CONVENT — More than two months ago, St. James Parish Council members called for a new analysis of overall air quality in their parish with further testing in the future if several major new industrial facilities in the planning stages are built.
The council and parish leadership have faced continued backlash in public meetings for a few years from a determined group of local activists and regional environmental groups, drawing international media attention over the number of new plants targeted for the rural west bank and northern section of the east bank.
These are the poor parts of the parish with the greatest share of black residents, but also home to large tracts of agricultural land slated for industry in 2014.
Published a few weeks after the council vote for the new study, an analysis by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate looked at estimates of toxic air concentrations in the Mississippi River region between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Based on a federal air model that screens for risk, the analysis found areas like the Convent and St. James communities already have air that is 81.5% and 61.7% more toxic, respectively, from cancer-causing chemicals than the air in the seven parishes that make up the industrial corridor.
The air around one of those planned future plants, Formosa Chemical's new plastics complex proposed for the Welcome area, is already 99.6% more toxic from existing plant emissions than other industrialized areas in the nation, the news organization analysis found.
Under a pending air permit, the nearly 2,400 acre complex would have the authority to double the parish's toxic air emissions all by itself, including heavy amounts of known cancer-causing agents ethylene oxide and benzene.
Other big new plants like South Louisiana Methanol, Yuhuang Chemical and Syngas and expansions like those planned for the Ergon tank farm would add even more emissions to the baseline air toxicity that the news organization analysis found.
Councilman Jason Amato, who works as a Shell Chemical manager in Geismar, said the council wants to see for itself what the status of the parish's air is, what the new slate of plants will do to that air and leave themselves an "evergreen" document that will establish a baseline with which to measure the impact of future projects.
"To me it's kind of checks and balances also. We want to make sure we're doing the right thing. We think we are. We got a good land use plan. It's just another tool to measure and validate we're doing the right thing for St. James Parish," Amato said in an interview this month.
He said he'd hoped for results in the spring, but some of the same groups that have fought the arrival of those plants sued on Dec. 13 to halt the parish's air study. They argued the council adopted a $35,000 contract for the work with its standing environmental consultant without proper public notice.
The state court suit filed in St. James Parish notes the council agenda Oct. 16 only referenced "amendment No. 1" to the contractor, Bliss Higgins, a principal with Ramboll US Corporation, and offered no description of the work that was planned.
"As a result of the Council's grossly inadequate notice, the petitioners and the St. James Parish public at large were deprived of the opportunity for input on the issue of the air quality study and whether Ramboll Consulting is the proper party to conduct the study," the suit claims.
Claiming the council violated state open meetings law and seeking to nullify the Ramboll contract, the suit says ambient air quality in St. James is "an issue of major public concern" as is who is selected to conduct the air study and how the analysis is fashioned.
The plaintiffs in the suit are parish residents Genevieve Butler, the Rev. Harry Joseph, pastor of Mt. Triumph Baptist Church, and the groups Rise St. James, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. Lawyers with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic brought the case.
All of these groups and individuals have been on the forefront of opposing the further industrialization of the parish and the impact they fear will further marginalize a St. James black community with roots at least to the post-Civil War period.
Earlier this month, Butler and members of Rise St. James called for a halt in the Formosa plant's air permit after their own public records requests uncovered that Formosa and state officials knew of one suspected slave graveyard that had been on the huge complex's 2,400-acre site and that there may have been another that was destroyed.
The groups aired their fears about what would happen to the grave sites that are known and those that might sill be unknown, though Formosa promises to follow state and federal rules.
"Some of these people back here could be my relatives, the same blood in running in my veins that was in theirs," said Myrtle Felton, a Convent resident who fought a major chemical plant proposed in her area until U.S.-China trade politics helped undercut the deal.
Higgins, with the group the parish hired to do the analysis, is a former state Department of Environmental Quality assistant secretary. She has an agreement to vet new projects for St. James and also has worked for industrial clients.
According to a scope of work, Higgins planned to look not only at existing emissions data and emissions limits on facility air permits but would also model the dispersion of federal "criteria" pollutants known to spur harmful ozone creation and fine particulates that cause respiratory problems, as well as toxic chemicals.
In response to the suit, outgoing Parish President Timmy Roussel, a named defendant along with the council, said he has asked Higgins to halt her analysis until the parish can try to work with the groups.
Roussel said he and other parish officials believed they were doing a "good thing" that would help the parish government protect residents. He said he's hopeful to resolve the issue before the end of the year.
"I honestly think that they want what we're going after to do. It's just some kind of misunderstanding somewhere is what I'm thinking," Roussel said.
Lisa Jordan, director of the law clinic, declined to discuss the status of those negotiations but said how the study is conducted remains an important point of interest.
"The scope of the study will necessarily influence its results," she said.