Formosa’s New St. James Project Is The Real Pest


Photo Source: “Cancer alley” by GinesAlberto is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Residents of Louisiana are intimately familiar with the annoying Formosan termite, but now there’s a new pest by the name of Formosa. Formosa Plastic Group (FPG), a petrochemical company, has plans to build a new facility in St. James Parish, a parish at the heart of “Cancer Alley.” The community is predominantly Black and incredibly overburdened by existing industrial activity, as is. This plant is expected to double present air pollution in the area and would be the largest new source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It comes as no surprise that the community of St. James Parish is not pleased.

Sharon Lavigne, resident of St. James Parish, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, and founder of RISE St. James, recently spoke on the issue in an online panel hosted by Earthworks, an environmental non-profit. Lavigne expressed concern about FPG’s “Sunshine Project” and the 24 acres of land they have purchased for the project, arguing that the company will drive the community out with further pollution and industrialization of the area. Lavigne further called for a moratorium on industrial development in the area and reparations for community members for past and present abuses. 

That’s far from all that the hour-plus panel had to offer. The panel consisted of other environmental activists, namely, Huiting Hsu representing Taiwan, Nancy Bui representing Vietnam, Diane Wilson representing Texas, Michelle Chan representing Friends of the Earth, and the host, Kaitlyn A. Joshua, representing Earthworks. Taiwan, Vietnam, and the state of Texas are previous victims of FPG’s irresponsible and predatory corporate activities. Knowing their stories helps us understand the importance of not letting FPG be part of ours.

Formosa Plastic Group is based in Taiwan, hence the name. It is one of the largest economic actors in the country and, as Huiting Hsu pointed out, one can trace a long history of conflict between the Taiwanese people and FPG. There were protests against FPG in response to the production of a new facility in the 1990s. In 2013, fish farmers protested the company’s refusal to pay out damages for irresponsible sand pumping that destroyed over 300 hectares of land. More recently, researcher Ben-Jei Tsuang of National Chung Hsing University “presented evidence suggesting increased cancer risk in the vicinity of an FPG hydrocarbon-processing facility in Mailiao.” The company filed libel lawsuits against Tsuang to no avail, but what is clear is that Formosa wants to silence evidentiary objections to their practices. As one of Tsuang’s lawyers, Severia Lu, once said about FPG, “they have more than enough money to fund research to rebut his findings, rather than use litigation.”

Despite being very right in the context of Tsuang’s trial, Lu might be wrong about that. They may have enough money theoretically, but can it be done? It would appear that FPG knows that their business’ modus operandi is in direct opposition to environmental interests. It would appear that they actively choose clandestine tactics and bullying over bribing researchers to publish unjustifiable results (like the Koch Brothers).

They very well could. Hsu points out that FPG owns many universities and hospitals in Taiwan. However, as Nancy Bui, VP of external affairs for Justice For Formosa Victims (a Louisiana-based non-profit), pointed out, the history of FPG in Vietnam suggests a different approach to covering up their abuses. When the company failed to meet an environmental impact assessment for a new Taiwanese project in 2007, they moved business to Vietnam. 

It wasn’t long after, in April of 2016, that millions of toxic, dead fish washed up along 200 kilometers of the Vietnam coast. Arguably Vietnam’s worst environmental disaster, the spill inspired massive public outrage and the Vietnamese government, which rarely appreciates public dissent, was forced to respond. An internal government report, known as the “July Report”, found that over 50 violations at the Formosa steel mill directly caused the disaster. 

However, Bui asks, “where’s the July Report?” The report, to this day, has never been publicly published by the Vietnamese government and the international experts who worked on it are restricted from speaking on the full extent of its findings. This lack of transparency has allowed Formosa to get away with improper compensation of the community and gives them a de-facto green light to continue their irresponsible business practices. The company doesn’t pay off scientists to get favorable numbers, it pays off people to make the real numbers stop mattering.

