With President Joe Biden placing a new focus on climate change and Democrats running both chambers of Congress, some Louisiana industry groups are gearing up for a more hostile environment for their major new projects.

Biden referred to river parishes in between Baton Rouge and New Orleans as "Cancer Alley" as he rolled out new orders addressing climate change and industrial pollution. Congressmen who lead the environmental committee in the House last week urged Biden to stop a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex in St. James Parish, calling it an "affront to environmental justice." And the United Nations recently labeled the Formosa plans a prime example of "environmental racism."

The new scrutiny at the highest levels of government has encouraged environmental groups that felt largely ignored by the Trump Administration. And it has industry groups ready to more aggressively defend their projects in public.

"There's a level of frustration within industry and a desire to speak out. It's like it's time. We're ready to start speaking out against this stuff because it's just not fair," Connie Fabre, president and CEO of the Greater Baton Rouge Industrial Alliance.

Caught in the middle are local residents and the elected officials who represent them. Some worry what more pollution could mean for their communities, but others worry about lost jobs if industry is stifled -- worries that were magnified recently by the closure of a big Shell refinery in Convent.

St. James Parish President Pete Dufresne said industry provides jobs and revenue that have kept local government operating and continues to spur spinoff employment that help his parish's well-being.

"So just because you might not be working inside the fence line doesn't mean industry's not providing you a job," he said.

A new environmental sheriff in town

Biden has called for a 60-day pause on new oil and gas leases on public lands and waters to review of federal leasing practices as part of his climate change policy. He also says he has plans to look more closely at the environmental justice concerns that new projects and expansions raise for poor and minority communities.

Biden’s pick for the EPA secretary, Michael Regan, was confirmed earlier this month. Neither of Louisiana’s Senators supported him.

It isn't clear yet just how aggressive Biden's administration will be in regulating industry. But Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former top EPA enforcement official, said it's clear that the administration has "a long list of Trump policies, rules and guidance documents" to reconsider.

Many, he said, would have "a pretty direct impact" on the petrochemical industry or "the communities immediately downwind."

Industry groups aren't waiting to find out. Fabre's organization, which represents 60 major industrial facilities in the Baton Rouge area, the company building the plastics plant in St. James, recently sent out a "Call to Action" asking for letters of support to the Army Corps of Engineers for the Formosa complex and as a counterweight to thousands being sent by opponents. The Corps recently suspended a crucial wetlands permit amid concerns it had not adequately studied the impact on poor and minority communities.

"It's just like it's been a longtime coming kind of thing. The shift in administration is just kind of like the last straw," Fabre said. "They're like, 'OK, we just really have to get out there and do more, to be proactive, to communicate, to educate and to be able to make a difference so that our industry doesn't shut down' because, you know, they want to come after fossil fuels. It's pretty plainly stated."

A fight over "Cancer Alley"

When Biden referred to the River Parishes as "Cancer Alley," he was invoking a phrase that has been hotly debated since the 1980s.

Environmentalists point to anecdotal accounts of families or areas with cancer cases and to federal modeling data showing the region's air poses an elevated cancer risk for residents -- risk that the recent wave of newly permitted plants will significantly increase in some areas. But industry groups and others point to parish-level data on new cancer diagnoses that show the region has average to below average cancer incidences.

Further clouding the picture, the state repository of the cancer data, the Louisiana Tumor Registry, doesn't have specific enough data within parishes to look at communities closest to the plants. Some of the data that is available shows areas with elevated cases -- but often only for all cancers and not specific organs that can be more closely linked to chemicals.

In the census tract around Formosa’s site, incidences of all cancers are 8.2% higher than the state per-capita average. But many other areas aren't, including the Convent area region across the river from Formosa, which is a notch above the state per-capita average for new cancer cases, the latest registry data show.

Jim Harris, a longtime Baton Rouge-area public relations strategist and spokesman for several industrial operations in the region, said he expects some industries either jointly or individually to begin discussing Louisiana's health problems, but in a more collaborative direction.

He expects them to raise the need to work together to improve Louisiana health, especially in the poorest parts of the state and among those with limited access to doctors and hospitals.

"And that's not a Black or White environmental justice issue. That's a people issue, and we have it in a number of parishes in Louisiana and along the river we have that also," Harris said.

"I'm hoping that logic, reason and science prevail as we go forward in all this," Harris added, "and that's about all we can try to help happen."

An entire industry under attack?

When U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, called on Biden to revoke Formosa’s permits last week, he said the facility is a prime example of the disparate impact minority communities face from industrial pollution – an issue he is seeking to address with new legislation.

