A Black ‘Cancer Alley’ Community Makes Gains Against Massive Plastics Plant

The Biden-Harris administration's first environmental racism challenge may be Formosa's $9.4 billion petrochemical 'ethane cracker' in St James Parish, Louisiana.

by | Dec 17, 2020

A 2019 community protest against Formosa's St. James plant. (Courtesy of RISE St James/CBD/LBB)

Louisiana’s historical lack of environmental protections and lenient tax code have long made the state a haven for the petrochemical industry. The 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River Valley between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is notorious for having some of the nation’s highest levels of air pollution. Known for decades as Cancer Alley, the strip is already home to more than 150 industrial plants.

Formosa, a Taiwan-based multinational plastics producer, hopes to add one more: a $9.4 billion, 2,400-acre “ethane cracker” complex destined to produce millions of tons a year of raw materials for plastics production. Dubbed the “Sunshine Project” by Formosa, and currently one of the world’s largest petrochemical construction projects, several years of lax state and federal government permitting approvals have turned the project into a case study in environmental racism.

Now that the anti-regulatory Trump administration is on the way out, it may become a bellwether for how committed the incoming Biden administration is to environmental justice.

A 2004 explosion shut down the Formosa Plastics plant in Illinois. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Dual Freq.)

The Sunshine site, located about 60 miles west of New Orleans, is nestled amid the sprawling live oaks and antebellum plantations-turned-tourist-destinations of St. James Parish, right next to the parish’s 5th District, a historic Black community that dates back to 1872.

This is not Formosa’s first complex in Louisiana’s chemical corridor. The firm’s decades-old PVC manufacturing facility in Baton Rouge has been a “high priority violator” of federal air pollution standards for years, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Related: “What We’re Talking About Is Whether People Are Going to Live or Die.”

Environmental groups say the Trump administration’s new ethane cracker air pollution standard is far too weak. The petrochemical industry says it’s too strong. Both are challenging the rule in court.

Louisiana lawmakers have strongly supported Formosa’s new complex, but the project recently stalled on three fronts.

In late October, Formosa announced that construction at the site had ceased due to the ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Then in early November, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended a crucial wetlands permit for the project, citing its own failure to look at alternative sites for the plant in nearby Acension Parish.

The Corps withdrew the permit just days ahead of a Nov. 5 court deadline to defend it in a federal lawsuit brought by community and environmental groups.

Two weeks later, in a state district court hearing regarding the project’s state air pollution permits, Judge Trudy White instructed regulators at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to do a comprehensive environmental justice analysis of the plant’s likely impacts on air quality for St. James residents living nearest to the plant.

White pointedly criticized Louisiana environmental regulators for their apparent racial bias. “White told attorneys and others that environmental racism exists and operates through the state’s institutions — through personnel, policies, practices, structures, and history, intentional or unintentional, according to notes shared by the plaintiffs’ lawyers,” during a Zoom hearing on the case, reported The Advocate. “A staff attorney for White did not dispute the plaintiffs’ recitation of the judge’s words.”

Sharon Lavigne, a longtime St. James resident and founder of RISE St. James, says industrialization has changed the area “drastically” over her lifetime. “From the good ol’ life to a disaster, from riches to rags — if you want to put it like that.”

She says the community was “rich in our health” until heavy manufacturing began to expand in the region in the 1960s.”After that, we started getting sick.”

Lavigne, who is a plaintiff in the federal suit challenging the Army Corps wetlands permit, has felt the impact of the nearby chemical plants intimately. At a November 2019 Congressional hearing on bringing clean energy jobs to frontline communities, Lavigne testified to the serious health toll of toxic industrial pollution on St. James residents.

“I have auto-immune hepatitis and aluminum in my body. My grandchildren have breathing problems,” she told Congress, “and when they are outside playing for any period of time, they develop rashes.”

Lavigne and a handful of neighbors started RISE only a few months after Formosa’s St. James plant was announced. The group has successfully defeated one proposed industrial project, Wanhua Chemical’s $1.25 billion Convent plant, and Lavigne is confident Formosa will be next.

Retired environmental scientist and epidemiologist Vickie Boothe, who now works with the Coalition Against Death Alley, says that she’s been struck by the alliance between Formosa and state environmental regulators tasked with protecting public health. “The industry [was] working side-by-side with LDEQ against the community members, and, you know, that is just wrong,” says Boothe, who worked at the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control for 33 years. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Boothe sees a link between Cancer Alley’s present day environmental injustices and the nation’s history of enslaving Blacks. “Industry was initially attracted to Louisiana because of access to the Mississippi River shipping channels and the large plots of land that became available on former plantations,” she says. It’s the same reason that plantations lined this fertile stretch of land in the first place — access to the river and lenient laws.

