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'Cancer Alley' polluter wins appeal in Louisiana court

The ruling is one of multiple recent blows to environmental protections in a region that sees sky-high cancer rates due to airborne carcinogens.

A house near chemical plants in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

by Wesley Muller, Louisiana Illuminator

Neighbors against the proposed Formosa Plastics complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana, are regrouping after a state appellate court affirmed the Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to issue air pollution permits for the project.

The state’s First Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling on Jan. 19 that validates Formosa’s DEQ permits and overturns the decision of the 19th Judicial District Court.

The Sunshine Project, owned by Formosa Plastics affiliate FG LA, proposes to build 10 chemical manufacturing plants and numerous support facilities.

The DEQ permits will allow the complex to emit 13.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases and 800 tons of toxic air pollution each year, doubling toxic air emissions in St. James Parish—located in the middle of “Cancer Alley,” the petrochemical corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that has some of the worst air quality and highest rates of cancer in the country.

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RISE St. James and Formosa Plastics construction site dispute how many burial sites there may be on land where the company plans to build…

The ruling came as a disappointment for the environmental and community groups that filed the lawsuit against Formosa in 2020, though the facility still needs a federal wetlands permit before it can be constructed. The groups are urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the permit, which remains under review

“Living next to Formosa Plastics, the perpetual risk to our health, livelihood, security, and hard-earned property is beyond anyone’s imagination,” said RISE St. James founder Sharon Lavigne, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The 73-year-old Black Catholic activist won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2021 for her advocacy work against various local polluters, and says advocates plan to take the Formosa case to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

“Formosa Plastics would wipe the 5th district of St. James off the map,” she said, “adding to the number of historically black communities that have become extinct due to the intrusion of petrochemical industries.”

The ruling comes roughly six months after the Environmental Protection Agency dropped a discrimination investigation against Louisiana officials, who have disproportionately greenlit carcinogenic industrial projects in parts of the state mostly inhabited by African Americans. Amid the probe, the EPA was sued by then Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican who has since been elected governor.

This month, a GOP judge in Louisiana ruled that the EPA and the Department of Justice cannot enforce the Civil Rights Act in environmental cases against the state.

Nancy Bui, co-founder of the International Monitor Formosa Plastics Alliance, said her group recently met with Biden administration officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deliver a petition with over 96,000 signatures asking that a wetlands permit not be granted to Formosa.

“This ruling is incredibly disappointing and an indicator that the government is willing to put polluters over people,” Bui said of the appeal decision. “Nevertheless, we will not stop the fight. We will continue to move forward until this Formosa Plastics facility is fully rejected and those affected by their destructive practices worldwide are compensated.”

FG LA couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday. The company’s website hasn’t posted any news releases since June 2021.

Editor's note: BCM has added info on RISE St. James founder Sharon Lavigne and on recent legal developments surrounding Cancer Alley.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.