Formosa Plant

Formosa Petrochemical Corp. has selected St. James Parish for a $9.4 billion chemical manufacturing complex. Gov. John Bel Edwards and local leaders have praised the jobs and economic benefits it could create, but environmentalists say it could add unhealthy pollution to the area. 

The chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources and one of his committee colleagues urged President Joe Biden on Wednesday to "permanently revoke" wetlands permits for the $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex proposed for St. James Parish, calling it "an affront to environmental justice."

In a letter sent to the president Wednesday, U.S. Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, the committee chairman, and U.S. Rep. A Donald McEachin, D-Va., said the plant would be contrary to the president's goal of cutting pollution for fence-line communities and remains a test of his promised environmental justice efforts.

"Allowing the Formosa plastics complex to continue would cause irreparable harm to the Black community members of St. James Parish, destroy the environment, and set back your goals of achieving an equitable and just transition. Mr. President, the time to end this project is now," the congressmen wrote in the letter.

Grijalva and McEachin proposed environmental justice legislation in the last Congress and have plans for a new bill in the new Congress aimed at expanding the ability of private citizens to be included earlier in the permit process and to bring federal civil rights suits over environmental justice questions and require permitting agencies to look at the cumulative impacts of industries.  

Since then, Biden has promised to do more to halt climate change and look more closely at the disparate impact new industrial projects and expansions impose for poor and minority fence-line communities.

He specifically called out, by name, the "Cancer Alley" corridor along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a statement that has drawn from fire from local leaders and industry. Critics say the term "Cancer Alley" is unsupported by cancer incidence statistics.

Known as the Sunshine Project, the facility would produce the raw materials for a variety of plastics and is expected to create 1,200 permanent jobs, tens of millions of dollars per year in state and local taxes, and millions more in spinoff benefits once built.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and local officials have portrayed the facility as a major economic development win for the region and state. It also received $1.5 billion in property tax breaks. 

But the huge operation would emit more than 800 tons of toxic pollutants, nearly 6,500 tons of criteria pollutants known to cause ground-level ozone and respiratory ailments, and more than 13.6 million tons of greenhouse gases annually. 

The Corps of Engineers granted the permit for the facility in September 2019, but, amid a legal challenge, suspended it in November to look more closely at its own evaluation of Formosa's site selection. 

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The congressmen's three-page letter detailed the history of the Formosa project and its opposition, Formosa's environmental track record in Texas and Vietnam, and the pollution critics say the new complex would bring to predominantly minority communities in northern St. James, both in the air and water.

The letter cited findings from a November 2019 series by The Times-Picayune/The Advocate and ProPublica. Citing cancer risk data, the report found the Formosa site is already “more toxic with cancer-causing chemicals than 99.6% of industrialized areas of the country” and residents of St. James area would be exposed to “more than triple” the current level of toxic chemicals in the air.

The letter urged Biden to follow up his roll back of Trump era policies and revocation of the Keystone XL pipeline permits with action on Formosa.

The White House did not return an email for comment Wednesday, but the letter prompted immediate pushback.

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who recently disputed Biden's characterization of the river region as Cancer Alley, said Formosa has received approval from the Corps of Engineers and other agencies because it meets health and safety standards.

He said "these two Democrats, who are not from our state," were making claims not based on science.

"This is someone outside of Louisiana demanding these communities live in poverty, sacrificing Louisiana jobs and economic security to satisfy their conscience," said Cassidy, who is a physician. “This plant will be built—if not in Louisiana, in a foreign country with worse environmental standards—increasing global greenhouse gas emissions.”

Janile Parks, spokeswoman for FG LA, the Formosa affiliate behind the project, said the complex was sited after a thorough review and charged national environmental groups are attacking the petrochemical industry, which contributes 26% of the state's economy and employs one in seven people in Louisiana.

"We must work together to find sustainable solutions that do not devastate Louisiana’s economy," she said.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.