialized plants in the area.

“We at the Center for Constitutional rights proudly represent Rise St. James,” Attorney Pam Spees said. “Through that representation, we discovered that Formosa’s consultants had discovered burial sites likely of enslaved people on the proposed site.”

In part one of Victims of Progress, WWLTV introduced Sharon Lavigne, a woman who is on a crusade to stop more chemical plants from coming into her St. James parish community.

She formed the group Rise St James, after learning another plant called “Formosa” was slated to build near her home. It’s being called the largest facility in the state, producing products like plastic bottles, and grocery bags.

WWLTV’s Charisse Gibson first met Rise St. James leader and organizer Sharon Lavigne after the discovery of unmarked graves on the site slated for the Formosa petrochemical plant.

“We fighting for our lives now,” Lavigne said. “We want to live. So many people want to live. They love Saint James like I love Saint James.” 

Director of the State Division of Archaeology Chip McGimsey said Formosa has to navigate through government-enforced requirements to build a plant.

“Pretty much, the entire stretch on the river from New Orleans to Baton Rouge were plantations,” McGimsey said.” So, there is going to be a slave cemetery — I would say with almost 100% certainty with every plantation that existed.” 

Before a project can move forward, Formosa has to follow regulations as part of their process to get permits, McGimsey said. Following the National Historic Preservation Act, that also includes taking into account their effect on cultural and historic resources.

The site of the slave cemetery has been surrounded by a chain-link fence put in place by Formosa.

“(Formosa) is respectful of historic burial grounds and remains committed to cooperating with and following all local, state, and federal laws and regulations related to land use and cultural resources,” the company told WWLTV.

While Formosa implies that the gravesite won’t be disturbed, the same can’t be said about the agricultural landscape surrounding it.

“One of the things we do worry about a lot between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is that landscape is disappearing at an enormous rate,” McGimsey said. “Today, as the chemical plants come in, they’ll take two and four thousand acres out of that. One goes in next door, and one goes in next door— pretty soon you have no agricultural fields,  and as you say it’s just an urban industrial landscape.”

St. James Rise’s mission is to fight the industrial take over of residential and agricultural lands in St. James Parish. 

The group’s leader, Sharon Lavigne told WWLTV most St. James Parish residents weren’t aware of a vote taken by the parish council in 2014 to bring more industry to the area.

The 2014 Land Use Plan reclassified District 4 and District 5 in St. James Parish as “residential/future industrial” areas.

District 5 Councilman Clyde Cooper said he’s lived in St. James Parish his entire life. He said he wasn’t part of that vote, which is ushering in industry.

“If it’s classified as industrial, that means industry is allowed to build in the area” Cooper said. “I don’t believe a lot of the locals have a strong enough voice at the table to decide if the industry should be allowed in their area or not.”

Cooper said the fifth and fourth districts, which are on the east bank of the river, are the most affected by the chemical industry, and those communities are mostly African American.

Districts four and five were the only two districts changed to “residential/future industrial.”

Anne Rolfes, the Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental health and justice organization, 

“I think you can talk to a lot of urban planners, and they will tell you they have never heard this cockamamie idea that residential can go with industry,” Rolfes said. “They claim that this district is dying, but why is it dying? Because the parish government closed the high school, closed the post office. The parish government in the past has played an active role in killing off some of the most important institutions.”

So just how much power does the parish government have over who takes up space in St. James? According to Cooper, a lot.

“The council can overrule the planning commission board when it comes to the industry,” Cooper said. “If there is an appeal set by the people who don’t want industry in that area then the council will have to make a decision to allow industry to come in that area or not.”

Cooper voted for Formosa to come to St. James Parish.

“Initially, I was not in agreement of them coming in,” Cooper said. “The decision I made was with stipulations to allow them in. Meaning they have to put up fence monitoring systems, they have to contribute to the local school system in the area, they have to beautify the park where the plant will be located,  and they also have to put in training for the residents who live there in the West Bank.”

Population numbers have been dropping in St. James. Some people say they don’t want to live in an area surrounded by industry, like Burton Lane.

