As an old saying goes, you can’t fight the council, that is, the government. But the people of St. James Parish, Louisiana, did just that, and won a major court victory against a massive plastics plant supported by the Governor, state and local legislators, the business community, and local power brokers.
Led by Sharon Lavigne of Rise St. James, a faith-based grassroots organization fighting to reduce pollution in the community, and attorneys from Earthjustice, a national nonprofit environmental law organization, and other community groups led the long battle. Ultimately, the groups persuaded Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court to cancel 14 air pollution permits awarded by the state Department of Environmental Quality that would have allowed Formosa Plastics to build its proposed petrochemical complex. Petrochemicals are found in a large number of products, including plastics.
This project would have created the world’s largest plastics plant and subjected the residents of St. James Parish to another 800 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year, on top of the air pollution they already breathe from miles and miles of refineries and other petrochemical facilities that dot the landscape.
This surprising legal decision is just a single case, and the company has promised to appeal. But, as the head of an organization with experience in environmental policy, we believe the victory will galvanize equally effective local opposition elsewhere in the country where similar facilities are being proposed, invariably in low-income communities of color, primarily in Texas, Louisiana. and the areas that make up Appalachia.
Meanwhile, the world is already awash in single-use plastic, most of which is neither recyclable nor biodegradable. The decision will also prevent more carbon pollution from being dumped into the atmosphere when the nation urgently needs to curb climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
As investments in renewable energy and electric vehicles drive down the demand for fossil fuels, the oil and gas industry is turning to plastics to keep making money.
This trend has alarming implications for the climate crisis. Last October, a report from our organizationBeyond Plastics, found that greenhouse gas emissions from plastics production in the United States are on track to exceed household carbon emissions by 2030. The Formosa project alone would have emitted more than 13.6 million tons of greenhouse gases per year—equivalent to what 3.5 coal-fired power plants would emit in the same year.
But stopping, or at least slowing down, the Formosa project is just part of reducing the overall pollution load for St. James Parish, which sits along an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as “Cancer Alley”. ” The corridor, in which many low-income people live, houses about 150 petrochemical plants and refineries, and the lifetime risk of people of color living nearby developing cancer is significantly higher than the national average.
According to its permit application, the Formosa Plastics project would have doubled or even tripled the levels of carcinogens breathed in by St. James residents. Twelve petrochemical facilities they are already within a 10-mile radius of the site where Formosa wants to build, and the new complex would make the pollution concentration even worse than it is today.
The company’s own modeling, part of its permit application, showed that inhalation of excessive concentrations of soot and nitrogen dioxide emitted from the facility could cause conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, Formosa cruelly proposed to build this noxious complex just a mile away from an elementary school.
plans for the 2400 acre complex included 10 chemical plants, key between them two huge “ethane crackers”. In such facilities, the fracking gases are superheated until the molecules “break down” into smaller hydrocarbons, particularly ethylene, which is then transformed into plastic pellets. The pellets are used to make plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic straws, and other consumer items, many of which are used only once and then persist in the environment for decades.
This attempted expansion of petrochemical facilities in Louisiana, Texas and Appalachia is creating “sacrifice zones” where big business believes local residents are just as disposable as the plastic they make.
While existing ethane crackers are already operating, all eyes are on the communities where struggles similar to the one in Formosa are taking place, and where opponents of the planned facilities are now energized by this legal victory.
In particular, Shell has built the nation’s newest ethane cracker in the small community of Potter Township, Pennsylvania, on the Ohio River. That plastic production plant is expected to start operating at any time. Residents and environmental groups are concerned that it will attract other megapolluters to the area, creating large-scale pollution problems, turning it into a northern version of Cancer Alley in the Ohio River Valley.
These companies are forcing residents to pay with their health, and to what end? So consumers don’t need to carry a reusable bag to the store or drink from a durable cup of coffee?
In Louisiana, state and company officials say the Formosa complex would create 1,200 jobs and add up to millions of dollars to the local economy. But there are more environmentally sustainable ways to create jobs that don’t harm the health of workers, their communities, and the planet.
If this court decision is reversed on appeal, Formosa may still be able to build. But Louisiana and other states must stop falling for the jobs versus environment argument. Climate disasters around the world make it clear that we must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that the transition away from fossil fuels will create jobs.
The time for Louisiana to change direction is now, as the federal government is poised to inject significant new funds into renewable energy projects. However, if we simply switch to renewable energy sources while continuing to manufacture ever-increasing amounts of plastic, we are guaranteed to overcome the crucial Climate threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsiuswhich will result in more severe heat waves, higher sea level rise, more flooding, lower agricultural production, and more extreme weather conditions around the world.
This is the time for those in government and business to reconsider their outdated economic development strategies, which should be based on providing living wage jobs that do not threaten public health. We can’t create any more sacrifice zones.
A judge has spoken, but the courts are not the only segment of government with responsibility for the environmental health and well-being of our communities. Congress needs to stop the race to build more petrochemical facilities. We cannot allow these investments to lock us into a future framed by plastic and all the problems it creates, in terms of human health, the ecosystem and the planet.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the opinions expressed by the author(s) are not necessarily those of American scientist.