February 27, 2024

A Louisiana appellate court has upheld air permits for a giant proposed petrochemical complex in a region known as Cancer Alley, enraging local advocates.

The decision, issued on Friday, will help clear a path for Formosa Plastics to build the nation’s largest petrochemical complex of its kind. The project has long faced staunch opposition from local and national environmental justice groups.

“Once again the state of Louisiana is putting polluters before people,” Sharon Lavigne, founder of the grassroots organization Rise St James, which works in the region, said in an emailed statement.

Friday’s ruling overturns a 2022 decision that vacated air permits for the $9.4bn project.

Those air permits, which the new decision affirmed, will authorize the plant to spew out more than 800 tons of air pollution each year – including carcinogenic ethylene oxide, as well as fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, which have been linked to respiratory and cardiac illnesses.

The new permits could triple the levels of cancer-causing pollutants in the region, whose population is majority-Black, one analysis found. “For the court to uphold these permits is really disappointing,” said Michael Brown, an attorney at Earthjustice who represents Rise St James and other environmental groups that have challenged the project. “This area is already heavily overburdened by cancer causing and lung-harming pollutants, including from existing petrochemical plants.”

When a court threw out the permits in 2022, it found that Formosa failed to demonstrate that the new facility’s emissions would not contribute to violations of the Clean Air Act and other regulations. Formosa Plastics did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The appellate court on Friday affirmed that finding, but said some of those violations predated the plant and therefore cannot solely be attributed to it.

“Our position is that doesn’t matter under the Clean Air Act, because the Clean Air Act forbids any new source from tipping the area into a violation or contributing to a violation,” said Brown.

Activists say the decision, though disappointing, won’t stop them from continuing to fight the proposed 2,400-acre petrochemical complex, which would include 10 chemical plants for manufacturing plastics, in addition to several support facilities.

“While this ruling is a setback in our work to protect Louisiana from this disastrous project, it is only one part of the battle,” Anne Rolfes, director of local environmental justice organization Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said in a statement.

In order to begin constructing the plant, Formosa Plastic must obtain a federal wetlands permit from the US army corps of engineers, a process that could take years.

“Despite this ruling, we have power, and we will use it,” said Rolfes. “Formosa Plastics will not be built.”

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