CONVENT — A massive industrial complex proposed for St. James Parish that would create 1,200 permanent jobs but has sparked fierce opposition over the environmental impact has been granted a series of air permits, state officials said Tuesday.

While the $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics facility still needs other permits, the air permits clear a significant hurdle for the complex proposed on 2,400 acres of farmland and swamp near the Welcome community of northwestern St. James and likely hasten a possible construction start.

From the start, outgoing St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel, Gov. John Bel Edwards and many other local and state officials have welcomed the new complex from the Taiwanese petrochemical conglomerate.

Dubbing the complex "a big one," regional economic development officials said at the time of the facility's announcement in April 2018 that its spillover effects would transform the river region's economy.

Environmentalists, however, said the proposal meant yet another plant aimed for a region already burdened with heavy industry. 

The proposed plant ranks seventh for total capital investment among the big industrial projects announced in Louisiana since 2007 and represents the largest in southeast Louisiana, according to the state Department of Economic Development.

Formosa's investment more than quadruples the $2.2 billion expansion that CF Industries completed for its fertilizer complex near Donaldsonville a few years ago. The 1,200 high-paying jobs that Formosa says will come with the new Sunshine Project complex are also the most statewide among the big facilities announced since 2007, DED says.

In addition to those direct jobs, Formosa has promised more than 3,400 temporary construction jobs in the St. James area, $362 million in local and state tax collections from construction and $33 million annually in state and local taxes, even with property tax exemptions. Last fall, regional builders groups identified Formosa's complex as among a handful of projects they hoped would fuel industrial construction employment over the next few years.

But local activists and environmental groups both in the region and nationally have tried to block the project, arguing it would emit more toxic pollution into poor, historic, primarily black communities along the Mississippi River corridor, contribute millions of tons of new greenhouse gases and add to worldwide plastics pollution with the plant's eventual products.

Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which with other groups organized a series of marches and demonstrations against Formosa and other plants proposed in the region, called issuance of the permits a "tragedy for the state." The permits would allow one of the largest plastics plants in the world in Louisiana, signaling the acceptance of the state as dumping ground, she said. 

"We will fight this plant every step of the way with every means at our disposal because it's bad for everybody," Rolfes said. 

Formosa officials, who are building the facility through the subsidiary FG LA LLC, have made efforts to win over the community. They promised assistance for a local park, roads, job training and support for a nearby elementary school. The company has also committed to hiring locally — an attempt to address a complaint of residents and some parish leaders about other industrial projects in the region — and has plans to create a workforce academy to train parish residents.

"FG is pleased to have completed the rigorous environmental permitting process," said Janile Parks, FG LA's director of community and government relations. "Our team has worked diligently to design a facility that meets state and federal standards that protect the health and safety of our employees, community and the environment."

"We will continue to invest in and address real needs in St. James," Parks added in a statement, "through projects and initiatives developed with feedback from people who live and work in the local area."

Formosa and FG have previously said construction would take 10 years and happen in two phases once they obtain the necessary permits.

The complex is one of several chemical facilities proposed for the rural west bank of St. James after the parish marked the riverside area for new industry. Historically low natural gas prices prompted by the shale gas boom in the nation's midsection have prompted a wave of proposed plants that rely heavily on the key fuel and feed stock.

In 2018, Roussel and other parish officials were in early talks to create a camp for the thousands of workers needed to build Formosa and other major plants proposed in the area. An economic analysis conducted for Formosa, the company said, found that 57% of the construction-related tax collections, about $207 million, would be collected in St. James Parish and surrounding river parishes.

The state Department of Environmental Quality granted 15 air permits for the huge operation and also approved a statement laying out the agency's rational for granting the permits, the state officials said.

The complex's units will make ethylene glycol, polyethylene and polypropylene, the underlying chemicals used in an array of everyday plastic products from grocery bags and soft drink bottles to ropes, drainage pipes and car parts. The proposed air permits attracted more than 15,000 public comments and a lengthy public hearing in July in Vacherie.

Greg Langley, spokesman for DEQ, said Elliott Vega, assistant secretary for environmental services, signed the permits Monday evening.

Copies of the documents, which number in the hundreds of pages and would likely form the basis of any legal challenge that may come, were not available Tuesday. It was not clear yet what levels of air pollution DEQ has authorized and what kind of emissions controls may have been mandated. 

Environmental groups recently found evidence of two suspected slave cemeteries on the former plantation property.

Subsequent ground-level research done by Formosa found one of those grave sites remains intact on the fringes of the complex site. The grave has been fenced off. The other appeared to have been destroyed years ago.

That revelation along with recent news reports on toxic air emissions led Rise St. James, Earthjustice, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and others to call on the parish last month to rescind its land use permit for the complex in light of that information, which wasn't publicly known at the time the Parish Council considered that permit.

An analysis conducted as part of a ProPublica report about the river corridor with The Times-Picayune and The Advocate found the air around Formosa’s site has emissions of more  cancer-causing chemicals than 99.6% of industrialized areas in the nation.

The analysis found Formosa’s emissions would double the toxic levels of cancer-causing chemicals for residents of Convent across the Mississippi from the future plant. One mile east of the plant in the west bank community of St. James, the analysis found toxic levels could more than triple.

Formosa is proposing 14 production and utility plants and had asked DEQ for the authority to release up to 1.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals annually, potentially doubling St. James Parish's overall toxic emissions from 1.6 million pounds to 3.2 million pounds per year, state permit data show. Included in the releases will be known human carcinogens benzene and ethylene oxide.

According to federal reporting data, St. James Parish already is ninth in the state and in the top 100 nationally for toxic air emissions.

In a joint statement about the new permits Tuesday, environmental groups claimed the Formosa complex is part of an industry effort to boost U.S. plastic production steeply over the next decade. More than 300 new petrochemical industry projects have been proposed since 2010, most of them in poor communities and communities of color along the Gulf Coast and in Appalachia, the groups said.

"St. James Parish will endure unacceptable pollution levels just so Formosa can create more throwaway plastic," said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "This project is a travesty, and we stand with the local community in opposing it."

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.