Lead Image: Map of industrial facilities in St. James Parish. Found on The Advocate, courtesy of Justin Kray of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade
The Project Issue: Proposed Formosa Plastics Plant in St. James, Louisiana
The St. James parish alongside the Mississippi river in southern Louisiana is a historically black and now elder community with 15.6% of residents living below the poverty line. Many of the residents trace their lineage back to the enslaved families who worked the plantations along the banks of the Mississippi. The land is filled with historic and sacred sights including the unmarked graves of slaves. For years, St. James Parish has been extremely overburdened by industrial pollution. The 258 square miles of St. James hosts no less than 11 industrial facilities that are large enough to be required to report their pollution to the federal EPA each year. These include refineries, a fertilizer plant, a steel company, an asphalt company, and several chemical companies. The list of chemicals emitted into the air, water and soil in St. James and surrounding areas include cancer causing dioxins, asbestos, chlorine, lead, mercury, acids, benzene, toluene, methanol, ethylene, and hydrogen sulfide to name a few (the EPA’s TRI database report for St. James Parish, 2020).
For years, the community, already struggling with extreme pollution, has been fighting to keep out new industry, particularly one plant called Formosa Plastics slated to be a 2,500 acre project just one mile from an elementary school (Center for Biological Diversity). As a company, Formosa has been a historic bad actor (see follow up post on Formosa Around the World). Their Texas plant released “thousands of plastic pellets and other pollutants into Lavaca Bay and other nearby waterways.” These spills were brought to court in a private citizens suit by Dianne Wilson and nonprofit Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid resulting in a $50 million settlement, “the largest in U.S. history involving a private citizen's lawsuit against an industrial polluter under federal clean air and water laws” (Texas Tribune December 3, 2019). Formosa plants around the world have also experienced several explosions causing community evacuations, major chemical releases, and even worker deaths (see follow up post).
On August 18, 2021 the US Army Corps of Engineers announced it would “require a full “environmental impact statement” for the massive petrochemical complex Formosa Plastics proposes to build in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The decision is a major victory for opponents of the plant, who sued to block the project in January 2020 and convinced the Army Corps to suspend its permit” in fall of 2019 (Center for Biological Diversity). An impact statement can take anywhere from 51 days to 3 years to do. For this statement, they’ll be “required to assess the impact of a proposed project on the physical, cultural, and human environments affected by the proposed project… [including] provid[ing] a baseline for understanding the current environmental situation in relation to the Proposed Action.” The EIS should also include air, water, historical and economic impacts of the project (AmericanBar.org). The EIS should also trigger a new comment period for community members.
The aim for this project is to regularly collect particulate matter and other air quality monitoring data to grow the body of evidence on the existing levels of pollution to show the pollution burden already borne by the St. James Parish community. We aim for this information to be used to educate the community, and provide scientific evidence for why further pollution sources such as the Formosa Plastics, should not be developed in this community.
The goals of this project are to:
A: Regularly collect particulate matter air quality monitoring data to grow the body of evidence on the existing levels of pollution to show the burden already borne by the Donaldsonville and St. James Parish communities. We aim for this information to be used to educate the community, and provide scientific evidence for why further pollution sources such as the Formosa Plastics, should not be developed in this community.
B: Regularly share project updates including monitoring methods, tools, challenges, data and questions on Public Lab and in other project identified spaces as appropriate.
C: Work towards advocacy around the air pollution issue in Donaldsonville and St. James Parish by working to understand local permits, zoning, and legal landscape in aim of gathering information for the upcoming Environmental Impact Statement and community input for the open comment period.
D: Work towards project pass off and longevity by focusing on communications materials around the monitoring results, advocacy information, and how people can get involved and monitor. We will use this to put together information sessions, as well as pamphlets and print materials.
Community Organizing Fellow and Project Lead: Travis London
Travis London is the cousin to the late Louisiana activist, Alberta Hasten-president of Louisiana Environmental Justice Community Organization Coalition. He has worked alongside Sharon Lavigne, Rise For St James, and a legal team to delay Formosa’s construction in St. James. He has also had victories in organizing in Louisiana for Medicaid expansion, higher salaries for teachers, and halting a compressor station from being too close to a neighborhood. In 2020, Travis appeared on a Netflix series alongside Diane Wilson on the show Dirty Money: Port Comfort episode, where Diane won the largest settlement from an individual lawsuit in environmental history. Alongside his local work, Travis works to help 5 Northeastern states near the Ohio River fight against the Mountaineer NGL project, and has organized for various causes in El Salvador, India, Africa, and other places around the world. Travis London is the 2018 Ascension Parish ICON Award winner and the Louisiana Economic Development’s Business and Fashion Expo Prize Winner.