‘Lip service’: Judge blasts DEQ for approving Formosa project in St. James

Ruling revokes proposed facility’s clean air permits

By: - September 15, 2022 4:44 pm
Aerial photo of industrial zones along river in St. James Parish

Industrial plants line the Mississippi River in St. James Parish where Formosa Plastics plans to build one of the world’s largest petrochemical facilities, adding to an already heavily-polluted region dubbed “Cancer Alley.” (Photo courtesy of Louisiana Bucket Brigade).

Environmental groups in Louisiana are celebrating a state judge’s decision Wednesday to revoke permits for a massive $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics facility planned in the middle of Louisiana’s so-called Cancer Alley. The ruling comes after nearly three years of litigation on behalf of a community of Black residents in St. James Parish.

Judge Trudy White of Baton Rouge’s 19th Judicial District Court ruled the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) erred in issuing air permits for the Sunshine Project, owned by FG LA, an affiliate of Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics. White ruled the proposed facility violated the constitutional rights of the petitioners and residents who live near the proposed construction site.

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The permits would have allowed the facility, planned near the unincorporated Welcome community, to emit tons of petrochemical air pollutants every year, including 13.6 million tons of greenhouse gases per year. The petitioners showed that only one facility in the state reported that it emitted more ethylene oxide than FG LA’s permits allow, and only one facility in the state reported that it emitted more benzene than FG LA’s permits allow, according to the ruling.

LDEQ is the main defendant in the lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental interest groups. They include RISE St. James, Earthjustice, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Healthy Gulf, No Waste Louisiana, Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks and the Sierra Club, among others. Formosa joined the case to assist in the state’s defense.

The Baton Rouge-based 19th Judicial District Court is an appellate venue for disputed LDEQ permit decisions, though further litigation is possible if the agency appeal’s White’s ruling.

“We are looking at the ruling and assessing our position, but we really haven’t made a decision yet,” LDEQ spokesman Greg Langley said, declining to comment further on the case.

In its ruling, the court noted that the federal Clean Air Act forbids issuing a permit unless a new facility can demonstrate it would not cause or contribute to air pollution that exceeds public health standards. The judge found that emissions modeling Formosa submitted to LDEQ with its permit application showed the air quality would fail to meet Environmental Protection Agency standards across St. James Parish.

“The violations are not even close in some instances, spiking to more than double the [limit],” White wrote in her ruling.

LDEQ acknowledged the modeled air pollution but claimed it could interpret the law to allow for different emissions thresholds. The agency also asserted the modeled violations don’t necessarily mean there will be actual emissions violations. The court rejected those arguments, among others, saying LDEQ cannot simply dismiss the model’s conclusions on the hope that the violations might not occur in real life.

The court said environmental justice issues were at the “very heart of this case” and found the agency’s environmental justice analysis failed to consider the demographics of the community, which has a 99% minority population.

“LDEQ’s definition of ‘fair treatment’ requires more of the agency than mere lip service or opportunities for public involvement,” White wrote. “Rather, it demands active and affirmative protection.”

Contrary to LDEQ’s findings, EPA data shows that residents of Welcome are in the 86th percentile for air pollution-related cancer risk in Louisiana, meaning they face a higher cancer risk from air pollution than the vast majority of Louisiana residents, the ruling stated.

Right before taking on the Formosa facility, many of the same advocacy groups, including the local faith-based RISE St. James, stopped a previous plastics manufacturer from expanding to the area.

China-based Wanhua proposed construction of a $1.25 billion petrochemical facility in 2018 and successfully lobbied the St. James Parish Council to rezone a residential area in a low-income mostly-Black community. The decision spurred former school teacher Sharon Lavigne and 10 other residents to form RISE St. James. Wanhua withdrew their proposal about a year later.

“Stopping Formosa Plastics has been a fight for our lives, and today David has toppled Goliath,” Lavigne said in a press release. “The judge’s decision sends a message to polluters like Formosa that communities of color have a right to clean air, and we must not be sacrifice zones.”

FG LA said it intends to explore all its legal options with respect to Judge White’s ruling. The company said it believes LDEQ’s decision to issue the permits was “sound” and aligned with the agency’s duty to protect the environment.

“FG received its air permits from LDEQ in January 2020 following a thorough analysis of FG’s permit application,” FG spokesperson Janile Parks said. “LDEQ found the proposed project met all state and federal standards designed to protect the health and safety of FG employees, the St. James community and the environment with an added margin of safety. The issues raised in the petitioners’ and intervenor’s petitions were fully addressed by LDEQ and the department employed proper procedure in consideration and granting of the permits to FG.”

Formosa Plastics, the parent corporation, distanced itself from the lawsuit when responding to an email. A spokesperson said Formosa is a separate entity not involved with the proposed facility in Louisiana.

According to Louisiana Secretary of State business filings, the affiliate, FG LA LLC, was formed in 2017 by FG Inc., a nonprofit with corporate officers who list “Formosa Building” as their address in Taiwan.

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Among his recognitions are McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association. Muller is an alumnus of Jesuit High School and the University of New Orleans and is a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Louisiana with his wife and two sons.

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