As an old saying goes, you can’t fight city hall, aka the government. But the residents of St. James Parish, Louisiana did just that – and they won a major court victory against a solid plastics factory supported by the governor, state and local legislators, the business community and local brokers.
Led by Sharon Lavigne of Rise St. James, a grassroots faith-based organization fighting to reduce pollution in the community, and attorneys from Earthjustice, a national nonprofit environmental law organization, and other groups communities have fought the battle for several years. Ultimately, the groups persuaded the Louisiana 19th Judicial District Court to cancel 14 air pollution permits granted by the state Department of Environmental Quality that would have allowed Formosa Plastics to build its proposed petrochemical complex. Petrochemicals are present in a multitude of products, including plastics.
This project would have created the largest plastics factory in the world and subjected the residents of St. James Parish to another 800 tonnes of hazardous air pollutants every year, in addition to the air pollution they already breathe in, there are miles and miles of refineries and other petrochemical facilities that dot the landscape.
This stunning court ruling is just a one-off, and the company has promised to appeal. But, as the head of an organization with expertise in environmental policy, we believe victory will galvanize equally effective local opposition in other places across the country where similar facilities are being proposed – invariably in communities of color in low income, mainly in Texas, Louisiana. and the areas that make up Appalachia.
Meanwhile, the world is already overflowing with single-use plastics, most of which are neither recyclable nor biodegradable. The decision will also prevent further carbon pollution from being released into the atmosphere as the nation urgently needs to slow down. climate change by reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As investments in renewable energy and electric vehicles drive down demand for fossil fuels, 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 organizationBeyond Plastics, found that greenhouse gas emissions from plastics production in the United States are on track to exceed domestic coal emissions by 2030. The Formosa project alone would have emitted more than 13.6 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year— equivalent to what 3.5 coal-fired power stations would emit in the same year.
But halting, or at least slowing, the Formosa project is only part of reducing the overall pollution burden for St. James Parish, which is located along an 85-mile stretch of the river. Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as “Cancer Alley”. “The corridor, in which many low-income people live, is home to approximately 150 petrochemical plants and refineries, and the risk that people of color living nearby will develop cancer in their lifetime is significantly higher than the national average.
According to their permit application, the Formosa Plastics project would have doubled or even tripled the levels of carcinogens that St. James residents breathe. Twelve petrochemical facilities are already within 10 miles 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, which forms part of its permit application, showed that inhaling the excessive concentrations of soot and nitrogen dioxide emitted from the facility could cause conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Yet Formosa proposed to build this noxious complex just a mile from an elementary school.
projects for the 2,400 acre complex included 10 chemical plants, including two huge “ethane crackers”. In such facilities, hydrofracturing gases are superheated until the molecules “crack” into smaller hydrocarbons, particularly ethylene, which is then processed into plastic pellets. Pellets are used to make plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic straws and other consumer items, many of which are used only once and then persist in the environment for decades.
This attempt to expand petrochemical facilities in Louisiana, Texas and Appalachia is creating “sacrifice zones” where big business thinks local residents are just as disposable as the plastic they make.
While the existing ethane crackers are already operating, all eyes are on the communities where fights similar to the one with Formosa are unfolding and where opponents of the planned facilities are now energized by this legal victory.
Most notably, Shell built the nation’s newest ethane cracker in the small community of Potter Township, Pennsylvania, on the Ohio River. This plastic production plant is expected to start operating any day. Residents and environmental groups fear 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 consumers don’t need to bring a reusable bag to the store or drink from a sustainable coffee mug?
In Louisiana, state and company officials say the Formosa complex would create 1,200 jobs and add millions of dollars to the local economy. But there are greener ways to create jobs that don’t harm the health of workers, their communities, and the planet.
If this court decision is overturned on appeal, Formosa could still be allowed to build. But Louisiana and other states need to stop falling into the jobs versus environment argument. Climate disasters around the world make it clear that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly and that moving away from fossil fuels will create jobs.
Now is the time for Louisiana to change direction, as the federal government is about to inject significant new funds into renewable energy projects. Yet if we simply switch to renewable energy sources while continuing to manufacture ever-increasing amounts of plastic, we are guaranteed to pass the crucial milestone. Climate threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsiuswhich will lead to more severe heat waves, greater sea level rise, more flooding, reduced agricultural production and more extreme weather conditions all over the world.
Now is the time for governments and businesses to rethink their outdated economic development strategies, which should be based on creating gainful employment that does not threaten public health. We can no longer create sacrifice zones.
A judge has spoken, but the courts are not the only segment of government responsible for the health and environmental well-being of our communities. Congress needs to pause the rush to build more petrochemical facilities. We cannot let these investments 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 analytical article, and the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.