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Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Dirt gets thrown during the groundbreaking ceremony for Yuhuang Chemical Inc. plant in St. James.

VACHERIE — St. James Parish Council members pressed executives with Yuhuang Chemical and its Georgia-based general contractor, Wood, for greater hiring opportunities for local workers on the $1.5 billion methanol plant under construction in western St. James Parish.

But company executives said the plant only has 16 percent of its construction completed and will be ramping up hiring next year with a commitment to bring in local workers after a recent job slowdown.

Council members, however, noted that job fairs had been announced and canceled in the past year and that people they had sent to apply for jobs at the plant hadn't gotten any responses.

"I've had multiple, multiple residents of St. James Parish come to me and ask, 'How do you get a job at (Yuhuang)?'," Councilman Eddie Kraemer told executives Wednesday night. 

Kraemer said he sent those residents to Yuhuang's offices in Vacherie, but when they got there, someone told them to put in an application online and they never heard back.

"That's repeatedly from everyone I ever sent through there. I don't know anyone that I've ever sent through there that actually was hired," Kraemer added. "And, this is good people, good workers that I know of, and all of them come back and say, 'Man, we can't get anything there.'"  

In 2014, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that Yuhuang Chemical, a subsidiary of Chinese chemical giant Shangdong Yuhuang Chemical Co., would be building facilities in phases near Vacherie that would generate 2,100 construction jobs and 400 permanent jobs. 

Under questioning from council members, Jim Tidwell, the plant manager, and Bryan Campbell, a senior project director with Wood, explained that 105 of the nearly 495 Yuhuang employees and contractors working on the site are from St. James Parish.

About 100 are contractors and subcontractors working for Wood while only five or six are working for the key Yuhuang subsidiary, YCI Methanol One, the executives said. 

Tidwell said Yuhuang has a small staff of about 95 people on site while the project is still in its early phases. The complex isn't expect to hit peak construction until next year. He said the St. James workers at Yuhuang were primarily administrative workers. 

Campbell said his company was planning a job fair in the first quarter of 2019 while Yuhuang is planning one in the third or fourth quarter of 2019. Tidwell said his company will be looking for a mix of experienced workers and those new to the field. 

Kraemer and other council members, several of whom have spent their private careers working in chemical facilities in the region, suggested Yuhuang should have already started reaching out to high school sophomores and juniors.

That way, Kraemer and others said, the youths could be focused and ready to start when Yuhuang's facilities are built and started up by 2020.

"I learned from the ground up," said Councilman Alvin "Shark" St. Pierre.

Company executives said they had already hired recruiters, reached out to area community colleges, were part of local business alliances and made some local subcontracting hires, but Councilman Clyde Cooper and others called for a single point of contact for them to send referrals.

Methanol is a key ingredient in plastics production and, as liquid at room temperature, has been seen as an easy way to access and export cheap U.S. natural gas. The plant will produce 11 million pounds of methanol per day.

As part of the plant's arrival, parish leaders agreed to sell the nearby St. James High School to Yuhuang for about $10 million and then asked voters to approve a $56 million bond issue to finance a new high school down river from the 1,300-acre complex and other school facilities. 

Timing that work with the construction of the new high school, which opened in August, Yuhuang didn't start construction until April 2017 and then encountered what executives described as a slowdown as the Trump administration toughened its rhetoric over trade with China and other nations.

In an interview, Jerry Oliver, vice president of business operations for YCI Methanol One, declined to provide details about what caused the Yuhuang slowdown but acknowledged that, at least for a time, ready access to capital from China was an issue.

He declined to speculate on what role, if any, the Trump administration's positions on trade might have had on those problems.

But he noted that in August, a Koch affiliate invested in the project as a minority partner and garnered exclusive off-take rights to the methanol. Koch Methanol Investments will also build, own and operate the plant's tanks and other terminal assets to ship out methanol through water, rail and truck. 

Oliver and other Yuhuang executives said in the interview that it took some time to put together that deal and it didn't make sense to start job fairs when a restart date for the project was uncertain.

Oliver said it is Koch's hope to sell as much of the methanol in the United States as possible, while Yuhuang remains committed to local hiring. 

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.