Formosa charged the statement was part of broader “attack by national environmental activist groups opposed to all industrial development in Louisiana and across the country.”

“These groups have been spending quite a bit of time fundraising and investing significant amounts of money on advertising in newspapers and on social media in the state,” Janile Parks, a spokeswoman for FG LA, the Formosa affiliate behind the St. James facility.

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Formosa is the case most likely to face national scrutiny, given its size. 

"It's such an icon of the industry's massive buildout that, I think, it drew attention to itself by its sheer mass and its sheer scope," said Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

But opponents have also gone after several other multi-mullion or billion-dollar investments in St. James, including the proposed $2.2 billion South Louisiana Methanol plant downriver in St. James, the fledgling YCI Methanol complex near Vacherie, the sidelined Wanhua project in Convent and others. Wanhua was also later blocked from locating in Westwego.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade has even decided to take on a $1 billion Mitsubishi Chemical Corp. plastics complex being considered in nearby Ascension Parish, a staunchly pro-industry parish where environmental activism has been rare in recent history.

Though state regulators and industry officials have said plants like Formosa's would comply with state and federal pollution standards and use the latest controls, each has raised concerns, the opponents say, over air emissions -- be they toxics like carcinogen ethylene oxide, fine particulates that cause respiratory and other cardiovascular problems, or greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

In Formosa's case, opponents have packed permit and land use hearings for more than two years, launched an advertising campaign and have gone to the courts, attacking key state air and federal wetlands permits.

Local environmentalists say they're waiting to see if the Biden administration's push is more than rhetoric. But if it does get tougher on industry, they say it would even the scales in their fight with multi-billion dollar corporations.

“There's absolutely no comparison between the resources,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

Local residents torn between jobs and health

In the middle of the tension between regulators and industry are residents of the rural parishes and their elected leaders.

On a recent afternoon, Ryan Forsythe, 30, was playing football with his one-year-old son in the front of yard of his neighbor’s house at Bellevue Lakes subdivision in Paulina, across and down river from where Formosa and several other plants or tank farm expansions would locate.

Forsythe said college wasn’t for him and has been working in the chemical industry “since before I could drink” alcohol. After he got a two-year degree, he was earning $100,000 a year at age 20, he said.

“That makes a difference,” he said.

Forsythe said his job as an operator has allowed him to make home for him, his wife, their son and another child on the way.

Some of Forsythe’s neighbors were reluctant to be quoted by name discussing the debate over industry, though some defended it while others had more mixed feelings.

Across the river, at Blue and Sons grocery store and gas station on River Road in St. James, Kenneth Winchester, 61, has seen the store that his dad opened in the 1970s go from being surrounded by cane fields to being surrounded by petroleum tank farms.

Winchester is a retired pipeline operator but still runs the family store. Like many of his neighbors in western St. James, he doesn’t feel like the benefits of the parish’s industrial growth have been spread evenly, though its impact has fallen on his community.

Though coming facilities talk jobs for locals and training programs – Formosa is among them -- Winchester said he and other residents remain skeptical those promises will be realized for west bank residents.

“I’m mean you’re putting all the plants here, but nobody’s benefiting from it. I mean you got people from the other side of the river coming over here and get a job, quicker than them,” he said. “And that ain’t right.”

His two older children have moved to get away from the industry around their old home nearby the store. One more remains at home.

“That’s what I think most of them want. I mean you know what I’m saying? They want to get away from these plant areas completely,” Winchester said

St. James Parish President Dufresne walked onto the job last year well into the fight over Formosa. In a recent interview, he said the closure of Shell oil refinery in Convent only underscores how crucial these industries are to his parish's budget and economy.

Direct revenue from industry accounts for 73.75% of ad valorem taxes and 50% of sales taxes collected, parish estimates say.

Dufresne said that while he wouldn't agree to an unsafe complex locating in St. James, he believes state and federal regulators hold companies accountable and doesn't agree with how outside groups are characterizing his parish.

He added that, based on cancer incidence data, he doesn't believe the Cancer Alley name is fair or that racism has been behind new plant sites -- rather, the size of the property and its access to the river and other infrastructure are.

But he said residents are mixed on how much more industry St. James should have and must decide the balance between more industry and local services like 70,000 meals per year for the homebound elderly or parish transit services.

"It's not for me to decide that. It's for the council and the people of the parish and the services that we provide and how much we enjoy them," he said.

Editor's note: This story was changed 5:15 p.m. Monday, March 22, 2021, to identify Kenneth Winchester correctly. He was misidentified in an earlier version of the story. 

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.