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Louisiana judge vacates state air permits for $9.4B plastics complex in chemical corridor

industrial facility aerial louisiana
Kezia Setyawan
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WWNO
An aerial image of an oil refinery situated along the Mississippi River.

A Louisiana district court judge on Wednesday vacated state air permits granted to a Taiwan-based company looking to construct a $9.4 billion plastics complex in St. James Parish, further stalling a controversial project that has faced backlash from some residents and environmental advocates.

Judge Trudy White, of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, found that the state’s Department of Environmental Quality erred in permitting the facility and violated the constitutional rights of petitioners.

The decision comes more than two and a half years after several community and environmental groups challenged the state’s decision to issue 15 permits to FG LA LLC in January 2020. The permits were required for FG LA LLC, an affiliate of Taiwanese giant Formosa Plastics, to build one of the world’s largest plastics plants in St. James Parish.

formosa map
sunshineprojectla.com
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FG LA, a subsidiary of Formosa Plastics, is calling its planned $9.4 billion facility in St. James Parish the "Sunshine Project."

Nicknamed the Sunshine Project by the company, the 2,500-acre complex promised to create 1,200 jobs and add millions of dollars to the local economy, but it would also release more than 800 tons of toxic air pollutants if allowed to move forward, according to the lawsuit. The facility is planned next to the predominantly Black community of Welcome, located in St. James’ Fifth District, which already holds one-third of the parish’s chemical plants.

The Sunshine Project had already been stalled late last year after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stated the proposed plant would require a more thorough environmental impact review before issuing permits after pressure from some of the same groups suing the state.

The lawsuit was filed by RISE St. James, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulf, Earthworks, and No Waste Louisiana. They alleged that LDEQ’s decision to issue the permits had violated the Clean Air Act, state law and the state constitution.

In Wednesday’s ruling, White sided with the groups, stating that the Department of Environmental Quality was in violation of state and federal regulations, and that much of the agency’s reasoning for the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

“FG LA failed to demonstrate that its emissions would not ‘cause or contribute to’ violations of the federal air standards. LDEQ's decision to issue the PSD permit anyway violated the Clean Air Act permitting law the agency was obligated to apply,” wrote White in her decision.

The groups cheered White's ruling Wednesday, calling it the end of "business as usual" in a region where the state has permitted the construction of more than 150 industrial plants along the Mississippi River, stretching from Baton Rouge to south of New Orleans.

Sharon Lavigne, president of Rise St. James and a local resident, said, "Stopping Formosa Plastics has been a fight for our lives, and today David has toppled Goliath. The judge’s decision sends a message to polluters like Formosa that communities of color have a right to clean air, and we must not be sacrifice zones.”

Janile Parks, FG LA's director of community and government relations, said the company "respectfully disagrees" with White's decision, backing the state's decision to issue the air permits after a thorough analysis of FG's application.

“LDEQ found the proposed project met all state and federal standards designed to protect the health and safety of FG employees, the St. James community and the environment with an added margin of safety," Parks said. "The issues raised in the petitioners’ and intervenor’s petitions were fully addressed by LDEQ, and the department employed proper procedure in consideration and granting of the permits to FG." 

Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Greg Langley declined to comment on the judge's decision on Wednesday night, stating that the agency was "reading the decision and assessing our options."

While White’s ruling remanded the matter back to the state agency, the state and FG LA have 60 days to appeal the district court’s decision.

Parks said the company, which is an intervenor in the lawsuit, plans to explore all legal options in light of the judge's decision as pushes to have its project permitted.

"FG has been, and will continue to be, transparent in providing information on The Sunshine Project, and intends to construct and operate it to meet all state and federal standards," Parks said.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk.