Longtime residents of a historically Black community called Welcome, La. are not giving a welcoming response to their potential new neighbors: a massive petrochemical complex proposed for the banks of the Mississippi River in St. James Parish.

In 2018, two miles from the proposed plant, retired schoolteacher Sharon Lavigne gathered community members in her living room in Welcome and founded RISE St. James, a faith-based environmental-justice organization. Her grassroots team has spent six years fighting Formosa Plastics, the Taiwanese company behind the proposed plant. They have held protests and went to court to challenge Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) air permits, which “allowed Formosa to violate national air standards,” RISE alleged.  

In September 2022, her team triumphed in court. 

“All permits are vacated,” wrote Judge Trudy M. White of the 19th Judicial District Court out of Baton Rouge, as she effectively canceled all 15 air permits awarded to Formosa Plastics for the 2,400-acre chemical and plastic manufacturing complex. 

White found that LDEQ failed to comply with the federal Clean Air Act, by not considering the full range of environmental harms that these permits would cause. In some cases, White wrote, LDEQ failed to acknowledge that toxic emissions from this plant would combine with existing air pollution in the parish and exceed the level of safe cancer risk exposure determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Lavigne and her group felt as though their concerns had been heard.

Then, last month, on Jan. 19, the group took a real blow, when the state’s First Circuit Court of Appeal ruled in favor of LDEQ’s appeal, reversing White’s judgment. Citing the 1,200 permanent jobs promised by Formosa along with pledged job training, health screenings and beautification of a nearby park, the court decided that LDEQ had successfully balanced the pros and cons of the complex. Or as the court wrote: “DEQ is entitled to considerable deference in its conclusion that the social and economic benefits outweigh the environmental impact costs, and we cannot say that its analysis or conclusion in this regard was arbitrary and capricious or otherwise characterized by an abuse of discretion.”

Contrary to the contentions of RISE St. James, the appellate court concluded that LDEQ had both complied with the federal Clean Air Act and its duty to minimize adverse environmental impacts on surrounding communities. The decision reinstates the 15 air permits that LDEQ had issued to Formosa Plastics for its planned complex, which includes 14 chemical manufacturing plants – operating basically in Lavigne’s backyard.

The plant, if built, will destroy everything she holds dear, Lavigne said. “Formosa Plastics would wipe the 5th district of St. James off the map, adding to the number of historically Black communities that have become extinct due to the intrusion of petrochemical industries.”

Last month, during a protest of the Americas Energy Summit in New Orleans, Sharon Lavigne said that with the help of God, Formosa Plastics would not build in St. James Parish. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” is an 85-mile corridor along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans housing the largest concentration of fossil fuel and petrochemical operations in the Western Hemisphere. For years, its residents, exposed to industrial emissions, have faced significantly higher risks of cancer and other severe health ailments. 

And now it’s going to get worse. Three times worse, some experts say. 

The now-affirmed air permits allow Formosa Plastics to emit, every year, more than 800 tons of toxic air pollution, including known carcinogens such as ethylene oxide. Residents of St. James Parish – who are already exposed to steep levels of cancer-causing pollutants – could see those levels triple. 

Even today, the emissions levels are high enough that residents are at significantly increased risk of adverse health outcomes, according to recent research published by Human Rights Watch

Links to cancer and other health ailments have long been suspected and documented within Cancer Alley. Data also shows that trips to the hospital emergency department for asthma-related health problems are twice the state’s average. And now, the Human Rights Watch analysis shows an alarming new correlation between maternal and newborn health. Within communities close to petrochemical plants along Cancer Alley, rates of low-birthweight babies and preterm births are double the state’s average. 

The source of these emissions is clear. According to the Human Rights Watch research, fossil fuel and petrochemical industries are the state’s biggest polluters, contributing both greenhouse gasses and toxic air pollutants. The highest concentration of these plants sit on the Mississippi River along Cancer Alley.

In this corridor, LDEQ effectively controls the permits filed under the federal Clean Air Act. 

From a national vantage point, the department is not excelling in its work. Former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck, who now heads up an environmental group called Beyond Plastics, is very familiar with Louisiana’s long track record of poorly enforcing federal regulations such as the Clean Air Act. “As a result, local residents suffer with diminished health and a dirtier environment,” she said.

“LDEQ is failing to uphold the minimum standards of the federal Clean Air Act,” said Antonia Juhasz, senior researcher on fossil fuels for Human Rights Watch and an author of the report.

But under Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act – which prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin – air permits cannot have a discriminatory effect. That means that Welcome and other historically Black communities of St. James cannot bear a “disproportionate environmental burden.” They cannot be exposed to more pollution than white communities.  

LDEQ has long fallen short of its duties under the Civil Rights Act, Lavigne says. She believes that LDEQ’s lax permitting has already created sacrifice zones that disproportionately harm frontline communities of color and low-income communities. The court’s recent reversal, upholding air permits for Formosa Plastics, compounds the problem, placing an extraordinary environmental burden on the predominantly Black communities surrounding the plant. 

“Once again the state of Louisiana is putting polluters before people,” said Lavigne. “We have a right to clean and healthy air, and we will keep fighting to make sure our communities are not sacrifice zones for industry.”

