After Decades of Inaction on Petrochemical Development, St. James Parish to Study Impacts of Solar

Photo by Jim Bowen | License

St. James Parish is internationally known for its clusters of petrochemical and plastic plants, known colloquially as Cancer Alley. After decades of inaction on – and in fact encouragement of – petrochemical development, the St. James Parish Council has now voted to further study the environmental and economic impacts of proposed solar farms in the parish, in spite of the fact that they’re generally considered safer and produce cleaner energy than fossil fuels.

In March of 2021, United Nations human rights experts called for an end to what they perceive as environmental racism happening in the area. According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Toxic Assessment map, the cancer risks in predominantly Black Districts in St. James Parish are significantly higher than in districts with predominantly white populations.

“Why has there been more debate in the council about solar farms than there was about building Formosa’s poisonous plastics plant in the 5th district?” asked Louisiana Bucket Brigade director Anne Rolfes, referring to the $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics plant proposed for the district in St. James with the highest Black populations known as the “Sunshine Project.”

The solar farm study is part of the council’s consideration on whether it should issue a moratorium on new solar farms in order to protect the area’s economy. The study will examine how using land to generate electricity instead of agriculture will affect the local economy.

According to a land-use attorney who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, the St. James Parish Council already has the discretion to approve or deny new solar projects.

“The difference with a moratorium is that applicants are cut off at the front end, rather than having the right to go through the application process,” he said.

Currently, one 200-acre solar farm has been granted a permit in St. James Parish, while proposals for 3,900 acres of solar farms have been denied. At the same time, a land-use plan approved by the council in 2014 has paved the way for further petrochemical development – sometimes in secretive, deceptive ways according to one report.

Entergy Corp., DE Shaw & Co’s renewable-investment unit, and NextEra Energy Inc. have all been seeking to build new solar farms or buy power from new solar arrays in and around southern Louisiana. Solar farms, which do not produce air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions are generally seen as an important resource in the fight against climate change.

“St. James Parish does need to determine the best uses for its land, but it should apply this strict level of scrutiny to the polluting petrochemical plants rather than snuffing out the renewable sources of energy this community needs to secure its future,” Rolfes said.

Click here to watch the meeting. (For better audio quality, the use of headphones is advised.)


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