VACHERIE — A $9.4 billion Formosa Petrochemical plant that economic development officials dubbed "the big one" earlier this year has won conditional land use approval from the St. James Parish Council after months of debate, adding another step in the huge project's path toward construction.
The plastics facility proposed for 2,400 acres of agricultural land southwest of the Sunshine Bridge has come as a wave of new or expanding industries are being proposed or built along the rural west bank of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Some residents have tried to resist the onslaught and the environmental risk they fear the facilities would bring, despite the promises of high-paying jobs, the latest in air pollution controls, hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending, and tens of millions of dollars in new government tax revenue.
Formosa and some of the other major plants in the pipeline are being proposed in St. James' 5th District, a majority black part of the parish with small but historic communities like Welcome, St. James and Freetown, raising allegations of environmental racism.
Those fears and the prospect of new jobs and revenue for St. James came into sharp relief Wednesday before the parish council as it considered the key land use approval for FG La LLC, the Formosa affiliate building the complex.
Sharon Lavigne, director of the community group RISE St. James, told the council her part of St. James already has polluted air, water and land and the resulting sicknesses, and doesn't need any more.
"But it seems like you all like to push everything in the 5th District. Why? Because of the minorities and because of the blacks. I don't know what it would take for this council to stand with this community and stop granting permits to every company that desires to set up here," she said.
John King, who spoke on behalf of FG, told the council the project meets all of the land use ordinance conditions, with jobs and tax benefits that well exceed the environmental impacts, adding FG will invest in local training and hiring programs with a priority for qualified west bank residents.
King added that region's air quality is within federal and state standards and FG's complex won't make the air fall below those standards. The plant also has been required to have a 300-foot buffer zone and is far enough from homes in the Welcome community not to pose a risk during a major failure.
After more than two hours of discussion Wednesday night, the Parish Council agreed to support the plant's construction by denying an appeal of a parish Planning Commission decision in October to back the project.
RISE St. James, a group of community activists who live in the St. James area, appealed the commission decision late last month, sending the matter to the parish council.
The parish had designated the area where FG wants to build as industrial use several years ago through a long-term planing process. The site is north of residential areas and next to the Mosaic and AmSty chemical plants.
But, even with the land use designation, which is akin to a zoning district, a facility the size that FG is proposing still needed backing from the parish Planning Commission.
FG still needs several state and federal permits, and the Parish Council vote came only if FG agrees to insert a series of conditions into its final land use approval.
Among the conditions put on FG Wednesday are guarantees for training programs with a preference for the 5th District and parish residents, a promise to hire one-third of its employees from the 5th District and parish residents, and a commitment to help fund an evacuation route and beautification efforts and free cancer screenings for the district.
The company must also agree to fence-line air monitors.
The conditions came after Councilman Clyde Cooper, who represents the 5th District, delivered an extended and impassioned speech about the parish leadership's treatment of his district and other black communities in St. James.
He noted that parish officials had risen up in recent years to block industrial projects from other parts of the parish, including in the whiter communities of Paulina and Vacherie, but didn't seem to have the same passion for the 5th District and other black residents.
He argued it's time to treat those areas more fairly and look out for their best interests.
"When are we going make the right decisions that is going help those communities," Cooper asked.
Though FG had already publicly announced similar programs, Cooper said later he wanted those conditions in the company's land use approval so FG could be held to them.
The council gave the parish administration and FG until Jan. 9 to develop the language of the conditions. Both representatives of FG and the parish administration said they will have to research the legality of a percentage requirement for local hiring.
The seven-member council voted 5-0 with Cooper abstaining. Councilman Ralph Patin was absent.
Lavigne had wanted the appeal hearing delayed until Jan. 9 to give people more time to prepare.
But after more than hour of debate on just that point — which included a call from Blaise Gravois, the parish director of operations, that it was time for the council to decide, a statement he said he was making as a resident — the council took a vote on pushing the hearing to Jan. 9 but deadlocked, 3-3.