As Formosa Plastics has moved gradually toward construction of a $9.4 billion chemical complex in northwestern St. James Parish, the “No Formosa” signs that once protested the plant’s arrival along River Road have been replaced with “No Trespassing” signs from Formosa affiliate FG LA LLC, which is building the complex.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said the state can "strike the right balance" between economic development and the environment while continuing to encourage new businesses and industries to Louisiana.

Nevertheless, one of Edwards' signature economic development wins, the $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex proposed in northern St. James Parish, has encountered stiff opposition amid claims pollution from the project will disproportionately burden nearby Black communities.

The complex has also drawn legal challenges from community and environmental groups that claim it would have an unsafe impact on air, water and wetlands.

In a new interview, the governor defended the state permitting process that set the facility on a path toward construction, possibly next year. He said he understands new industrial facilities can have an impact on infrastructure and the environment but state and federal emissions and other regulatory standards are designed to ensure those impacts aren't unsafe. 

"I believe we can strike the right balance between public safety, on the one hand, and economic development, on the other, and the job creation and economic impact that comes from all of that," Edwards said. "But if you do it right, everybody benefits from it."

Edwards spoke Monday after a news conference about a new state roundabout in Sorrento on highways that connect river industrial complexes to Interstate 10. He was asked about court challenges to the Formosa permits and about the state's pursuit of continued industrial growth along the Mississippi River.

In an interim settlement in one of the Formosa suits, FG LA LLC, the company affiliate building the facility, agreed not to start construction until Feb. 1 or until a judge rules in the case. Company officials say the time frame was part of their schedule anyway. Other preconstruction activities remain underway, including widening a state highway running past plant's 2,300-acre site.

In court, the groups have alleged the state's air permitting process was insufficient on several levels. The complex, which would employ 1,200 people directly and thousands more with spinoff work and temporary construction jobs, would release significant levels of air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions in an area already burdened with harmful emissions from other plants, the groups claim.

A federal judge in Texas found a similar Formosa Plastics plant released of billions of plastic pellets for years into a nearby bay, leading to a $50 million settlement last year with groups that sued over the releases. The St. James plant's stormwater permit is still pending. 

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FG LA officials have said the plant will employ the latest technology to follow all state and federal requirements in managing air and water discharges.

Edwards said he has spoken often with Chuck Carr Brown, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and expects the permits will survive the legal challenges.

"You have standards in place, and, if an application is put in that meets the applicable standards, then you permit it," Edwards said. "I mean, that's the way this works, and, if they'd like to change the standards, then that's something that EPA needs to look at."

Louisiana's job-heavy chemical corridor is a major producer of plastics. Some of the groups fighting Formosa are waging a national campaign against plastics production. 

Those groups, like Earthworks and Earthjustice, argue plastics production results in toxic air emissions and furthers continued carbon emissions that affect global climate. The production also creates the single-use plastics they contend wind up in soil and oceans, breaking down into minute particles that kill aquatic life and wind up in food.

Formosa's planned facility would be a big new production source, making the building blocks for everything from automotive parts to plastic bags. But a 2017 analysis in "Science Advances" found nearly 45% of all plastics produced between 2002 and 2014 in Europe, the United States, China and India wound up in packaging.

Edwards said single-use plastics present both concerns and benefits, such as by creating the packaging that allows food to be shipped to market and remain fresh. Any broad-based effort to reduce single-use plastic production, he said, would have to be gradual.

"It's like everything else: You have to strike the right balance and, typically, you never just turn something off and go cold turkey," the governor said. "So even if this becomes a goal of the country or the world in eliminating it one day, you typically transition to a plan." 

Jane Patton, a New Orleans-based senior campaigner for the Center for International Environmental Law, said plenty of voluntary efforts are happening in restaurants and other businesses in Louisiana to reduce plastics waste. But, she said, she was aware of no community in the state that has adopted laws barring single-use plastics.

Patton agreed with Edwards that state can't go "cold turkey" but she said authorizing a large new plastics production complex like Formosa's doesn't help.

"If your bathtub is filling up (with water), you're going to turn off the water before you start bailing out the bathtub," she said.

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