A new, more stringent review of the environmental impacts of a massive proposed plastics plant along the Mississippi River in St. James Parish will likely take more than two years.

Environmental groups are cheering that scrutiny, arguing it could provide a more realistic assessment of the environmental damage the plant would do to an area they say already bears a heavy burden of pollution. But some local government and business leaders are trying to rally support for a project that could create about 1,200 permanent jobs and pour millions of dollars into the local economy.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had already approved permits for the Sunshine Project, a $9.4 billion plastics plant that Formosa has been trying to build for three years, but it rescinded them a year ago. Environmental groups filed a lawsuit claiming the environmental study was inadequate, and the Corps acknowledged errors.

Now the Corps of Engineers is conducting a more thorough review called an "environmental impact statement." It's only the fourth such review the New Orleans district of the Corps has conducted since 2008.

Martin Mayer, the Corps of Engineers' regulatory chief in New Orleans, said the EIS process has "an average goal" of rendering a decision in two years. It will involve multiple opportunities for public input so that no "stone goes unturned," he said.

"I mean really the goal of the EIS is to get everybody's input," Mayer said.

The review means construction on the project won't be starting anytime soon. The clock on that two-year estimate isn't likely to start until the spring when a public notice is expected to be published.

The Corps still needs to reach an agreement with FG LA LLC, the Formosa affiliate behind the project, on the scope of the work. FG also needs to hire a contractor to do the analysis under the Corps' direction.

'On the wrong side of history'

Dubbed the "Sunshine Project" and located just downriver of the Sunshine Bridge, the plant would make pellets and other raw materials that are used to make everyday plastic products. Many state and local leaders have praised its potential economic benefits: It is expected to create 1,200 permanent jobs, thousands more temporary construction jobs and generate tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

But the plant has triggered lawsuits and regular protests from a dedicated group of local residents and environmentalists. It has also drawn attention from out-of-state political leaders and the United Nations.

Critics have claimed that Formosa's toxic emissions would land on already overburdened Black communities, like Welcome and Romeville, in the Mississippi River corridor. They also argue it would create a massive new source of greenhouse gases at a time when much of the world is trying to fight climate change.

The plant would also be built near a graveyard suspected of holding former slaves and become a major new source of the kind of disposable plastics already fouling the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico and the world's oceans, these critics add.

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Those critics welcomed the Corps' increased scrutiny.

Martin, the Corps regulatory chief, provided his explanation of the coming review process during a meeting with the community groups Rise St. James and Louisiana Bucket Brigade at the Freetown Street community hall in Welcome.

The visit was one of at least two that Jaime Pinkham, the Corps of Engineers' acting assistant secretary for civil works, and other top officials made in St. James last week. Promising fairness and transparency, the agency officials also met with leading elected officials in St. James Parish, including the parish president, sheriff, assessor and school superintendent.

Sharon Lavigne, founder of Rise St. James, said in a prepared statement that her meeting with the Corps lasted about an hour and that Corps officials affirmed that "any industrial project’s impact on the quality of human life was a priority."

"This is the first time a government official has taken the time to see our humanity," Lavigne said. "We will forever remember Mr. Pinkham for taking this initial step. We hope this visit inspires others to do the same. So far, we have been dismissed and discounted by the local leadership. They are on the wrong side of history, not us."

'Everything in that report said Formosa is legit'

St. James Parish President Pete Dufresne said he told the Corps he supports the project. He recently commissioned a study by consultant Atlas Environmental that found the Corps has already followed the rules on state and federal permitting.

"The health and safety of our residents is of the utmost concern," Dufresne said he told the Corps officials. "It always was, always has been and always will be, but, with that being said, we have to be realistic with our approach to this project. I said, 'I cannot lead my community just based on gut feelings. I have to have scientific data and something concrete to make my decisions off of, and everything in that report says Formosa was legit.'"

Dufresne took office in January 2020, well into the fight over Formosa and after an earlier Parish Council majority had granted the project its blessing. He said the new consultant's report gives him a solid basis to back the project and its benefits for his parish in full.

Formosa opponents, including at least one parish council member, have criticized the report, saying it didn't do its own analysis of emissions data and didn't address some questions about how it had been reviewed.

Through television ads and billboards, opponents have been pressing the council to rescind the parish land use permit for the project, but the council hasn't discussed the new report since it was delivered in Convent last month.

The independent report "affirmed that all is in good standing for the project," said Janile Parks, FG LA director of community and government relations. She said the company has been in contact with the Corps over the environmental impact statement "in the interest of a fair and transparent process."

"The company still has not received official notification from the Corps regarding the additional review or its components, nor did Acting Assistant Secretary Jaime Pinkham seek to meet with FG (last) week during his visit to the area, so we cannot comment further," Parks wrote. 

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.