“A lot of people in Burton Lane wanted to sell,” Levigne said. “They wanted to sell because of two industries on each side. That’s Nustar and over on this side is Marathon.”

Charisse Gibson spoke with someone who lives in the area about what he’s experienced. Terrell Mayho’s mother, Geraldine was an active member of Rise St. James. She died before she could witness the growth of the movement.

“You know she was fighting for everything she could get to,” Terrell said. “The pollution is all over the area. It’s all in the ditches when it rains.”

When industry arrived in St. James, a promise of a stronger economy and jobs came with it.

A spokesperson for Governor Edwards told WWLTV,  Formosa would bring 1,200 direct jobs and an estimated 8,000 new indirect jobs, but who actually gets the jobs? That is up for debate.

Cooper told WWLTV that he hasn’t seen the jobs that were promised with industry. He said, “very few local people get job opportunities at those facilities.”

WWLTV’s partners at the Times Picayune/New Orleans Advocated quoted Michael Hect, President and CEO of Greater New Orleans,Inc. He said “to fill jobs at the plant, Formosa will draw workers from as far away as Lafayette and Hancock County, MS….with the hopes they would convince people to buy homes in St James parish.”

But with the community designated as future industrial, will St. James Parish see any growth?

Levigne hopes with the growing attention towards Rise St James, it will.

“I’m not going to give up and let someone take over our community and take over our homes,” Lavinge said. “So many people in Saint James expressed to me they are glad we are fighting, and they are behind us. They don’t want to move, either. So if God hadn’t spoken to me, I wouldn’t be doing this today, but when God told me to fight, I know he has a plan for us.”

Read the article in WWL-TV

What Could Happen if a $9.4 Billion Chemical Plant Comes to “Cancer Alley”

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In St. James Parish, Louisiana, a Taiwanese industrial giant seems likely to be granted a permit to build a billion-dollar plastics plant. Its proposed emissions could triple levels of cancer-causing chemicals in one of the most toxic areas of the U.S.

This article was produced in partnership with The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

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One evening in early July, a stream of people filed into a nondescript building on a bend of the Mississippi River in St. James Parish to fight over the permits to build a new chemical plant.

Four years earlier, the Taiwanese plastics company Formosa had applied to build a $9.4 billion petrochemical complex about 20 miles north. If approved, it would be one of the largest and most expensive industrial projects in the state’s history.

The hearing was a chance for residents to be heard by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. The scene was typical of the growing conflict between the chemical industry and the communities that flank the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

A Formosa spokesperson made opening remarks, noting the importance of plastics in the global economy and emphasizing the company’s commitment to St. James. A handful of speakers, including the parish president, announced their support for the development, highlighting opportunities for job growth in an area so plagued with unemployment that many of its promising young people have to move away in order to make a living.

Then dozens of attendees lined up to speak against Formosa’s plans.

Over the course of the five-hour hearing, parish residents, lawyers and environmental activists weighed in. Some talked about the chemicals the company was proposing to emit, including ethylene oxide, a substance that a 2016 Environmental Protection Agency study concluded can cause cancer even with limited exposure. Others brought up safety violations at other Formosa facilities around the country. They talked about the company’s plant in Illinois that exploded in 2004, killing five people and seriously injuring two others.

“We need no more pollution. We are already devastated,” said Rita Cooper, a longtime resident of the area where the plant would be located. “Our bodies can no longer take any more.”

“I want you to look at every law that they have broken. I want you to look at every violation standard that they have not kept,” said Norman Marmillion, owner of a nearby plantation that’s become a tourist attraction.

But despite the community’s objections — and despite a recent settlement that required the company to pay $50 million to the state of Texas for polluting waterways — the Formosa permits are sailing through Louisiana’s review process.

If the DEQ grants the permits, the people of St. James Parish will likely experience steep increases in toxic chemical concentrations in the air when the complex opens in 2022, according to a ProPublica analysis.