The Plastic-Climate Connection

Sunrise Movement New Orleans, an organization of young people advocating for political action on climate change, organized January’s protest of the Americas Energy Summit. Organizer Sage Franz spoke in front of Jackson Square ahead of a march to the convention center. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

Though plastic manufacturing is a product of the fossil fuel industry, it is often overlooked. First, natural gas or crude oil is refined into ethane and propane. Then ethane and propane go through a high heat process known as cracking, which creates ethylene and propylene, which can be melted and cooled to form small pellets.

Ethylene oxide, a byproduct of this process, is a known carcinogen. But the Formosa Plastics plant could release up to 7.7 tons of it every year, according to permitting documents. Ethylene oxide has already caused harm in St. James; the EPA found in 2018 that it was one of the toxic emissions responsible for high cancer risk in the parish, an area so packed with facilities that EPA describes it as the “Industrial Corridor.” 

There is also a bigger picture at play here. Last month, as mounting public pressure pushed the Biden Administration to pause approvals of new gas export terminals, Corinne Van Dalen, senior attorney with Earthjustice, stood in a hotel conference room in Port Arthur, Texas, telling a different yet related natural-gas story. 

Van Dalen has been helping to fight Formosa and is disappointed with last month’s decision. “It allows LDEQ to continue its practice of greenlighting petrochemical plants, one after another, without stopping to assess the total impacts of cancer-causing pollutants on the communities nearby,” she said.

Because of the growing U.S. build-out of gas-export terminals, natural gas, a fossil-fuel energy source largely made of methane, has risen to the forefront of climate discourse this year. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas with deep historical roots in Louisiana: the Henry Hub in Erath, which was built in the 1950s, interconnects nine interstate and three intrastate methane pipelines. 

Plastics, which are made from natural gas, offer a new market for the petrochemical industry as energy systems begin to transition away from fossil fuels. Last month, a group of local community advocates gathered in Port Arthur, home to the largest oil refinery in North America, to meet with journalists and environmentalists from Beyond Plastics, a project that originated at Bennington College in Vermont and is focused on ending plastic pollution.

The Beyond Plastics group is well-versed in the work of Formosa Plastics, not only because the company produces plastics but because it has built a reputation for wreaking environmental harms in Texas and Vietnam. In Texas, the Point Comfort plant repeatedly violated chemical accident prevention provisions in the Clean Water Act by discharging massive amounts of plastic pellets into waterways. In 2020, they were fined $14.185 million in penalties for 563 violations.

In Vietnam, the Vietnamese government fined Formosa’s steel subsidiary, Ha Tinh Steel, $500 million after a toxic chemical spill in 2016 that caused a marine life disaster. An independent environmental study described the spill as one of the most significant environmental disasters in Vietnam’s history.

Any state or local governmental efforts to help Formosa would also seem ill-advised, given the company’s plan to produce virgin plastics, despite market indicators, economists say. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis analyzed the financial viability for the petrochemical complex proposed for St. James in 2021. 

They found that the project would likely be financially unviable due to a dwindling demand for virgin plastic production following mounting bans on single-use plastics. The export outlook from the U.S. is also less promising as China – traditionally one of the largest importers of the petrochemicals to be made by Formosa – has increased its own cracking and plastic manufacturing capabilities.

This photo, from a predominantly Black neighborhood in Port Arthur, Texas, shows how close gas storage tanks, such as those owned by the Colonial Pipeline Company, can be built next to fenceline communities. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

Though the air permits are now affirmed, the permits alone do not authorize Formosa Plastics to begin construction in St. James Parish. To move forward, the company also needs a federal wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That requires the Corps to complete an additional environmental-impact statement about the project.

Advocates believe that last month’s decision should not stand. Earthjustice and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic have already submitted petitions to seek a rehearing of the court’s January decision to uphold the air permits granted by LDEQ. 

On Friday, Feb. 2, Earthjustice submitted a rehearing application with the First Circuit State Court of Appeal on behalf of RISE St. James, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Healthy Gulf, No Waste Louisiana, Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks and the Sierra Club. Beverly Alexander, a resident of St. James represented by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, submitted a separate rehearing application on the same day.

Combined, the applications paint a picture of how last month’s decision misinterprets the federal Clean Air Act under Louisiana law: Formosa Plastics’ own modeling showed its chemical complex would add to violations of at least two federal air pollution thresholds – chloroprene and ethylene oxide. The massive facility would emit 6,000 tons of pollutants each year, nearly doubling the current air-pollutant emissions in St. James Parish. 

The LDEQ also submitted an application for a rehearing or clarification regarding the First Circuit’s holding that the agency is required to conduct an environmental-justice analysis. In the application also submitted Feb. 2, the LDEQ argues that a rehearing should be granted to clarify whether the agency can, on its own, determine how to uphold its public duty to consider possible environmental harms.

The Louisiana Supreme Court has the discretion to grant any of these pending applications.

A little league baseball field sits along the fenceline of a petrochemical plant owned by TPC Group in Port Neches, Texas that caught fire after an explosion in 2019. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

Advocates hope that another victory is on the horizon. “While this ruling is a setback in our work to protect Louisiana from this disastrous project, it is only one part of the battle. We will continue to hold Formosa accountable for the extreme damage it perpetuates on communities and for its attempts to wipe a historic Black community off the face of the earth,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

“Despite this ruling, we have power, and we will use it,” she added. “Formosa Plastics will not be built.”