It’s possible that Formosa actually could not care less about the members of the communities it operates in. In constructing the Ha Tinh Steel Plant, the company demolished homes without proper consultation with home owners, causing many to be forcibly relocated without proper compensation and others to live without utilities in what was left of their home. Bui says it best, this company “causes suffering for those who want to live in peace,” and the residents of St. James Parish are no different. 

Author and activist, Diane Wilson, who has been fighting Formosa for around 30 years, shared the experience of Texas residents with FPG at the panel and echoed these experiences. According to her, “Formosa is a bit cheap and […] pushes production,” without regard for environmental regulations or safety. There have been multiple explosions on their watch since 1998 that have caused worker deaths, regional lockdowns, and chemical leaks that affect the groundwater to this day. It stands to reason that the surrounding population has reduced by 50% since the foundation of their Texas facility. 

Wilson, a fourth-generation fisherwoman and retired shrimper from the area, took them to court for placing their waste train in Lavaca Bay, a vibrant ecosystem that supported fishers for generations. Local environmental officials, the state government, and the EPA wouldn’t step in, so Wilson collected evidence with the aid of concerned Formosa employees for two and a half years until a legal aide group took their case. In 2019, Formosa settled the case for $50 million, the largest settlement in history for a Clean Water Act suit filed by a private individual. 

U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt, who oversaw the trial, wrote in his June ruling that Formosa was “a serial offender” whose “violations are enormous.” We have to ask: why is the Louisiana State Government and the St. James Parish Council so eager to let a multi-national corporation with such a storied history of malfeasance into our community? The answer is, unsurprisingly, money.

The Louisiana State Government website states: “The Sunshine Project would create 1,200 new direct jobs averaging $84,500, plus benefits.” Advocates of the project, like Clare Goldsberry, a plastics-enthusiast who has written articles with iconic headlines like, “Cancel Culture Targets Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics,” argue that, “the residents of St. James Parish should be grateful that Formosa Plastics chose their parish to build a thriving, growing industry.” Never mind the fact that Formosa Plastics is planning to bulldoze slave gravesites to build the facility (and lied about the plan to the St. James Parish Council) or the fact that St. James Parish has a higher cancer risk from industrial pollution than over 90% of Louisiana parishes or the fact that Diane Wilson’s suit was successful because Formosa employees were scared of their own work environment and fought against it, I’m sure the residents of St. James Parish ought to be quite grateful. 

The residents of St. James Parish do not want this facility and shouldn’t have to suffer because of private interests that do not represent them. I recently wrote about the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s failures to hold corporations accountable in the case of BWC Harvey and we see it here again with their approval of Formosa’s permits. We, as Louisiana citizens, need to stand alongside St. James Parish in opposition to Formosa’s painfully-ironically-named “Sunshine Project” before it blots out the sun, so to speak.

Michelle Chan, VP of Programs for Friends of the Earth, and Sharon Lavigne offered some strategies for how we can aid the fight against Formosa’s new facility. RISE St. James has urged everyone to sign their petition to President Joe Biden to protect St. James Parish. Additionally, one can support RISE St. James by joining them in their marches, helping them to write letters to relevant public officials, or by donating to support their cause. 

Michelle Chan offered another means of direct action for the public to take: demand that banks “denounce, divest, and defund” Formosa. The project still does not have all of its permits and needs to raise approximately $10 billion to launch the facility. That’s a lofty and difficult goal, even for a massive petrochemical corporation, and requires the assistance of major banking institutions. Chan suggests that a large social media campaign targeted at Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo could significantly damage Formosa’s ability to fundraise. 

Urging these institutions to commit to net-zero financed emissions (BoA has committed to this by 2050) would pose a massive barrier to predatory corporations, like Formosa, who profit off the suffering of innocent communities. The tragic reality of “Cancer Alley” is a well-documented blight on our history and we ought to do all we can to ensure a cancer-free environment for Louisianans, something I’m sure we’d all be “grateful” for. 

 

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