Work on a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex proposed for St. James Parish has been put on hold until mid April to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and due to a return of high Mississippi River levels, backers of the project said.

Earlier this week, Entergy had begun working on the nearly 2,400-acre site in the Welcome community but that work was then temporarily paused "out of an abundance of caution," a statement from FG LA LLC says.

FG LA is the Formosa joint venture behind the project along the west bank of the river. 

“FG values the health and safety of our workforce and the residents of St. James Parish, and we take concerns about COVID-19 and the fluctuating river stages seriously,” said Janile Parks, FG LA director of community and government relations. “We continue to closely monitor both situations."

FG's announcement came Thursday afternoon hours after environmental groups had complained about the work happening on Monday and Tuesday before and after Gov. John Bel Edwards' stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus took effect Monday evening.

Also, a day earlier, on Wednesday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also had said that for a third time this year, the agency was shifting back to flood fight phase II due to the river again reaching 15 feet at the Carrollton Gage in New Orleans.

Phase II flood fight is a state of readiness in inspecting and protecting the river levees that completely bars all work within 1,500 feet of the earthen flood barriers.

Matt Roe, spokesman for the Corps of Engineers, said that in flood fight phase I, companies and individuals can get waivers on a case-by-case basis for work within 1,500 feet of the levee but those waivers are suspended in phase II. Roe said Formosa had one of those phase I waivers for Entergy to relocate utilities.

A joint statement from several groups fighting the complex said that Entergy had begun laying poles on the site on Monday, the day that Edwards' stay-at-home order would later go into effect. Trucks blocked one lane of a two-lane River Road as people were trying to buy food and provisions before the order went into effect at 5 p.m. Monday, the groups said. 

Lawyers representing RISE St. James, one of the groups fighting the plant, contacted Formosa Plastics' attorneys and the environmental groups reported they were told that officials at Formosa's headquarters in Taiwan had ordered work to stop for a then-unstated time period.

Before the company's announcement of a delay in work, Rise St. James and other groups had demanded that Formosa halt work until litigation over the project and archaeological investigations of suspected burial sites on the property are finished.

“It’s appalling that work would start during an unprecedented public health crisis,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. 

FG LA didn't directly address the groups' demands in its statement, but the mid-April restart time likely won't be long to resolve the suits or burial investigations.

Industrial workers are among several categories of workers, including those in the news media, who have been deemed essential and are allow to work during the stay-at-home order. FG says the workers were employing social distancing and other protective measures to limit the virus's spread.

The Corps of Engineers first entered flood fight phase I on Jan. 9 and has toggled between phase I and phase II since then, the last time happening when the Corps of Engineers switched from phase II to phase I on March 18 only to see the readiness level pop back up to phase II on Wednesday.

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