Why We’re Challenging Formosa Plastics’ Massive Proposed Petrochemical Plants in Court

Formosa’s proposal is a textbook example of environmental racism and poses grave dangers to waterways, public health, and climate.

Today, Earthworks joined Louisiana-based and national organizations to appeal the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s (LDEQ) decision to grant the Taiwanese petrochemical giant Formosa a crucial air permit for its proposed plastics production complex in St. James, Louisiana. The LDEQ-approved air permit now gives the green light for construction despite over 15,500 public comments from residents opposing the project.

Leading this appeal as courageously, as they have led the entire campaign against the Formosa plant, are the frontline leaders of Rise St. James, a grassroots, faith-based organization that formed to protect St. James and “Cancer Alley” from new oil, gas, and petrochemical facilities in the region.

So, why is this case so important in the fight against environmental racism, climate change, and plastics pollution?

Here are six important reasons:

1. Formosa Plastics is a climate killer. The complex, nicknamed the ironically cheerful “Sunshine Project”, would emit an astounding 6 million tons of carbon pollution every year, equivalent to building 3.5 new coal plants or adding 2.6 million cars to the road. The facility would be the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases to be approved in the United States in more than a decade.

2. Formosa Plastics is a textbook example of environmental racism. The plant poses a grave threat to the health and safety of residents in already-overexposed communities in cancer alley. The complex would be a “super polluter,” emitting more than 800 tons of toxic emissions per year, including known carcinogens ethylene oxide, benzene, and formaldehyde, into a community already inundated with health problems caused by industrial pollution.

Eighty-seven percent of the residents of the 5th District of St James Parish, where Formosa Plastics plans to build, are African-American. St. James has a higher cancer risk from industrial pollution than over 90% of Louisiana parishes. St. James Parish has seen a 6-fold increase in cancer hazard from industrial pollution over the past decade alone. The intentional siting of toxic facilities in communities of color is called environmental racism, and this plan is a textbook example of that.

3. There are previously undisclosed slave burial grounds on the Formosa Plastics property. Adding insult to injury to St. James’ black community, Formosa Plastics is planning to bulldoze slave gravesites – and lied about that plan to the St. James Parish Council. Formosa failed to disclose what they knew about the burial sites and did not include this information in its land-use plan, which the St James Parish Council subsequently approved.

4. Formosa Plastics is a “serial offender” of environmental laws. Formosa Plastics’ track record at a similar facility in Texas is certainly cause for alarm. In June 2019, a federal judge found that Formosa had committed “enormous” violations of the Clean Water Act, having dumped plastics pellets and powder into Lavaca Bay every day for years. Lifelong activist, shrimp boat captain, and author Diane Wilson led a team of former plant workers and community advocates to collect pollution samples, turning the evidence into a $50 million settlement, the largest in Clean Water Act history.

Yet, even after this landmark case and entering a ‘no discharge’ agreement, Diane and her crew are already finding evidence of more pollution. Beyond Texas, Formosa has a long history of disaster – just ask folks in Illinois, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The point here? Formosa’s record of environmental violations means it can’t be trusted.

5. Formosa Plastics will lead to more fracking in the Permian Basin, a carbon bomb that may very well lock us into climate catastrophe. The production of plastics is rapidly becoming the economic lifeline of the oil and gas industry, enabling expansion of drilling in the Permian Basin and beyond. The Permian is the largest carbon bomb on the planet – at an estimated peak of 13 million barrels per day, the Permian could surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer by 2030.

Two main factors are driving this expansion: crude exports and the petrochemical boom. The International Energy Agency recently stated that “petrochemicals are rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil consumption” despite “a backdrop of slower gasoline demand growth.” Formosa’s feedstock would be sourced from natural gas liquids (NGLs) that come out of the ground alongside oil and gas in the Permian oil fields of west Texas and southeast New Mexico. The big picture here is that Formosa is one of too many new oil, gas, and petrochemical facilities currently proposed in the Gulf Coast region set to profit off Permian expansion.

According to a new report by researchers at UT Austin, total annual emissions unleashed by the massive infrastructure buildout underway could reach 541 million tons of carbon pollution by 2030, or the rough equivalent to building 131 new coal plants. If industry gets its way with the Permian Gulf Coast buildout, keeping the US on track to meet Paris Climate Agreement goals and slowing climate change may be all but impossible.

6. Formosa Plastics will exacerbate the global plastic pollution crisis. Beyond immediate on-site spills, the materials for single-use plastics produced at facilities like Formosa’s end up in our rivers and oceans. The scale of the plastics problem is immense. Experts estimate that plastic could outweigh fish in our oceans by 2050. Building more petrochemical plants like Formosa will only continue to drive production, consumption, and waste of plastics at a time when governments and communities are waking up to the severity of the plastic pollution crisis. We need to #BreakFreeFromPlastic, not invest in its expansion.

In summary: Formosa Plastics’ proposed Sunshine Project is a terrible idea. If built, the project will perpetuate environmental racism while driving climate change and our global plastic pollution crisis. That’s why we are committed to fighting it alongside frontline leaders in court and beyond.