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Pre-construction activities have resumed at the site of the future $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics chemical complex, as seen Friday, June 26, 2020, that is proposed for nearly 2,400 acres of former agricultural land in northwestern St. James Parish. 

In a controversial “1619 Project,” writers from The New York Times did an extensive series of articles “reframing American history” based on this country’s association with slavery. While historians strongly dispute some of the conclusions that American liberty meant little given the context of slavery, there are articles that deserve attention, and few more so in Louisiana than the account of the sugar trade.

Vast fortunes were made along the Mississippi River once sugar could be granulated and shipped worldwide. The profits went to New York traders as well as local plantation owners, but the work was done by thousands enslaved for the brutal harvesting of the “white gold.”

In few cases was there a more direct incidence of what Abraham Lincoln said was the vast wealth created by the bondsmen’s unrequited toil.

Instead of sugar, today’s gold in the same river region is in water, shipping connections and one of the world’s vast petrochemical complexes. And today, instead of slavery and repression, there is a democracy with elected officials responsible to all the people, not just the few.

That is the context for a long-running battle over expanding the industrial complex in St. James Parish. A new lawsuit challenged the elaborate regulatory process already undergone by the proposed Formosa Plastics complex.

While the lawsuit’s allegations will be heard, and involve assertions that the company, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or other agencies did not properly assess the project, it also includes echoes of the 18th-century crimes, saying that the company or agencies haven’t adequately addressed the discovery of unmarked graves — or potentially unmarked graves, for only one has been documented — on small tracts of the 2,300-acre site.

The company and agencies argue that the arguments in the new lawsuit are without merit. But what is unquestionable, we think, is that the responsible and elected authorities in the parish and in the state want the jobs and development Formosa will provide. At $9.4 billion, it is a major investment in the state.

There seems to be an unlimited supply of donors willing to fund lawsuits against energy and petrochemical projects, but this latest has an air of charges thrown against the courtroom walls in the District of Columbia, hoping something will stick. The process for building a big petrochemical complex is, in a word, complex; perhaps there are problems with the environmental process that we’re not aware of. That certainly should concern the courts, here or in D.C.

But so far, we see no reason not to back the Formosa project as a significant benefit, not liability, to St. James Parish and Louisiana.

Activists seek temporary halt to work at proposed Formosa complex in St. James Parish