The Race to Stop a Plastics Plant Scores a Crucial Win

As an old saying goes, you can’t fight city hall, meaning government. But the people of St. James Parish, La., did just that—and they 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 lawyers at Earthjustice, a national nonprofit environmental law organization, and other community groups led the years long battle. Ultimately, the groups persuaded Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court to cancel 14 air pollution permits granted by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality that would have allowed Formosa Plastics to build its proposed petrochemical complex. Petrochemicals are in a slew of products, including plastics.

This project would have created the largest plastics plant in the world 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 stunning legal decision is just a single case, and the company has promised to appeal. But, as the head of an organization with environmental policy expertise, we believe the win will galvanize equally effective local opposition in other places across 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 overflowing with single-use plastic, most of which is neither recyclable nor biodegradable. The decision will also prevent additional carbon pollution from being spewed into the atmosphere when the nation urgently needs to slow climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As investments in renewable energy and electric vehicles cause demand for fossil fuels to decline, 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 organization, Beyond Plastics, found that greenhouse gas emissions from plastics production in the United States are on track to outpace domestic coal emissions by 2030. The Formosa project alone would have emitted more than 13.6 million tons of greenhouse gases a year—equivalent to what 3.5 coal-fired power plants would emit in the same year.

But stopping, or at least slowing, Formosa’s project is just part of reducing the overall pollution burden for St. James Parish, which is located 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 risk that people of color living nearby will develop cancer over the course of their lifetime is significantly higher than the national average.

According to their permit application, Formosa Plastics’ project would have doubled or even tripled the levels of carcinogens St. James residents breathe. Twelve petrochemical facilities are already within a 10-mile radius of the site where Formosa wants to build, and the new complex would make the concentration of pollution even worse than it is today.

The company’s own modeling, part of their permit application, showed that inhaling the excessive concentrations of soot and nitrogen dioxide emitted at the facility could cause such disorders as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Yet Formosa callously proposed to build this noxious complex just a mile away from an elementary school.

Plans for the 2,400-acre complex included 10 chemical plants, key among them two enormous “ethane crackers.” In such facilities, hydrofracked gases are superheated until the molecules “crack” 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 to be used just once, then persisting in the environment for decades.

This attempted expansion of petrochemical facilities in Louisiana, Texas and Appalachia is creating “sacrifice zones” where big companies believe local residents are just as disposable as the plastic they manufacture.

While existing ethane crackers are already operating, all eyes are on communities where fights similar to the one with Formosa are unfolding—and where opponents of planned facilities are now energized by this legal victory.

Most notably, Shell has built the nation’s newest ethane cracker in the tiny community of Potter Township, Pa., on the Ohio River. That plastic production facility is expected to start operating any day now. Residents and environmental groups are concerned that it will attract other mega-polluters to the area, creating large-scale pollution problems, making it 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 that consumers don’t need to bring a reusable bag to the store or drink from a durable coffee cup?

In Louisiana, state and company officials claim the Formosa complex would create 1,200 jobs and add millions of dollars to the local economy. But there are more environmentally sustainable ways to create jobs that do not damage the health of workers, their communities and the planet.

If this court decision is reversed upon appeal, Formosa might still be allowed to build. But Louisiana and other states need to stop falling for the jobs-versus-environment argument. Climate disasters around the world make it apparent that we need to rapidly slash greenhouse gas emissions and that transitioning away from fossil fuels will create jobs.

The time for Louisiana to change direction is now, as the federal government is poised to pump significant new funding into renewable energy projects. Yet, if we just switch to renewable energy sources while continuing to manufacture ever-increasing amounts of plastic, we are guaranteed to rocket past the crucial 1.5-degree Celsius climate threshold, which will result in more severe heat waves, greater sea-level rise, more flooding, reduced agricultural output and more extreme weather all over the globe.

This is the moment for those in government and business to rethink their antiquated 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 a responsibility to the health and environmental welfare of our communities. Congress needs to put a pause on the race to construct 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, ecosystem and planetary health.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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