Army Corp To Do Full Environmental Review of Formosa

US Army Corps of Engineers” by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Plastic may last too long, but Formosa Plastics Group’s plans for a new facility in Louisiana may not.

The Associated Press has reported that the Army Corps of Engineers would be conducting a full environmental review of the planned $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics Group (FPG) facility in St. James Parish. Jaime Pinkham, the Army’s acting assistant secretary for civil works, ordered the review following a meeting with opponents of a pre-existing Army Corps wetland permit that would allow FPG to build ten chemical plants and four other facilities in the town of Welcome in St. James Parish. The review could take years to be completed.

The ironically named “Sunshine Project” has drawn immense criticism since its inception. It’s thought that the plant will double present air pollution in the area and would be the largest new source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The decision from the Army Corps of Engineers comes on the back of widespread opposition on the local, national, and international levels.  I wrote about this project about a month ago when climate activists who have battled with Formosa around the world spoke out against the project in an online event with Earthworks.  

Back in March, House Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and A. Donald McEachine (D-Va.) asked President Biden to revoke the Corps permit, arguing that the area –  which has come to be known as “Cancer Alley” – is already excessively overburdened by industrial pollutants in a manner that raises racial justice questions, as well. ProPublica found that, “the air around Formosa’s site is more toxic with cancer-causing chemicals than 99.6% of industrialized areas of the country.” 

Bear in mind that the Census Bureau estimates that nearly 97% of the 880 residents of Welcome are African American. Additionally, part of the Corps decision is to investigate whether nearby majority White parishes have been safeguarded from industrial development wrongfully. This is clearly a concern to Pinkham who wrote in their memorandum, “As a result of information received to date and my commitment for the Army to be a leader in the federal government’s efforts to ensure thorough environmental analysis and meaningful community outreach, I conclude an EIS process is warranted to thoroughly review areas of concern, particularly those with environmental justice implications.” 

Representatives of Formosa, like Janile Parks, argue that, “the entire petrochemical industry is under attack by national environmental activist groups opposed to all industrial developments,” and that the project would have “emissions reduction mechanisms in place and extensive measures to protect the environment.” I’d like to break this down.

First off, if this attack from environmentalists is so damaging, it’s peculiar that the plastics industry has been consistently growing, even despite COVID-19. On top of this, the industry has spread misinformation and fear about COVID spreading from the use of reusable bags to drive profits further. 

Additionally, it’s unclear who is an “environmental activist” in the eyes of Formosa when the only online articles in defense of Formosa come from the same author and websites with names like PlasticsToday and ThisIsPlastics. One has to wonder whether there is just genuine, widespread discontent with environmentally irresponsible corporations in this country that the industry wants to write off as radical, fringe behavior. 

Enough on that first statement, however, because the second is even more peculiar. Formosa claims that they would have emissions reduction mechanisms, citing taller smoke stacks that allow toxic chemicals to decay before mixing with ground-level air. This is a joke, especially to the residents of the area who have been criminally exposed to dangerous pollutants for decades. Not all of Formosa’s planned stacks are the same height and their own permit admits to an under 10 feet stack for ethylene oxide, a toxic chemical that the EPA found can cause cancer with limited exposure.

However, Formosa and the plastic industry also claims that “Cancer Alley” is not even real citing the Louisiana Tumor Registry, but there’s a litany of issues with this argument. First, the registry examines areas that are too large and doesn’t account for localized facility impacts. Second, the registry only counts cases where cancer is the cause of death, which overlooks many possible cases with confounding medical variables. Third, medical privacy laws make this claim incredibly specious. I’ll stop counting, but, statistically, residents may not reach out for medical care due to economic or social concerns. Call it “Cancer Alley” “Toxic Alley” “Disease Alley” what have you – researchers have traced increased rates of COVID infection during the pandemic and we can trace cancer-causing pollution in the area for decades

Furthermore, plastics advocates and Louisiana politicians have supported the project with the promise of well-paying, decent jobs. Depending on how you look at it or who you are, this is another racialized myth of the plastics industry. St. James Parish is approximately 50% people of color (49.4% being African American), but a survey of 11 plants in the Parish found that these plants only employed between 4.9% and 19.4% African Americans. Sure, they make jobs, but those jobs are generally not for those intimately affected by the emissions of these facilities. 

I should be fair though, those who work at Formosa facilities are definitely negatively affected as well. One need only look at the multiple facility explosions at Formosa facilities across the U.S. that have killed multiple workers. One would think that with a deplorable working condition track record like that, the salary would at least be 6-figures (it’s not!). One can also look to the history of whistleblowing Formosa employees in Texas who were instrumental in the $50 million settlement Formosa just had to pay for an array of environmental offenses leading to a federal judge deeming them, “a serial polluter.” 

Vietnam could have told us that, though. Formosa caused what is being said by some to be the largest environmental disaster in Vietnam’s history when a Formosa steel mill with over 50 environmental violations lead to millions of toxic, dead fish washing up along 200 kilometers of the Vietnamese coast. Taiwan could have told them that, though. Formosa, based in Taiwan, has faced public protest there for decades now. One thing is constant – Formosa fails to adequately compensate those affected by their malfeasance and continues to expand internationally to avoid sustained criticism. 

Formosa and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), who continuously issues questionable air permits to polluters, will often claim that they meet air standards, but this really doesn’t mean much. Louisiana has the most lax air quality standards of any U.S. state and, as past EPA reports have suggested and Anne Rolfes of Louisiana Bucket Brigade has argued, we have “a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry.” The DEQ has consistently denied this and insisted on their competence, but the Formosa facility in Baton Rouge is a “significant noncomplier” according to the EPA and has been committing high priority violations for years. 

My suggestion to the Army Corps of Engineers: Keep up the good work and take a look at the LDEQ next. My suggestion to all readers: We need to fight for robust air quality regulations. If Louisiana is to ever get out from being under the thumb of “serial polluters” like Formosa, we need significant reform in our state environmental regulatory agencies. If we consider Nucor, BWC Harvey, Formosa, and many other industrial environmental disasters that the LDEQ consistently overlooks, we have to wonder if the LDEQ does more harm than good at this point. 

We all want economic life in Louisiana, but investing in polluters is a double-edged sword. Formosa, by all reasonable accounts, is an irresponsible and dangerous multi-national corporation that does not care about the health or well-being of Louisiana residents. We may get short-term jobs, but those jobs are dangerous and don’t proportionally benefit the communities they’re in. They also feed an industry that is actively destroying our coastal wetlands, which destroys more jobs than these facilities make. If Louisiana wants sustainable growth, it should invest in sustainable businesses that are invested in our community, not a bottom line.  

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