A Formosa plant 2005 propylene leak and explosion in Point Comfort, TX burned for five days. (Credit: U.S. CSHIB)

According to census data, 85% of the residents of the 5th District are Black. It’s the largest Black population of all of districts in the parish. “I don’t think there’s anyway that you can divorce what’s happening now… from the history of slavery in that area,” says Pam Spees, a senior attorney at the Center of Constitutional Rights, which is assisting RISE St. James in its legal challenges against Formosa. “There’s a straight line connecting it all.”

This link between past slavery and present-day environmental racism became even more stark in 2018, when archeological consultants for Formosa discovered signs of a possible cemetery for enslaved Black people on the property.

“The graves have done something very profound,” says Spees. “They have erased what was always an imaginary line between the past and the present.”

Janile Parks, chief spokesperson for FG LA LLC, the Formosa subsidiary building the St. James petrochemical complex, confirmed that the firm knew of a possible cemetery on the construction site “as far back as December 2018,” and stated in email that the firm has “been fully transparent and fully cooperative” in disclosing information about the gravesite to the community.

But Spees disputes that claim, saying that Formosa “embedded” mention of two possible slave cemeteries on the property deep inside a lengthy environmental impact statement submitted to state permitting authorities. St. James residents, only learned of the gravesite after the state approved Formosa’s land use permit in January 2019.

That the Formosa plant has gotten as far as it has in St. James demonstrates the need “to face in meaningful ways the systemic racism and bias that has pervaded our legal and regulatory systems for too long,” says Julie Simmonds, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which joined with RISE St. James, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Healthy Gulf in challenging Formosa’s federal wetlands permit in court. The Army Corps considered only two sites for the project, both in predominantly Black communities of St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes.

Louisiana officials still strongly support Formosa’s St. James petrochemical complex. But the project’s federal prospects may soon change.

Fighting environmental racism has been far from a Trump administration priority. Early in his term, President Trump effectively shut down the EPA’s 28-year-old Office of Environmental Justice by zeroing out its budget, and the agency’s enforcement of anti-pollution regulations in concert with the Justice Department has sunk to a 30-year low.

The incoming Biden-Harris administration seems to be setting the stage not to merely restore those efforts, but to elevate environmental justice into a top tier federal priority.

Cecilia Martinez, a well-regarded environmental justice advocate and Biden-Harris campaign climate advisor, is at the helm of President-elect Biden’s White House Council on Environmental Quality transition team. Reportedly a leading contender to lead the CEQ after Biden takes office, Martinez presumably will have a big influence over who will staff two promised new entities within the CEQ: an Environmental Justice Advisory Council and an Environmental Justice Interagency Council.

Biden has also pledged to establish an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Justice Department, and to overhaul the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office to become an advocate for “fenceline communities” like the 5th District, where people live and work right next to polluters.

“People are really going to hold his feet to the fire,” says Simmonds, to be sure “he follows through on his promises.”

[Update 12/17/20: Since this story was published, The New York Times reported that President-elect Biden will nominate Michael S. Regan, an EPA air quality veteran and secretary of the North Carolina Dept. of Environmental Quality, to lead the EPA. The Washington Post reported that he will nominate Brenda Mallory, an environmental law and regulation expert who was general counsel of the Obama-era CEQ, to lead the CEQ. Both have strong track records of prioritizing environmental justice and climate action. — Ed.]

But some environmental justice and climate advocates already think Biden is off to a poor start at fulfilling his pledges. In late November, E&E News reported that many activists — including Lavigne — were disappointed that Biden selected Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La. 2) as a senior White House advisor and director of public engagement. Although Cedric represents St. James Parish in Congress, Lavigne told E&E News that he has never met with 5th District residents or responded to their concerns about the Formosa project. Richmond also has a track record of strongly supporting fossil fuel and chemical industry interests in Congress.

“We’ve written letters after letters after letters. I’m tired of writing letters. He didn’t respond,” Lavigne says.

Asked what she’d like to tell her public officials, Lavigne fires back, “If this plant is built, it’s not just only going to affect our lives. It’s going to affect yours, too. And why should RISE St. James do your job? You’re the ones getting paid, not RISE St. James.”

Sarah Durn
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Sarah Durn is a freelance journalist and author based in New Orleans, Louisiana. She has written for Gizmodo, io9, the AV Club, BUST, the MarySue, among others, and is the author of The Beginners Guide to Alchemy.