St. James residents slam Wanhua chemical plant plans in Convent

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Tom Wright/The Lens

A St. James Parish resident returns to her seat after commenting against Wanhua's chemical plant.

A St. James Parish resident returns to her seat after commenting against Wanhua’s chemical plant.

Tom Wright / The Lens

A top official of Wanhua Chemical Group assured St. James Parish planning commissioners Monday evening that the company’s planned chemical plant in Convent would provide hundreds of new permanent and temporary jobs, be managed safely and include a detailed emergency response plan and fully-trained response teams. He also vowed to hire local workers and purchase local products as much as possible.

But members of the public offering comment on Wanhua’s application to build the plant were not having it. Plant opponents came in large numbers, part of a growing trend of pushback against new industrial development in the parish.

“This is environmental injustice,” said Sharon Lavigne, president of the community group Rise St James. “Why do we have to come here and plead with you about these plants coming into our neighborhood? This should stop immediately.”

The plant would produce MDI, or methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, a chemical used to produce polyurethane — a polymer found in a variety of products including hard plastics, furniture foams and synthetic fibers.

Wanhua, a Chinese-based global chemical giant that already has two MDI plants in China as well as one in Hungary, wants to build its new $1.3 billion plant on a 250-acre plot on the northwest corner of LA 3125 and LA 3214.

The company said it selected the site in part because it provides plenty of land and nearby human resources as well as access to the Mississippi River, railway lines and raw material stockpiles. It’s supported by millions of dollars in state economic development support, including a $4.3 million grant to assist with infrastructure development.

“The vision of our company is to become an innovative, world-class chemical company who’s admired by our employees and respected by our community,” said Jim Newport, general manager of Wanhua’s U.S. operations.

A key part of Newport’s presentation to the Planning Commission was safety planning for the plant.

MDI is a type of isocyanate, a type of highly-reactive chemical that is used in a wide range of plastic productions and other industrial applications.

“Isocyanates are powerful irritants to the mucous membranes of the eyes and gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts,” reads an overview by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

The CDC warns that direct skin contact can also cause “marked inflammation” and that workers exposed to it may become sensitized and be subject to severe asthma attacks. “Death from severe asthma in some sensitized subjects has been reported,” the CDC says.

Another type of isocyanate — a more volatile one known as methyl isocyanate or MIC — was the toxic gas at the center of India’s Bhopal disaster in 1984, in which at least 3,800 people died.

Newport said the company will fully train a volunteer fire brigade with at least 50 members and hazardous materials team of at least 120 members, and hire at least two paramedics for around-the-clock onsite support and a specially-trained rescue team for emergencies involving confined spaces.

Tom Wright / The Lens

Audience listens as Wanhua’s Jim Newport briefs the St. James Parish Planning Commission

Newport told commissioners said the plant would create 170 direct jobs and more than 1,000 “indirect” jobs, many of them from construction. He also pledged Wanhua’s support for community development and betterment efforts. He said the company would develop a STEM development program for St. James Parish schools to help foster the science, technology, engineering and math skills required in the chemical production sector. And he hinted at future charitable donations and volunteerism by the company.

“Our intent is to be a part in raising the quality of life in St. James Parish, especially its residents,” Newport said. “And most of all, we intend to be good neighbors.”

More than a dozen people offered their comments; none spoke in favor of the Wanhua plant’s locating in St. James.

“This plant is planning to build right next door to the Mosaic Fertilizer plant,” Lavigne noted in her public comments. “St. James is already full of toxins and Mosaic is still showing just how vulnerable St. James is. All these new, state-of-the-art plants eventually age and become old, crumbling plants.

The Mosaic facility, just across LA 3214 from the Wanhua site, is where a 200-foot-tall gypsum stack holds a reservoir of acidic wastewater. That company has been scrambling to prevent a potential reservoir breach since underground movement was detected underneath the stack in early January.

“Will black residents again be asked to bear the environmental costs of industry?” Lavigne asked the commissioners.

