What Could Happen if a $9.4 Billion Chemical Plant Comes to “Cancer Alley”
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
One evening in early July, a stream of people filed into a nondescript building on a bend of the Mississippi River in St. James Parish to fight over the permits to build a new chemical plant.
Four years earlier, the Taiwanese plastics company Formosa had applied to build a $9.4 billion petrochemical complex about 20 miles north. If approved, it would be one of the largest and most expensive industrial projects in the state’s history.
The hearing was a chance for residents to be heard by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. The scene was typical of the growing conflict between the chemical industry and the communities that flank the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
A Formosa spokesperson made opening remarks, noting the importance of plastics in the global economy and emphasizing the company’s commitment to St. James. A handful of speakers, including the parish president, announced their support for the development, highlighting opportunities for job growth in an area so plagued with unemployment that many of its promising young people have to move away in order to make a living.
Then dozens of attendees lined up to speak against Formosa’s plans.
Over the course of the five-hour hearing, parish residents, lawyers and environmental activists weighed in. Some talked about the chemicals the company was proposing to emit, including ethylene oxide, a substance that a 2016 Environmental Protection Agency study concluded can cause cancer even with limited exposure. Others brought up safety violations at other Formosa facilities around the country. They talked about the company’s plant in Illinois that exploded in 2004, killing five people and seriously injuring two others.
“We need no more pollution. We are already devastated,” said Rita Cooper, a longtime resident of the area where the plant would be located. “Our bodies can no longer take any more.”
“I want you to look at every law that they have broken. I want you to look at every violation standard that they have not kept,” said Norman Marmillion, owner of a nearby plantation that’s become a tourist attraction.
But despite the community’s objections — and despite a recent settlement that required the company to pay $50 million to the state of Texas for polluting waterways — the Formosa permits are sailing through Louisiana’s review process.
If the DEQ grants the permits, the people of St. James Parish will likely experience steep increases in toxic chemical concentrations in the air when the complex opens in 2022, according to a ProPublica analysis.
ProPublica analyzed data from an EPA model to estimate current toxic levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the air of St. James Parish. We hired Michael Petroni, a Ph.D. candidate at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and an expert in the EPA’s Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators dataset, to model the effect of Formosa’s emissions in the region. The analysis estimates that across the Mississippi in Convent, hundreds of residents will face double the toxic levels of cancer-causing chemicals than they currently do. One mile east in the St. James community, those levels could more than triple.
ProPublica’s analysis estimates that the air around Formosa’s site is more toxic with cancer-causing chemicals than 99.6% of industrialized areas of the country. If the complex emits all the chemicals it proposes in its permit application, it would rank in the top 1% nationwide of major plants in America in terms of the concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals in its vicinity.
The EPA did not object to Formosa’s air permits during their 45-day review period last summer. After the DEQ finishes reviewing all public comments — it has received more than 15,000 — it will issue a final decision on whether to approve Formosa’s permits.
“I’m Pro Safe Industry”
Formosa is not the only chemical company that has its eyes trained on south Louisiana. An investigation by ProPublica and The Times-Picayune and The Advocate recently found that a rush of new development is slated for some of the most polluted areas of “Cancer Alley” — a stretch along the lower Mississippi River known for its concentration of chemical plants. The state has already approved new projects in the industrial towns of Geismar and Killona. But no area is seeing as much new development as St. James.
Last year, the DEQ granted Chinese chemical giant Yuhuang a permit to build a large methanol complex in the parish. In January, South Louisiana Methanol announced a $2.2 billion investment in a second methanol project, expected to be one of the largest methanol manufacturing facilities in the world. The energy company Ergon has been cleared for a $200 million expansion to its oil terminal next door. The projects are stacked along an abrupt bend in the river in the parish’s predominantly black 5th District.
Some residents say that this is no coincidence. In 2014, the parish adopted a land-use plan that designated much of the district for industrial development. Since then, large swaths of farmland have been purchased by companies looking to take advantage of the enviable river access. Today, thin strips of residential buildings are sandwiched between sprawling, industry-owned land parcels.
Other areas of the parish have been shielded from industry. The Parish Council barred two chemical companies — Wolverine and Petroplex — from building new developments inside and across the river from the parish’s majority white 3rd District.
“I view it as environmental racism,” said Clyde Cooper, the council member for the 5th District. “It’s a decision based on, ‘We don’t want it in the white area, but we don’t mind it being in the black area.’ That’s what it came down to, and that’s the truth.”
While Cooper has fought new industrial projects in the parish, he said he is usually outvoted by council members from other districts. When it came to Formosa, Cooper voted yes, but only because he decided there was no way the project would be voted down. He said he used his yes vote as leverage to get other concessions from Formosa, like free health screenings and an agreement to set up air monitoring stations.
One of Cooper’s colleagues on the council, Jason Amato, says race wasn’t a factor in his decisions.
