This newspaper's recent editorial heralding the petrochemical boom along the Mississippi River was accurate but only part of the story. Its centerpiece was Formosa’s $9.4 billion chemical plant in St. James on “farmland and swamp” near the parish’s Welcome community.
In fact, it is near five such communities, low-income, predominantly African American and descendants of families living there for well over a century. They have been trying to protect themselves from an onslaught of these plants for years.
Formosa is but one of four new mega-plants pending in St James. A sense of their impacts can be taken from a comparison of emissions in this area in the 1990s. While the average American was exposed to seven pounds of toxins per person and 360 pounds in St. James, it soared to 2,700 pounds near the proposed Shintech plant … before it even came online. The project led to environmental justice litigation, the relocation of the plant and a new process that halved its emissions. But that was then and today is then on steroids.
There is another inequity as well. As one Formosa executive explained, at home it was considered “a polluting industry,” which “stigmatizes them.” Here in Louisiana it is seen as Santa Claus and rewarded by tax exemptions that strip the poorest parts of the state of revenue for roads, schools, hospitals and public safety. What is wrong with this picture?
To the chemical industry’s point man, Dan Fagan, what’s wrong is not the exemption but the governor’s initiative allowing local bodies like the school board to trim it back which, somehow, leads to the loss of “14,000 jobs.” The statement is shamefully wrong.
Business surveys over decades show that industries come to Louisiana for its natural resources, the ready river transport, non-union labor and a “friendly” regulatory climate. The exemption, it turns out, is lagniappe.
The friendly regulatory climate, however, rings a bell. While this newspaper's editorial urges state Department of Environmental Quality to stand firm, with one brief exception, it never has. As the Environmental Protection Agency inspector general concluded, the department is hobbled by a lack of resources, expertise and most of all a “culture that was expected to protect industry.” For years, it referred to industry as its “clients” and the public as “others.”
There will be little relief from this quarter. The relief will come when local citizens and school boards and parishes realize they are on the short end and want a different future. As is now happening.
In sum, the editorial was accurate and timely but there is so much more that needs to be said. And listened to.