FILE - Petrochemical industry

Environmental and community groups are suing the federal government in hopes of preventing Formosa Plastics from building a $9.4 billion petrochemical complex in St. James Parish, the groups announced Wednesday.

They hope to derail a controversial project that already has passed state and federal environmental reviews and would provide an economic boost to the region.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulf, Rise St. James and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rescind the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act permits it issued for the project and “conduct a full environmental impact study.”

“If they allow this plant to come into St. James, it’ll more than double the pollutants in our air,” said Sharon Lavigne, president of Rise St. James. “We are already breathing toxic air and it’s making us sick.”

Emily Jeffers, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney, said the Trump administration “rubber-stamped” the project even though it could “damage wetlands, poison communities and pollute water.”

“Formosa has a terrible record of spilling plastic pellets and releasing toxic pollutants,” she said. “The federal government is long overdue in regulating the plastics boom and holding this company accountable.”

Dubbed the “Sunshine Project,” a reference to the nearby Sunshine Bridge, the plant would have 1,200 permanent employees with an average salary of $84,500, company officials say. Louisiana Economic Development estimates the project also would indirectly create 8,000 new jobs.

Timmy Roussel, who was parish president when the project was announced in 2018, said it would be the largest industrial development in St. James’ history and would almost double the parish tax base. Gov. John Bel Edwards said it could have a “multibillion-dollar impact on earnings and business purchases for decades to come.”

But environmental activists say the plant would more than double the industrial air pollution in a region already known as “cancer alley” due to pollution-related health problems. Formosa could also emit up to 13 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, the equivalent of three coal-fired power plants, opponents say.

Opponents also have called for the project’s parish land-use permit to be pulled after evidence came to light of possible slave cemeteries at the site, information that Formosa did not provide when the parish council approved the permit in January 2019.

Asked about the project on his monthly radio call-in show Wednesday, Edwards said the facility’s permit was issued because the application “met all of the legal requirements imposed by both the federal government and the state government.” He said state government will study the incidence of cancer in the region to see if it deserves the “cancer alley” moniker.

“I believe we can balance economic development, job creation and investment on the one hand with the health that we want for our citizenry,” Edwards said.

"[Formosa is] committed to protecting the health and safety of its employees and the community as well as the environment," said Janile Parks, a spokesperson for the project, in a statement provided Thursday morning. "The St. James Parish Planning Commission and the parish council approved our land use plan after a lengthy process that included numerous public hearings. [The company] went through an extensive site selection process and selected this site because it was in a location away from the population centers in the parish and in an area designated for industrial use."

Parks said company officials have spoken with "hundreds" of area residents who support the project. She said the presence of a slave burial site has not been confirmed, adding that company officials "will continue to follow all applicable local, state and federal laws and regulations in regards to the burial site." 

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.