Skip to content

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

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.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

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.

Read the article in ProPublica