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CONVENT — Any decision on the $9.4 billion Formosa chemical complex proposed along the Mississippi River in northwestern St. James Parish will have to wait until the Parish Council and its Planning Commission hold two joint public hearings.

The Planning Commission, heeding the recommendation of the parish administration Wednesday night, held off on a final decision until after the two hearings are scheduled and held.

Before the commission vote on deferring their decision, 10-member body heard from residents who were mostly concerned about another huge chemical facility being located on the parish's west bank. Meanwhile, company representatives pledged to work and remain transparent with the parish and its residents.

Formosa officials also said the facility would have the latest in pollution controls and that the company fund an expansion of La. 3127 to four lanes along the company's boundaries to ease traffic concerns and assist in the creation of a much-needed evacuation route.

"Our organization's commitment to running a safe operation, protecting the environment and providing job opportunities will remain a focus for our company," said Janile Parks, director of community and government relations for the Formosa subsidiary behind the project.

The cane fields and swamp that Formosa Petrochemical Corp. is eyeing are already earmarked for industrial use under St. James' land use plan, but the commission still retains a final say on the building permit for a project of this scope. 

Even if the parish ultimately approves the project, construction wouldn't start any time soon because the complex still lacks other permits, including key air and construction permits from the state Department of Environmental Quality. Greg Langley, DEQ spokesman, said in an email Wednesday afternoon that those permit applications remain under review.

The Formosa complex is expected to generate 1,200 permanent full-time jobs and more than 8,000 temporary construction jobs over the project's 12-year building schedule.

The complex, which would have a dock on the river and access to rail and pipelines, would produce ethylene and propylene. Made from cracking petroleum, both chemicals are important feed stocks used in making plastics, rubber, resins and other products.

Formosa expects construction on the complex to start in the first quarter of 2019, pending permit approval. The facility would be built in two phases, with the first expected to be ready for operation in 2024 and the second in 2030.

Parish officials have already started talks to bring a so-called "man camp" to west St. James to house the thousands of workers expected if the project is approved.

The plant near the Sunshine Bridge would be built on 1,600 acres of a 2,319-acre site along the west bank of St. James Parish and operate 24 hours a day, seven days per week. The area is next to existing chemical facilities but also about a mile upriver from the small Welcome community, which has homes, a public elementary school and churches.   

The complex would emit into the air hundreds to thousands of tons per year of volatile organic compounds, particulates and nitrogen oxides and far lesser amounts — in the tens to single tons per year — of formaldehyde, toluene and benzene, a company permit application says.

The plant would also house hazardous and potentially explosive chemicals and release treated wastewater into the Mississippi River. That treatment process is expected also to produce a sludge that would have to be disposed of at a permitted facility.

With plenty of land along the Mississippi River and cheap natural gas prices, western St. James continues to attract major industrial facilities like Formosa and Yuhuang Chemical, but with the growth has come growing public concern.

Part of the Planning Commission's role is to weigh whether the environmental and physical impacts don't outweigh the public benefits.

Genevieve Butler, 61, a longtime resident of Freetown, a historic community founded by freed slaves down river from Formosa's site, said she is already surrounded by other existing or planned chemical facilities. She argued it's time for industry to move out people who want to be moved out if that's going to be the area's future.

"I understand you want industry. That's fine, but people that bring industry, how many of them are going to live next to me," Butler said.

Answering questions from Commissioner Johnny Lawrence about emissions, Karen Olson, a consultant for Formosa, displayed a map of the company's air modeling that, she said, showed no emissions from the plant would come close to raising the area's ambient air quality above levels deemed unsafe by state and federal rules. 

Julie Rosenzwig, the Delta Chapter director of the Sierra Club and a lawyer who was representing several environmental groups, questioned some of Formosa's technical assertions. She said its coastal use and wetland permits have "significant flaws." She promised the groups will fight the project to make sure Louisiana is "a safe place for all of us." 

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.