ProPublica analyzed data from an EPA model to estimate current toxic levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the air of St. James Parish. We hired Michael Petroni, a Ph.D. candidate at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and an expert in the EPA’s Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators dataset, to model the effect of Formosa’s emissions in the region. The analysis estimates that across the Mississippi in Convent, hundreds of residents will face double the toxic levels of cancer-causing chemicals than they currently do. One mile east in the St. James community, those levels could more than triple.

ProPublica’s analysis estimates that the air around Formosa’s site is more toxic with cancer-causing chemicals than 99.6% of industrialized areas of the country. If the complex emits all the chemicals it proposes in its permit application, it would rank in the top 1% nationwide of major plants in America in terms of the concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals in its vicinity.

The EPA did not object to Formosa’s air permits during their 45-day review period last summer. After the DEQ finishes reviewing all public comments — it has received more than 15,000 — it will issue a final decision on whether to approve Formosa’s permits.

“I’m Pro Safe Industry”

Formosa is not the only chemical company that has its eyes trained on south Louisiana. An investigation by ProPublica and The Times-Picayune and The Advocate recently found that a rush of new development is slated for some of the most polluted areas of “Cancer Alley” — a stretch along the lower Mississippi River known for its concentration of chemical plants. The state has already approved new projects in the industrial towns of Geismar and Killona. But no area is seeing as much new development as St. James.

Last year, the DEQ granted Chinese chemical giant Yuhuang a permit to build a large methanol complex in the parish. In January, South Louisiana Methanol announced a $2.2 billion investment in a second methanol project, expected to be one of the largest methanol manufacturing facilities in the world. The energy company Ergon has been cleared for a $200 million expansion to its oil terminal next door. The projects are stacked along an abrupt bend in the river in the parish’s predominantly black 5th District.

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Poor communities bear the brunt of Louisiana’s toxic pollution, but wealthy ones aren’t immune

The Advocate

This article was produced in partnership with the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, of which The Times-Picayune and The Advocate are members.

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Once a sleepy stretch of cane fields and plantation houses, Louisiana’s river corridor has been remade over the past century into a petrochemical powerhouse.

When chemical companies looked to build along the Mississippi, areas next to black neighborhoods were typically the first to see the swap of sugar cane for smokestacks.

After World War II, “you started to see the aggressive push of industry into rural, predominantly black, plantation lands,” said Craig Colten, a Louisiana State University geography professor who has written books about the state’s industrial development.

But Louisiana’s love affair with oil and gas, while disproportionately affecting black communities, has hardly spared white communities.

Ascension Parish is perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s annual Toxics Release Inventory, plants in Ascension Parish emit greater quantities of toxic chemicals from industrial stacks than anywhere else in the country. While this method of measuring releases doesn’t factor in the toxicity of each pollutant, it signals relative levels of total chemical activity across regions.

Unlike most industrial parishes, Ascension is among Louisiana’s whitest and most affluent. It’s also the third-fastest growing parish in Louisiana. Families flock here for affordable new housing, low crime rates, a booming business climate and some of the state’s best schools. In all conventional measures, Ascension Parish is thriving.

Winding river, changing demographics

Though today’s Ascension Parish challenges some Louisiana archetypes, it hasn’t always looked this way.

In the 1940s, according to Colten, petrochemical facilities began popping up on long, narrow plots that were once part of plantations. These included two such stretches in Ascension Parish, where black families that had settled nearby were either displaced or exposed to increasingly toxic air.

Indeed, in the Ascension Parish communities of Geismar and Donaldsonville, the neighborhoods closest to clusters of industry are still some of the most heavily black and poorest sections of the parish.

In the 1980s, white flight began to reshape Ascension Parish. School desegregation had begun in earnest, Colten noted, “and whites started leaving Baton Rouge to avoid integrated schools.” Interstate 10 provided easy access to the burgeoning suburbs to the south.

This growth changed the parish demographics, but not the advance of industry.

