The Race to Stop a Plastics Plant Scores a Crucial Win

The Race to Stop a Plastics Plant Scores a Crucial Win

It is an old saying that you can’t fight the city hall, or government. The people of St. James Parish, La. did just that and won a major court victory over a massive-plastics plant supported and supported by the governor and state legislators.

Led by Sharon Lavigne, Rise St. James, a faith based grassroots organization fighting for pollution reduction in the community. Earthjustice lawyers and other community groups also participated in the long-running 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 used in a variety 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 extraordinary legal decision is only one case and the company has pledged to appeal. We believe that the win will inspire local opposition in other areas across the country where similar facilities may be proposed. This includes low-income communities of color in Texas, Louisiana, and Appalachia.

The world is already flooded with single-use plastic. Most of it is not recyclable or 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 fossil fuel demand declines due to investments in renewable energy, electric vehicles, the petroleum industry is turning to plastics for its continued profits.

This trend has serious 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 would have doubled or even tripled levels of carcinogens St. James residents inhale. 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 modeling was part of their permit application. It showed that inhaling excessive levels of soot or nitrogen dioxide emitted by the facility could cause asthma and chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD). Formosa proposed the construction of this noxious complex only a mile 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. These pellets are used to produce plastic bags, plastic bottles, and other consumer products.

This attempt to expand petrochemical facilities across Louisiana, Texas, and Appalachia has created “sacrifice areas” where big corporations believe that local residents are as disposable as the plastic they make.

Ethane crackers in operation. All eyes now on communities where fights like the one with Formosa are taking place–and where opponents to planned facilities are now energized after this legal victory.

Most notably, Shell built the nation’s latest ethane cracker in Potter Township, Pa. on the Ohio River. The plastic production facility is expected start operating within the next few days. Residents and environmental groups worry that the facility will attract other mega-polluters, creating large-scale pollution problems in the region. It could be a northern version Cancer Alley in Ohio River Valley.

These companies force residents to pay with health and to what end? So that customers don’t have to bring a reusable bag or a coffee cup to the shop,

In Louisiana, state and company officials claim the Formosa complex would create 1,200 jobs and add millions of dollars to the local economy. There are other ways to create sustainable jobs that don’t harm workers’ health, their communities, or the environment.

If the court’s decision is upheld on appeal, Formosa may still be allowed to construct. But Louisiana and other states need to stop falling for the jobs-versus-environment argument. The world’s climate disasters have made it clear that we must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Also, that a transition away from fossil fuels will create new jobs.

Louisiana needs to make a change. The federal government is ready to invest significant funds in 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 time for government and business leaders to rethink their outdated economic development strategies. They should be based upon providing living-wage jobs without threatening public health. We cannot create more sacrifice zones.

A judge has spoken but the courts aren’t the only government segment responsible for the health and environment of our communities. Congress must halt the race to build more petrochemical plants. These investments cannot be used to lock us into a future dominated by plastic and all the associated problems for 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.


    Judith Enck is a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and currently is a visiting professor

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