VACHERIE — With a new administration in office in St. James Parish, residents and environmental activists are renewing a push to reverse the approval last year of a major chemical complex owned by an affiliate of Formosa Plastics.

They claim the company, FG LA LLC, failed to disclose suspected slave cemeteries during the land use process last year, even though the company knew about them at the time. They also say the company hasn't made promised changes to its facility site plan to minimize health impacts.

And a representative from one of the groups, the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, argued the cancer risk from the plant's future emissions were more severe than earlier recognized, especially for young children. 

"The council should reopen and rescind its approval because Formosa appears to have misled the parish that it altered its site design to minimize the risk of harm to the elementary school and church that are about a mile away," said Corinne Van Dalen, staff attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental group that has been fighting the Formosa complex. 

Parish officials, including new President Pete Dufresne, weren't ready to say how they might respond to the groups' claims but wanted more time to assess what they had been told.

Parish attorney Victor Franckiewicz Jr., who helped craft the special land use conditions Van Dalen claimed Formosa wasn't following, later told the Parish Council he was investigating the matter.

"We are constantly being inundated with the information being given us. We're not the experts," Alvin "Shark" St. Pierre Jr., the council chairman, said in an interview. "We've got legal people that go back and look at this information and get back to us."

FG LA wants to build a new plastics plant in the Welcome community of northwestern St. James Parish on nearly 2,400 acres of agricultural land and swamp along the Mississippi River. It has promised 1,200 new jobs and hundreds of millions dollars in state and local tax revenue.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Environmental Quality granted 15 important air permits for the giant complex that ease the path toward construction. In a 182-page basis for decision, DEQ found the project's economic benefits far outweighed the potential environmental impact.

Outgoing parish officials said earlier this month, days before Dufresne and the seven-member council were inaugurated, that dirt work could start soon but that it would take about a year before structural steel was raised on the site. Janile Parks, spokeswoman for FG LA, said Wednesday the company has initiated site preparation.

The big complex, other new industrial facilities or expansions proposed for western St. James Parish, and the now-built Mississippi terminus for the Bayou Bridge Pipeline have drawn concern from regional and national environmental groups opposed to the expansion of the plastics industry. They argue the region's industrialization is coming at the expense of largely poor and black communities.    

Some of those groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this month to challenge the wetlands permits for Formosa over the impact on the environment and historic sites.

Some activists and residents trying to listen to the presentations were prevented from entering the council chambers in Vacherie Tuesday night due to capacity limits, though the chambers still had ample walking and standing room.

Inside the chambers, Van Dalen told the Parish Council that four units proposed for Formosa's new complex will release the most harmful, carcinogenic air emissions — two ethane crackers and two ethylene glycol units — do not appear to be have been relocated, as promised. They would remain near the front or east side of the property closest to St. Louis Academy, the former Fifth Ward Elementary, and the new home of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church along River Road, she said.

Van Dalen cited maps submitted to the state for Formosa's air permits, which must note the exact coordinates of emissions sources.

Other environmentalists hammered on the concerns about the health impacts from the future complex.

Kim Terrell, community outreach director for the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, told the parish officials that even before arrival of the new facility, the parish's "cancer hazard" from industrial pollution has risen sixfold over roughly the past decade. She said the impact on St. James' vulnerable youth may not show up for decades due to cancer's long latency period.

"So, children who grow up right now today in St. James Parish have a far, far greater risk of cancer from industrial pollution compared to the previous generation, compared to everybody in this room who grew up in St. James Parish," Terrell told the group of mostly middle-aged men and women.

Cancer risk from chemical industry emissions have long been a point of contention between environmentalists and industry and state environmental officials. Terrell's claims were based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators modeling data for the parish.

EPA online data for St. James' RSEI "cancer hazard" score appears to support Terrell's claims of a sixfold increase between 2007 and 2017 in the parish. EPA says the measure scores cancer risk as a worst-case scenario, weighting the level of emissions with the toxicity of each chemical released, but that score should be used as a point for further investigation of risk.    

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 and Formosa's addition would boost the cancer risk further. The analysis used similar RSEI data.

In DEQ's basis for decision, the agency suggested EPA has overstated the cancer risk for at least one of Formosa's major air releases, ethylene oxide, based on state cancer incidence data, while controls would limit that chemical and others to safe levels. 

In St. James, Louisiana Tumor Registry data from 2011 to 2015 show St. James Parish is among the top quarter in Louisiana for incidences of all cancers at nearly 495 cases per 100,000 people. The raw figure is above state and regional averages, but the registry says the difference over the statewide rate isn't statistically significant.

Pam Spees, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, also aired her group's concerns that Formosa never informed the parish about two suspected slave cemeteries on the future site of Formosa while it was going through the land use process, though the council has the responsibility to protect land, air and water in the parish.

"This was a crucial piece of information pertaining to land that was not made available to you," Spees said.

Spees said public records searches show the company had confirmed the existence of at least one of the cemeteries by the time the Planning Commission voted on the land use approval in late October 2018. Though the second suspected cemetery appears to have been destroyed before Formosa owned the property, Spees raised the possibility of other grave sites that haven't been fully investigated.

Parks, the FG LA spokeswoman, has said the company disclosed the cemeteries to DEQ a few weeks before the parish land use was approved in late January 2019.

Under later council questioning, Franckiewicz, the parish attorney, said FG's failure to disclose the cemeteries did not violate the parish land use ordinance.

"I was surprised where they knew it and didn't say anything about it because there was a lot of talk in general, but there's no specific requirement that I know of that was violated," he said.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.

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