Over the last decade, toxic emissions in Ascension Parish have increased by 109%, to 28 million pounds in 2018, according to analyses by ProPublica and The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. Elsewhere in Louisiana, only St. Charles Parish saw such a jump. The number of plants in Ascension Parish required to report their emissions also increased from 17 to 21 over that period. Some of the air in Geismar near these new developments is estimated to be more toxic with cancer-causing chemicals than 99.6% of the area throughout the seven Mississippi River parishes between Baton Rouge and St. Charles, according to our analysis of EPA data.

Right now, another major new plant and two major plant expansions are in the works in Ascension Parish.

‘I just live my life’

Most Ascension Parish residents interviewed for this story were unaware of their parish’s air pollution, or that more industrial development is headed their way. Still, few were concerned.

Tara Allaine, 67, a retired neurodiagnostic technician, has lived in Ascension Parish for 25 years. In 2016, she moved to a new home in Gonzales’ Pelican Crossing neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the rust-red chemical retaining ponds of the LAlumina LLC aluminum facility.

Settlement negotiations have been underway since 2013 regarding a series of citations from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for repeated dust emissions from the “red mud” ponds, which contain heavy metal content considered to be a health concern by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almatis Alumina, which formerly owned the facility and received these citations, did not respond to phone or email requests for comment.

“Of course, the people selling us the house, you know, said it was nothing,” Allaine said, referring to the proximity of the “red mud” ponds. “I don’t know if it’s affected us or not. I guess we’ll find out.”

The neighborhood is still growing, with French Artist-style home plans advertised starting at $240,000. Real estate agent Bob Connor says his clients are aware of the nearby plants and, for the most part, they’re not bothered by them.

“Cancer Alley? Yeah. Everyone who lives and works around here is aware of it, and it’s not an issue for people,” Connor said.

In fact, he attributes most of the real estate demand to the nearby plants. More than 4,000 people work at Ascension Parish’s chemical plants, according to the Louisiana Chemical Association, and a number of them live in Pelican Crossing, Connor said.

“I can’t even imagine the neighborhoods would be selling if it wasn’t for Shell, BP, BASF,” Connor said.

Other homebuyers do consider air pollution when deciding where to settle down. Jon Bergeron, 32, owns businesses with locations in Ascension and Livingston parishes. He and his wife thought hard about where they wanted to raise their infant son when they relocated from Hammond, 50 miles east of Baton

“We talked for probably 45 minutes one night, ‘Why do you think they call it Cancer Alley?’ I had never heard of Cancer Alley, so I Googled it,” Bergeron said. “And we went back and started looking at houses in Denham” in Livingston Parish.

In part because of lower health risks from air pollution, the couple now live in Livingston Parish.

For most people in Ascension Parish, however, the pollution and attendant cancer risk of living in the river corridor is an acceptable cost for achieving a certain lifestyle. Bergeron said a friend of his recently made $60,000 in two months working at a plant in Ascension.

“I mean, I don’t worry about it, anything like that,” Allaine said of the plants. “I just live my life.”

Shallow roots

Lifelong Ascension Parish resident and former LSU economics professor George Armstrong thinks that when people move from Baton Rouge to Ascension, they often leave their work and social lives in the city, returning for weekend activities and family events.

That’s one reason Ascension lacks the deep-rooted network of environmental activists seen in nearby parishes, Armstrong said. In Iberville Parish, the majority-black community of St. Gabriel banded together to incorporate in 1994 to gain some power over industry. In St. James Parish, members of Rise St. James hold marches and protests at plant openings and public hearings. In St. John Parish, chemist Wilma Subra regularly speaks to a rapt audience of neighbors about health risks of pollutants from the nearby Denka plant.

Ascension Parish saw a burst of environmental activism in the 1970s, when a group called Mothers Against Pollution filed, and won, a lawsuit over air pollution against a company called Industrial Tank. That 1979 state Supreme Court case established a state obligation to protect local natural resources.

In recent decades, however, Ascension Parish’s fight against the petrochemical industry’s plans for growth has been waged largely by a small, motley band of retirees, Armstrong among them. The group calls itself Together Ascension and is a lesser-known branch of the grassroots organization Together Louisiana, both of which take on causes like tax fairness and access to medical care.