The heavy industrialization in predominately African-American areas of the parish was a recurring theme in public comments. The African-American community makes up about 49 percent of the parish’s total population, but black residents are about 85 percent of the population within a 3-mile radius of the Mosaic site, according to federal data.

Another topic was health problems among residents of St. James and neighboring parishes along south Louisiana’s so-called chemical corridor, also known as “Cancer Alley”.

Myrtle Felton described growing up in District 4, which covers much of the heavily industrialized East Bank of the parish, and watching churches, post offices, schools and businesses close while chemical and other industries popped up.

“The cancer rate is very high,” she said. “I have witnessed relatives dying of cancer. Husband and wife — one cannot help the other — you go check on them, one on the floor, the other one can’t pick them up. That’s not a pretty sight. It is very, very, very devastating.”

Felton said she hopes to survive long enough to watch her grandchildren graduate from college. “Will I be able to see it?” she asked. “Only God knows.”

As Felton’s allotted three minutes for comment came to end, she asked rhetorically if someone could help her move “out of the Romeville area, where I go to my front window and watch Nucor, go in my backyard and see the pollution coming from Oxy Chemical?”

Occidental Chemical Corporation, also known as OxyChem, operates a plant producing caustic soda, chlorine & ethylene dichloride on LA 3214, next to the Wanhua site.

Barbara Washington, also from unincorporated Romeville, said she lives about a mile from the site, “sandwiched” between industrial plants.

“You know, we hear about all the jobs,” she told the commission, “but how many workers in Convent have top-level positions? If you observe the license plates of the people who work here, most of them [are] from out of state.”

Washington said she too has seen plenty of businesses closed in her community. “Did any of those workers get a job in any of the plants?” she wondered.

Tom Wright / The Lens

St. James Parish resident addresses planning commissioners during public comments.

Environmental activists spoke at the hearing, warning of pollutants from the Wanhua plant and the company’s safety record overseas. A summary provided to The Lens by environmental scientist Wilma Subra predicts the MDI plant will likely produce a wide range of toxic air emissions, including formaldehyde, benzene, phosgene and hydrochloric acid.

“This plant will generate a million pounds of toxic liquid waste per year,” Kim Terrell of New Orleans said. “And that’s directly from the documents that Wanhua has submitted to DEQ. The plan for that waste is treat it on site and to dump it in the Mississippi River.”

A review of information provided to the La. Department of Environmental Quality in Wanhua’s operating permit application found the company does expect to “treat approximately 300,000 to 400,000 pounds of waste solvents/catalysts/adsorbents per year, with the capability of managing up to 1 million pounds per year (depending on the unit operations).” And the company’s briefing confirms that “wastewater that is not reused will be handled/treated by Wanhua and discharged to the Mississippi River.”

Terrell questioned Wanhua’s commitment to safety at the new plant.

“Are those safeguards the same as were used in Yantai, the facility that exploded on September 20th, 2016, resulting in the deaths of four workers?” she asked, referencing one of the company’s plants in China.

Commissioners gave Newport a chance to respond to public comments those were finished, and commented on the Yantai blast.

Tom Wright / The Lens

Wanhua Chemical U.S. operations general manager Jim Newport

“That incident has been studied and we clearly know what went wrong,” the Wanhua official said. “And the design has been improved to make sure that doesn’t happen again, to the best of our technical ability, to the best of our procedural and administrative ability and engineering capability. And we will work with the other producers in this state, through the Louisiana Chemical Association, to continue to improve the isocyanate process, to ensure these kinds of things never occur again.”

Wanhua will get a full property tax break without St. James Parish approval under the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, or ITEP, because the company applied for the plant site just before Gov. John Bel Edwards issued his executive order to give local governments a vote in the program in June 2016, according to a report by The Advocate.

Planning commission members themselves had no responses to the public remarks.

A second public comment period is scheduled before the planning commission on March 25, again at 6:00 p.m. at the Convent Courthouse. It’s not clear when the commissioners will vote on whether to approve Wanhua’s application for the Convent site.

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