Louisiana Residents Fight Massive Plastic Facility and Associated Pollution

Environmentalists and residents recently forced Formosa Plastics, a plastics supplier described by judges as a “serial offender” against the environment, to suspend the construction of a proposed 2,400 acre petrochemical complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Formosa, which makes polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and other plastics was found to have dumped billions of plastic pellets and other pollutants into waterways and the air, leading to a $50M settlement to clean up the Lavaca Bay in Texas.

Formosa’s agreement to suspend construction comes on the heels of lawsuits by the Center for Biological Diversity on behalf of RISE St. James, Healthy Gulf, and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Plastic plants like the one proposed in St. James Parish previously have exposed local communities to toxic chemical fumes.

“If they allow this plant to come into St. James, it’ll more than double the pollutants in our air. We are already breathing toxic air and it’s making us sick,” said Sharon Lavigne, President of RISE St. James. “If this plant comes into our community we won’t be able to breathe the air. We can’t live with this chemical plant, it’ll kill us.”

Formosa applied for a permit for the $9.4 billion petrochemical complex some four years ago, and was immediately met with backlash from community members – including a five-hour hearing where lawyers, environmental activists, and residents spoke out against the proposal, citing the emissions of ethylene oxide and other pollutants as well as previous safety violations at Formosa facilities nationwide. These emissions are not exclusive to Formosa. Recent studies show a majority of plastics plants violate air-pollution regulations, emitting tens of thousands of tons of pollutants.

“We need no more pollution. We are already devastated,” said Rita Cooper, a lifelong St. James Parish resident. “Our bodies can no longer take any more.”

Norman Marmillion, the owner of a local plantation, urged local government to make their decision based on Formosa’s poor legal history, saying “I want you to look at every law that they have broken. I want you to look at every violation standard that they have not kept.”

St. James Parish is already considered as the heart of Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” a stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that is riddled with 157 existing and proposed petrochemical facilities. And while the Formosa plant could represent the single largest polluting facility, the area is threatened by the prospect of an additional 227 million tons of climate-changing greenhouse gas pollutions over the next 5 years if the Formosa plant and other planned facilities were built. Together, they would create an impact equal to 50 coal-fired power plants, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project.

 An analysis by ProPublica found that the plant would introduce more toxic chemicals than 99.6% of industrialized areas in the United States – ranking in the top 1% of all major plants, across all industries, in terms of concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals in its vicinity. The analysis concluded that the toxic levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the air would double in the local area after the plant’s proposed completion in 2022. The pollutants that would be emitted include ethylene oxide, benzene, and formaldehyde, which are all known to cause cancer. The project would emit 800 tons of toxic air pollution and emit more than 13 million tons of carbon pollution each year, tripling the levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the region.

 A History of Environmental Degradation & Safety Violations

Formosa Plastics has a well-documented record of flouting protections for human health and the environment. In 2006, legal proceedings found that Formosa knew of hazards at their Point Comfort, Texas, facility and acted with “conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of others” in a lawsuit against the company by victims of a propylene explosion that burned and injured several employees. The explosion released toxic waste into the community, dispersing fumes and residue over local communities and forcing some locals to evacuate. Nearly 1,000 plaintiffs would later settle in court with Formosa, for damages to both property and health.

Ten years later, Formosa was still at it, cited for an “enormous” violation of state and federal clean water laws for discharging plastic pellets and other pollutants into Texas waterways, stemming from its Point Comfort petrochemical plant. For over a decade, local residents and environmental activists had raised concerns about the rampant and illegal discharge of plastic pellets and other pollutants, according to the Texas Tribune. Evidence showed Formosa had violated its permit with mass discharges of these pellets over the course of a year or more. Formosa would pay out $50M and agree to implement a “zero discharge” policy for plastic pellets.  It was a sweet victory for plaintiffs: “I have felt justice delivered and it’s a very rare feeling,” said Diane Wilson, a shrimper and environmental activist who presented boxes of thousands of plastic pellets during the lawsuit. “I’m having a hard time getting my head wrapped around what this feels like.”

The Fight is Not Over

Based on Formosa’s poor record and their own experiences, local residents and activists continue to fight the company’s new proposed plant to ensure construction is not just suspended, but terminated entirely. Volunteers like Diane Wilson monitor local waterways to check whether Formosa was still discharging raw plastics and discover thousands of the milky plastic nurdles, some of which are exhibited in this video. A campaign spearheaded by RISE St. James generated 5,500 letters from local residents, environmental activists, and others to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers demanding revocation of the project’s federal permit out of concern for the environment, wetlands, and local communities.

 Late in 2020, proceedings determined that courts would further examine the plant’s permitting, pending reevaluation of impacts the plant might have on wetlands and majority-Black neighborhoods. The final decision will see its day in court once the proposal is assessed and legal obstacles are navigated, and activists are hopeful that the new Biden Administration will side with their cause. “This is the beginning of the end for Formosa,” said Sharon Lavigne. 

Photo Credit: Louisiana Bucket Brigade