Regulators asked to deny permits for giant Louisiana plastics plant

Citing air modeling and new federal soot standards, advocates want environmental regulators to block the proposed 2,400-acre project.

Regulators asked to deny permits for giant Louisiana plastics plant
This is the Atalco Gramercy complex in St. James Parish, La., formerly Noranda Alumina, in 2022. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental advocates and local residents are asking Louisiana to investigate what they say is mercury-laden dust from the refinery, which produces alumina, an ingredient in making aluminum. (Healthy Gulf)

Published by the Louisiana Illuminator, New Orleans City Business

Environmental law advocates have asked Louisiana’s environmental regulating agency not to renew the air permits for a controversial planned plastics manufacturing facility, citing new federal air quality standards limiting toxic soot and dust pollution.

In a separate action, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental advocates and local residents also are asking Louisiana to investigate what they say is mercury-laden dust from the Atalco Gramercy refinery, which produces alumina, an ingredient in making aluminum.

Attorneys with the national nonprofit environmental law group EarthJustice say the massive complex Formosa Plastics intends to build in St. James Parish would cause “widespread violations” of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for particulate matter, commonly referred to as soot.

EarthJustice, representing six environmental justice groups, alleges the mammoth 2,400-acre, $9.4 billion complex would exceed what’s allowed under federal Clean Air Act standards for many miles around. The facility would exacerbate the already poor air plaguing communities in the heavily-industrialized corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as “Cancer Alley,” EarthJustice said.

“We wanted to get this in now so that (Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality) was aware of the problem, at a time when it can work to correct it,” said Mike Brown, a senior attorney with EarthJustice based in New Orleans. “When they get this application, they need to reduce Formosa Plastics emissions so that it isn’t worsening the problem.”

EarthJustice on Thursday submitted a nearly 30-page letter to LDEQ asking the agency to deny Formosa’s impending renewal of its air permits. The group cited modeling conducted by an independent engineering firm and new federal soot standards enacted in May.

LDEQ did not respond to requests for comment from Floodlight about the letter or any related questions. Formosa Plastics also did not respond to a request from Floodlight seeking comment on EarthJustice’s complaint.

Formosa Plastics, a Taiwanese petrochemical company, has been locked in a legal battle with local environmental advocates for several years. The company plans to build a manufacturing complex that would include 16 factories in a predominantly Black and lower-income community in St. James Parish. The massive complex would produce resins and polymers used to manufacture single-use plastics, artificial turf and other products.

The project was halted in 2022 when a Louisiana district court judge sided with local advocates who legally challenged the air permits LDEQ had awarded. The plaintiffs argued the state’s environmental agency did not comply with the federal Clean Air Act by failing to consider the cumulative harms that emissions from the proposed facility would place on the surrounding community.

But in February, a state appeals court reversed that decision, clearing the way for the project to move forward despite the staunch opposition from the residents seeking to block further industrial development in their backyards. Plaintiffs have asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to take up their appeal.

This is the approximate site of a proposed multi-billion-dollar plastics manufacturing complex near Welcome, La. Environmental advocates are urging the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to reject air permits for the Formosa Plastics facility, saying it would violate federal air standards for soot. (Google Maps)

The original air permits issued to Formosa in January 2020 are set to expire soon. The company has until July 6 to submit its renewal application for them.

However, in February, the EPA released new rules strengthening air quality standards around soot pollution by lowering its annual emissions level from 12 to 9 micrograms per cubic meter to provide increased protections to the public.

Exposure to toxic soot has been linked to a variety of lung and heart-related issues. EPA has said lowering the allowable levels of particulate matter in the air could save as much as $77 in human health benefits in 2032 for every dollar spent to mitigate exposure.

Based on the findings in June from Wingra Engineering, EarthJustice claims soot levels would be more than five times higher than allowable levels when Formosa and the existing cluster of industrial facilities are factored in.

“The main bloc of violations stretches more than 17 miles long and 9 miles wide in an unbroken area along both sides of the Mississippi River,” the EarthJustice complaint said. “This includes numerous residential communities.”

Brown added that the Clean Air Act requires Louisiana to take a look at the cumulative impact of all of the sources of soot, “because it forbids new sources from causing or contributing to ongoing violations of these standards.”

Alumina plant targeted

Louisiana environmental advocates and twins Jo Banner, right, and her sister Joy Banner have been fighting increased industrialization in their communities for years. Jo Banner says red soot from the nearby Atalco alumina plant in St. James Parish, La., covers the area. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is urging the state to do more monitoring and to lower mercury and soot emissions in the area. (The Descendants Project)

EarthJustice and the EPA have also raised concerns about renewal of an air permit for Atalco Gramercy, an alumina refinery complex that sprawls across St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes.

Residents like Jo Banner, who lives near the refinery, have complained to state and federal agencies about thick clouds of red mercury-laden dust spewing from the refinery.

“It's been horrible. I call it chemical warfare,” said Banner, co-founder of the local nonprofit advocacy group The Descendants Project. “We wake up in the morning and our outdoor furniture is covered in this red soot; our cars, our homes, our pets. The smell of it, it makes your eyes burn. I’m sick of what we’re continually having to bear with this plant.”

These are rags used by Jo Banner to clean the tables at her family’s restaurant, Fee-Fo-Lay Cafe, in Wallace, La. Banner says red mercury-laden dust on the rag on the left is emitted by Atalco, the nearby alumina refinery. (Healthy Gulf for the Descendants Project)

The EPA, in a June 14 letter to LDEQ, recommended the agency conduct fence line and mobile air monitoring for mercury and soot around Atalco to gauge its impact on the surrounding communities and to make that data available to the public. The federal agency is also asking Louisiana to lower hazardous emissions in the area.

Mercury exposure has been linked to damaged brain function and birth defects.

Atalco did not respond to questions submitted about the EPA’s letter or EarthJustice's compliant.

EarthJustice called on the state to “conduct a full and fair public trust analysis to ensure that environmental impacts are minimized.”

Terry is a Baton Rouge, Louisiana native and has lived and worked there for the last decade. Before joining Floodlight, he was the City Hall reporter for The Advocate.

Terry L. Jones/Floodlight