Armstrong’s Together Ascension colleague Henrynne Louden, a former pediatrician and the first black woman to graduate from Tulane Medical School, is a determined and passionate advocate for children’s well-being. But she and Armstrong are struggling to rally their neighbors against the onslaught of polluting industry.

“I’ve never had a sense of community mobilization [against industry] here,” Louden said. She thinks many Ascension Parish residents see the industrial boom as progress, rather than as a powerful interest that must be regulated and held to account.

The art of distraction

In communities dominated by petrochemical plants, it’s not unusual for elected officials to also work as plant employees.

Troy Gautreau, for instance, serves as vice president of the Ascension Parish School Board and as a supervisor at Methanex, the largest global producer of methanol. In his school board role, he has voted to approve numerous tax exemptions for local plants, though he says he’s never voted on one involving Methanex.

Still, to Together Ascension, he symbolizes the cozy relationship between industry and politics in the parish. Gautreau sees things differently.

“‘Together Ascension’ won’t be happy until they have collected every nickel possible from our businesses and thus drive them out,” he said in an email to Ascension schoolteachers. “New businesses will open shop in neighboring parishes because they will welcome them with open arms and support the [tax] exemptions, however their families will live in Ascension because they want their kids in our school system and we will be left with the cost to educate them without the tax benefit.”

This is a position often held by officials in river corridor parishes: that industrial development is a prize to be won, one replete with jobs and economic advantages. But Armstrong says this perspective doesn’t take into account the long-term tolls on infrastructure, public health and the environment.

The Rev. Ritney Castine, who ministers to a mostly black congregation at Trinity AME Church in Gonzales, said he sees little appetite among his congregants for criticizing industry or organizing against it. People see the plants as their region’s lifeblood, he said.

“I sure do get the sense that many of the folks who are born and raised in Ascension, and particularly the elected officials, are all-in and are open for business when it comes to bringing in continued plants and plant expansions,” Castine said. “People tend to welcome industry because they’re used to it.”

Castine emphasized that he believes industry has provided real opportunities. He’s seen young men put themselves through college by holding down summer jobs at the plants, and he thinks the plants have helped create a black middle class in the area. But he also thinks they are getting away with too much.

“The community deserves to know about the risks, and to be heard,” he said from his church’s sunlit sanctuary. “I’m not sure they know about the costs to our health, to the environment, to our nature and our quality of life.”

Read the article in The Advocate

Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ Is Getting Even More Toxic — But Residents Are Fighting Back

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One of the most polluted regions of the country is being overrun by a new glut of oil and gas facilities, including one that will emit as much carbon as three coal-fired power plants

Sharon Lavigne knows some 30 people who have died in and around her tiny parish of St. James, Louisiana, in just the past five years. She buried two close friends this past weekend — one died of cancer, the other heart disease. Two of her brothers have cancer, and her boyfriend of 17 years died of COPD, a respiratory disease linked to air pollution and chemical fumes, in 2013. He was “vibrant and healthy,” she says, until a pipeline company expanded its operations next to his home, adding millions more gallons of crude oil storage tanks. “It was the pollution that killed him,” Lavigne says.

This is life in “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch along the banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where industry leaders like ExxonMobil, Koch, and Shell operate about 150 fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities. Seven of the 10 census tracts with the highest cancer risk in the nation are found here. The exceptionally elevated  toxic air emissions released by the industry are linked to a host of ailments, from cancer to cardiovascular and respiratory disease to reproductive and developmental disorders. And in St. James, toxic facilities are increasingly concentrated in areas with the highest percentage of black and poor residents.

It is the frontline of environmental racism. And it is poised to get worse.

