Groups fighting a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex proposed for St. James Parish asked a federal judge in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to halt the project temporarily pending a review on whether the project needs a deeper environmental evaluation.

The plaintiffs allege the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to adequately consider the project's impact on historic grave sites that may hold the remains of enslaved African-Americans, as well as the potential impact on future flooding, hurricane surge resistance, air pollution and other concerns.

"Rather than conducting the careful analyses required by law, the Corps simply adopted the self-serving statements of Formosa Plastics — an entity a federal court found to be a 'serial offender' with 'enormous' violations of environmental laws,"' the new petition alleges, referencing a recent Texas court ruling against Formosa over water pollution. 

The plaintiffs include the Center of Biological Diversity and the local community group Rise St. James. The District of Columbia federal court that is handling their lawsuit has often required additional review work by the Corps.

The plaintiffs originally sued the Corps over the complex's wetlands permit in January.  Among their demands, they asked the judge to force the agency to do a more-detailed environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The latest filing Tuesday asks a judge to halt construction until a decision can be made on the broader litigation.

After delays this spring due to the novel coronavirus outbreak and extended high water in the Mississippi River, the Formosa affiliate behind the project, FG LA LLC, announced last month it planned to resume construction and also to start widening 2.5 miles of state highway near the proposed facility.

If built, the complex will be one of the largest plastics complexes in world, making the building blocks for everyday consumer items and, in the process, employing 1,200 people and bringing in tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue to the state and local governments.

The project's wetlands permit allows the company to dig up or haul in more than a half-million cubic yards of sand and existing earth to fill in the more-than-2,300-acre site along the Mississippi River.

The plaintiffs allege the work will directly or indirectly destroy 116.2 acres of wetlands and pose permanent harm to potentially undiscovered graves, local hydrology and other areas.

The Corps issued FG LA the wetlands permit on Sept. 5 after an extensive public hearing where opponents voiced their concerns.

A Corps spokesman said Tuesday the wetlands "predominantly degraded" by the project amounted to 61.7 acres, not 116 acres as the plaintiffs allege.

FG LA has purchased 72.8 acres of bottomland hardwood forest mitigation credits to compensate for that loss at a cost of nearly $3.28 million, company and agency spokespersons said. 

Ricky Boyett, the Corps spokesman, declined to offer any comment on the latest legal filing, citing agency protocol. In court papers earlier this year, the Corps issued broad denials of the original suit's claims.

Janile Parks, spokeswoman for FG LA, said the company planned to fight the latest petition. She called it an overly broad attempt to shut down the entire project when FG LA was only planning "limited and unintrusive" preconstruction activities.

"The motion is full of speculation and short on facts. It is without merit," Parks added.

The huge facility in northwestern St. James Parish has required a variety of permits that have drawn or are expected to draw challenges. Some of the same groups in this case are plaintiffs in a state court lawsuit in Baton Rouge to challenge air permits issued by the state Department of Environmental Quality. 

Air emissions from the huge complex and their impact on the largely Black communities living near the plant already burdened with other industrial pollution have been one of the primary points of contention for more than two years.

Rise St. James, the Center for Biological Diversity and others chose to pursue a bid to delay construction by seeking what's known as a preliminary injunction against the Corps in Washington, D.C., over the wetlands permit. 

That petition is laden with past rulings from the D.C. district court and appellate circuit ordering the Corps to do similar kinds of further analysis after finding the agency had failed to take the "hard look" required by the law.

Those rulings include forcing assessments of the cumulative impact that proposals could have on air, water, natural resources, environmental justice and other concerns and also overturning Corps' permit decisions that relied primarily on state agency permits for their analysis of impact.

The plaintiffs allege in the injunction request that the Corps has done the same with FG LA's air permits, for instance.

The 55-page petition also alleges the Corps failed to adequately address the discovery of unmarked graves on the complex site, a process primarily overseen by another Louisiana agency.

Advocates say the known graves hold former Black slaves of the old Buena Vista Plantation and allege many more undiscovered sites exist.

FG LA says it doesn't know who is buried in the Buena Vista graves but wants to find out. The company has said it has been unable to find additional cemetery sites the plaintiffs allege exist.

FG LA was not named as an original defendant in the wetlands lawsuit but has been allowed to intervene.

Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the D.C. court's rules typically require defendants to file their responses to a preliminary injunction in a week and require a hearing within 21 days.

The plaintiffs have asked for oral arguments; the defendants can ask for delays, however.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

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