A Formosa Plastics affiliate planning to build a $9.4 billion chemical complex in St. James Parish can continue preliminary work on its more than 2,300-acre site under a new court deal reached with opponents suing to block the facility.

But the company won't start building the massive complex or a related Mississippi River dock while environmental and community groups pursue their legal challenge of the facility's wetlands permits.

The affiliate, FG LA LLC, and the groups reached the settlement Thursday in lieu of an accelerated court process where the plaintiffs would have sought to bar construction while their suit in a federal court in Washington, D.C., moved forward.

The plaintiffs, who are Rise St. James, the Center for Biological Diversity, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Healthy Gulf, sued the Army Corps of Engineers over its review of the wetlands permits, which were issued in September.

The plaintiffs claim the agency didn't do a deep enough look into the huge facility's impacts, including not only on wetlands but also on air, historic sites and other areas not strictly tied to wetlands. 

FG LA has been allowed to intervene in the case. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a "friend of the court" brief for the plaintiffs.

Under the new deal's language, FG LA "is deferring construction-related activities" for the complex, with some exceptions, until the litigation is resolved or until Feb. 1, 2021, whichever comes first.

In a statement and company literature provided Friday, company officials pointed out that their prior construction schedule hadn't called for them to start building the plant before that time anyway. The company said it had previously decided to defer work on the river dock until at least February.

Some of the preliminary work that FG LA has planned for the site ran into delays earlier this year due to the high river levels that barred some digging and the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Under the new agreement, an FG LA project to widen 2.5 miles of La. 3127 along the rear of the plant property will be allowed to proceed as planned. The company can continue to go forward with driving test piles into the alluvial soils of the riverside property, do soil borings and move utility lines and pipelines.

"The current limited and unintrusive activities FG is conducting on the project property are being done in a safe and environmentally protective manner," said Janile Parks, spokeswoman for FG LA. "FG will provide regular updates pertaining to the status of pre-construction activities."  

If built, the complex would 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 construction phase is projected to bring thousands more temporary jobs over several years.

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Though hailed by the state's leadership as a major economic win for Louisiana, the Formosa facility has drawn opposition from St. James residents and an array of environmental groups over the impact they say its future air emissions would have on black communities nearby, like Welcome and St. James.

By itself, the facility has been permitted to release enough toxic air pollutants that its emissions would nearly double what all industrial operations released into the parish's air in 2017. 

The opponents have also uncovered that FG LA's archaeologist found at least one cemetery, from the antebellum Buena Vista Plantation, on the property.

The groups contend those graves hold the remains of enslaved African Americans and that at least four other areas on the property, including some undefined "anomalies" uncovered by mapping analysis, could hold other graves.

FG LA's hired archaeologist has investigated the site multiple times but has been unable to conclude who is buried in the Buena Vista graves or find evidence of other unmarked graves.

For one of those other sites, the FG LA's expert suggested a cemetery shown on historic maps of the Acadia Plantation may have been destroyed by prior owners. The land has been plowed for generations for agriculture and had large ponds and borrow pits on it.

Under the settlement, which Judge Randolph D. Moss approved Friday, FG LA agrees to avoid wetlands, except for soil testing, and any of the identified or suspected cemetery sites.

FG LA has also agreed to set up flags marking wetlands and the known and suspected cemeteries. One of them has already been fenced off.

The plaintiffs agree to drop their pursuit of a preliminary injunction, a quick legal proceeding that, if successful, could have resulted in a court order to more completely halt the project. 

“Now that Formosa Plastics has agreed not to disturb graves and wetlands on the site through February 2021, we can focus on this project’s deeply flawed approval process,” Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “This plant would sicken local residents, degrade wetlands, fuel climate change and send plastic pollution into our rivers and oceans. It violates federal law and should never have been approved.”

The deal includes a court schedule that calls for the plaintiffs to file a critical motion in the suit, known as summary judgement, by Oct. 1. After responses and other required filings, the court may be in position to rule as some time after mid-December.

The Formosa project's wetlands permit allows FG LA to dig up or haul in more than a half-million cubic yards of sand and existing earth to the property and destroy dozens of acres of wetlands.

FG LA has purchased nearly $3.28 million in wetland mitigation credits to compensate for the loss, company and agency spokespersons have said. 

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.