Five generations of Lavigne’s family have lived in St. James, including most of her six children and 12 grandchildren. Not far from her home stands a historical marker heralding the 1872 founding of the Settlement of Freetown by former slaves, who began cultivating the land with sugarcane farms. Lavigne still lives on the original 40 acres purchased by her grandfather. The first petrochemical plant opened down the road when she was a student at St. James High. There are now 12 petrochemical plants within a 10-mile radius of her home. The air still fills with the sweet syrupy scent of candy when the sugarcane is harvested in the area, but now it’s often overwhelmed by acrid smells that irritate the eyes, sinuses, and skin.

“We are boxed in from all sides by plants, tank farms, and noisy railroad tracks,” says Lavigne. “We live in constant fear.”

Spurred by the national oil and gas fracking boom, a new wave of industry expansions and mega facilities is pushing into St. James. Since 2010, 333 new chemical manufacturing projects have been announced in the U.S., mostly along the Gulf Coast, according to the American Chemical Council. Much of the new infrastructure is dedicated to plastics – 99 percent of which is made from chemicals derived from oil or natural gas. The International Energy Agency predicts that in 2050, 50 percent of the growth in oil demand will be related to plastics production, overtaking that for passenger cars. St. James is also the endpoint of the Bayou Bridge pipeline, which became operational in June. It’s the final extension of the Dakota Access Pipeline, carrying fracked oil from North Dakota, the subject of years of mass protest before Trump ordered its completion within days of taking office in 2017.

“They promised us jobs,” Lavigne says. “Instead they pollute us with these plants, like we’re not human beings, like we’re not even people. They’re killing us. And ­­­that is why I am fighting.”

In 2018, Lavigne, 67, founded RISE St. James, the lead organizer of a two-week-long protest, “The March Against Death Alley,” which culminates today in Baton Rouge. Along the way, she’s been joined by civil rights leader Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, II, the North Carolina pastor who relaunched Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign with co-chair Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis. “The same land that held people captive through slavery is now holding people captive through this environmental injustice and devastation,” says Barber, who joined the march in St. James last week and gave a fiery speech in a sugarcane field set to give way to another petrochemical complex“It is killing people by over-polluting them with toxins in their water and in their air. This is slavery of another kind.”

Carrying handmade signs declaring, “Stop the Genocide” and “Green Jobs. Green Infrastructure,” the protesters began their St. James march on Burton Street, sandwiched between long rows of massive white round holding tanks bearing millions of gallons of fossil fuels and petrochemicals. RISE member Myrtle Felton carried a poster of Geraldine Mayho, one of three fellow RISE members to have died in the past eight months. Within just four months in 2014, Felton’s husband, brother, sister-in-law and brother-in-law all died, she tells me, all from cancer except for her husband. She blames the industry and apologizes that it’s taken “so long for this community to rebel against these plants.”

“If we don’t march, these plants are just going to wipe us all out,” she says. “Nobody wanted to come forward before. I realized that somebody has to rise up if you want to survive.”

Lavigne never expected to become an activist. She spent 38 years as a special education teacher at St. James High. But in 2014, St. James Parish quietly pushed through a new land use plan, rezoning the 4th and 5th districts, where 64 and 90 percent of the residents are African American, respectively, to allow for more industrial development alongside residential. Soon after, St. James High was sold to China’s Yuhuang Chemical Inc. With majority owner and operator, Koch Methanol (a subsidiary of Koch Industries), Yuhuang now uses the building as an office while constructing what will be the largest production facility in the nation for Methanol, an oil and gas byproduct used in plastics. Lavigne only learned of the sale after she and her follow teachers and over 600 students were forced out and sent 10 miles away to a new school in another district.

Then, in 2018, Lavigne learned of a proposed plan to build a massive new $9.4 billion petrochemical complex within a mile and a half of her home. She began attending meetings, learning about Formosa Petrochemical Corporation’s so-called “Sunshine Project”, among other new plants. Composed of 14 separate facilities, the Formosa operation would be one of the largest Ethylene plants in the world, another plastic feedstock operation. It would double the amount of toxic chemicals currently being released into St. James’ air. And the Environmental Integrity Project found that among a list of 219 currently proposed oil and gas projects in the U.S., the Formosa plant would release the most carbon dioxide, by a wide margin. At 13.6 million tons of emissions per year, it’s the equivalent of three coal-fired power plants, says Earthjustice attorney Corinne Van Dalen.