“I don’t look at color,” he said. “I look at making sure that the company coming in is safe.”
Amato has worked at the Shell chemical plant in Geismar, in neighboring Ascension Parish, for 30 years. He said in an interview that his experience in industry led him to question the safety standards of Wolverine and Petroplex. He expects the new developments in the 5th District to be safe.
“I don’t rubber-stamp industry … I’m pro safe industry,” Amato said. “I recognize that YCI [Yuhuang] is a methanol facility which is pretty safe. Formosa, the products they’re making are safe.”
Residents say they are not worried about the products Formosa makes; it’s the toxic chemicals its plants will release that concern them. Pollution from the complex will contain seven cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene and formaldehyde.
This month, the EPA proposed new rules to reduce ethylene oxide emissions by 10 tons nationwide. Those rules will not impact the Formosa complex, which is expected to release 7.7 tons of the chemical every year, according to the company’s permit files.
The DEQ declined to comment on Formosa’s proposed complex because its permit applications are still under review.
Formosa spokesperson Janile Parks said the company went through an “extensive site selection process” and settled on St. James Parish’s 5th District because it is “away from population centers in the parish and in an area designated for industrial use.”
The 5th District, while considerably more rural than some other parts of the parish, is far from empty. About a mile down the road from Formosa’s proposed complex is a church. Near the church, an elementary school. Across the river in Convent, neighborhoods hug the levee.
Barbara Washington, a longtime resident of Convent, said the issue affects everybody, even those who don’t live right next to the proposed site, “because the air travels.”
The size of Formosa’s proposed complex sets it apart from the other new industrial developments slated for “Cancer Alley.” The project will consist of 16 facilities and cover an area approximately the size of 80 football fields. It would constitute the largest new source of greenhouse gases from a U.S. petrochemical complex since at least 2012, according to data from the Environmental Integrity Project.
Bryan Johnston, an air permits administrator at the DEQ for over 20 years, told ProPublica that fears over the size and capital costs of incoming plants are misplaced.
“Size [of a chemical project] does not mean a horrible emissions profile,” Johnston said. “These are state-of-the-art facilities.”
Unlike older facilities along the river that belch out pollution, new plants use technologies designed to minimize toxic emissions, he said.
Johnston added that most new facilities have extremely tall “stacks,” industrial chimneys that release airborne chemicals. Many of Formosa’s emissions will exit the facility hundreds of feet in the air. At that altitude, toxic chemicals decay significantly before mixing with the ground-level air that people breathe.
But not all of Formosa’s stacks are the same height. Some of the complex’s lower emissions points will expose nearby communities to increased levels of toxic chemical concentrations. Formosa’s permit applications indicate that one source of ethylene oxide releases will be a stack under 10 feet tall. The cancer-causing chemicals benzene and formaldehyde will be released through similarly sized units.
It is unlikely that all of Formosa’s emissions will exit the facility through stacks. During highly pressurized industrial processes, equipment leaks and spills often cause gases to escape into the environment. These releases, known as “fugitive emissions,” are typically included in permit applications and modeled by government agencies.
ProPublica’s analysis estimates that fugitive emissions could account for 37% of increases in toxic air levels in neighborhoods affected by the proposed St. James site.
Parks declined to confirm or dispute that analysis, but said that the company’s air modeling indicates that the proposed complex will be in compliance with Louisiana’s air standards. Those rules dictate, for each monitored chemical, a maximum allowable concentration in the air.
A review of regulatory programs in other states indicates that Louisiana has among the most lax air standards in the country.
This comes as little surprise to residents and environmental activists who, throughout Formosa’s public hearing, pointed to what they see as the state’s cozy relationship with industry. Anne Rolfes, executive director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, described a 2011 EPA inspector general report that listed Louisiana as among the poorest enforcers of environmental regulations in the country, due in part to “a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry.”
At the time, the DEQ defended its enforcement practices, arguing that the state inspects all major polluters at two-year intervals. Jim Harris, an industry consultant who represents much of Louisiana’s petrochemical industry, said in an interview that the DEQ “checks industry every step of the way to make certain it is acting in accordance with the strict rules and regulations mandated by law and the EPA.”
But Rolfes says otherwise. She pointed to the company’s track record in the state.
A review of EPA records shows that for at least the past three years, Formosa’s PVC manufacturing site in Baton Rouge has been out of compliance with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The agency also cited the facility for “high priority” Clean Air Act violations during every quarter of that same period. Nonetheless, Gov. John Bel Edwards in August trumpeted a $332 million expansion of the site. The permit for that project also is pending.
“The agency is captured by industry, it is controlled by industry, it is not protecting the people,” Rolfes told attendees at the hearing in July. “When the governor comes and cuts a ribbon and slaps the good old boys on the back about [a new] facility … it pretty much seems like a done deal.”