“It is staggering,” Van Dalen says. “This is a massive operation, and the conversion by these giant crackers creates tons of greenhouse gases, as do the plants generating their electricity, greatly worsening the climate crisis. The government is courting and just greenlighting these facilities without any real appreciation of what they’re allowing into their community just over one mile from an elementary school.”

In a statement to Rolling Stone, Formosa said the facility would “meet all state and federal standards” and that “modeling demonstrates that Formosa’s emissions will have predicted ambient concentrations below the state and federal standards.” Formosa also said the site was selected “for its remoteness from residential areas, regardless of racial demographics” and that “census data for a one mile area surrounding the center point of the site shows that the population within a one-mile radius is zero.”

According to EPA data, Formosa’s Baton Rouge plant has been in violation of the Clean Air Act every quarter since 2009 and in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act every quarter since 2004. And, earlier this month, Formosa agreed to pay $50 million to settle a lawsuit over federal Clean Water Act violations at its Texas plant. The agreement is the largest ever settlement of Clean Water Act suit filed by private individuals.

Lavigne returned home from the Formosa meetings depressed and would stay up in bed at night crying. “Nobody said, ‘let’s stop them!’” she recounts in anger. “Why should I leave my land? It took years for my grandfather to pay for this land. Why should I let those monsters come in here and destroy what we built up here?”

So she gathered a group of friends in the garage of her home. Over gumbo, they formed RISE St. James to take on the industry. Thirty years ago, the Great Louisiana Toxics March helped first bring attention to Cancer Alley. And in 1996, Lavigne’s cousin Emelda West led a grassroots campaign to stop construction of a planned petrochemical facility in St. James by the Shintech corporation. A 2001 Lifetime TV movie, Taking Our Town Back, chronicled West’s success. Still, both the victory and the activism behind it are rare here.

Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a nonprofit environmental justice organization, points to the severe industry-capture at all levels of government in the state, making victories exceptional and leading many to conclude that resistance is futile. The locating of facilities in the most marginalized communities, many of which are also often dependent on government services, adds to the fear of taking action. The communities are also small, making anonymity impossible.

RISE St. James is hoping to change that. It is still a small all-volunteer group, but it’s gaining momentum. Last November they held their first protest, in front of the Fifth Ward Elementary School near where Formosa plans to build. In September, they submitted a letter to the Parish Council demanding a full moratorium on any new “petrochemical facilities and infrastructure, including pipelines” anywhere in the parish. They’re confronting the industry with a series of legal challenges led by organizations including Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, Center for Constitutional Rights, Earthjustice, and the Center for Biological Diversity. Lavigne was also featured this year in the film The Women of Cancer Alley, and she and fellow RISE member Barbara Washington spoke in June at the Congressional Convening on Environmental Justice in Washington, D.C.

Lavigne says they’ve already scored a highly unlikely victory: helping to force the Chinese company Wanhua Chemical Group to abandon its plans for a $1.85 billion petrochemical plant in St James. “It didn’t even take nine months for that plant to leave because of the noise we made,” Lavigne says, citing both legal victories and public protest. She concedes that cost increases due to Trump’s trade war with China impacted the company’s decision. Nonetheless, she argues, “That was our first win! The next big win is going to be Formosa.”

“There’s incredible leadership in St. James right now,” says Rolfes. “It’s the strongest organizing I’ve seen there in 20 years. It’s a response to this onslaught of these new operations, and they’re helped by the expanding robustness of the climate justice movement.”

Last month, RISE members went to New Orleans to participate in the Global Climate Strike inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, during which some 7.6 million people took to the streets worldwide demanding action on the climate.

In turn, environmental groups like Sierra Club, 350 New Orleans, and Extinction Rebellion came out to join the “March Against Death Alley.” “More attention is coming to St. James,” Lavigne says. “More people are coming on board. I feel like we’re not completely alone, and I can see victory.”

Read the article in Rolling Stone