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Amid Trade War And Community Pushback, Company Reconsiders Chemical Plant in St. James

Jim Bowen
Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Industry lines the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Chinese company Wanhua recently informed St. James Parish officials that it was withdrawing its application to build a chemical plant in the parish. The plant had faced vocal opposition and legal action from some residents and environmental groups, but the trade war with China may also have played a part in the company’s decision.

The Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is loaded with industry. Refinery stacks and storage tanks stand tall on the horizon, their contiguous line interrupted by sugarcane fields, ornate plantations, and quiet neighborhoods.

These facilities make all kinds of things -- fuels, plastics, chemicals, fertilizers -- and they provide jobs and tax revenue for the parishes where they’re located. In St. James Parish there are about two dozen such facilities. Thanks in part to a boom in cheap natural gas, several more are in the works. But with all that development comes conflict.

In July, before everyone’s minds were distracted by spaghetti model tracks of a looming Hurricane Barry, a small crowd of protesters assembled outside a building building in Vacherie.

“No Formosa, no! This is home!” they chant in unison. “No Formosa, no! This is home!”

Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
Anne Rolfes, with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, leads a crowd in a protest chant prior to a public meeting in Vacherie, LA related to the proposed Formosa chemical plant.

Taiwanese company Formosa has proposed building a massive new chemical plant in St. James Parish -- and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) is holding a public meeting to receive comments on the company’s application for air permits. Inside, dozens of people pack the room to share their thoughts. Some speak in favor of the plant, but most in the room are clearly opposed to the plant. It took several hours for everyone to dictate their comments into the record. Scenes like this one are becoming more common.

This stretch along the Mississippi is often called Cancer Alley. Citing chronic respiratory issues and elevated cancer rates, some residents say the emissions from these plants have been making them sick for years. Motivated by health concerns and a feeling that industry tends to target their mostly African American neighborhoods, residents are ramping up opposition.

One such group is faith-based RISE St. James. Barbara Washington is one of the group’s organizers.

“It's not that we don't want industry,” says Washington. “But the kind of industry that's coming in --  it's been detrimental to our health.”

Many in St. James and nearby parishes will tell you they know dozens of people who have died from cancer, plus plenty of others who either have or currently suffer from respiratory issues. Indeed, cancer rates in some parts of St. James are higher than the state average. Scientifically speaking, though, linking specific cases to industrial emissions is tricky -- and has not been definitively done.

(That could change for one community in St. John the Baptist Parish. Earlier this month, LDEQ told The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate that it would conduct a comprehensive study of cancer risk near the long-controversial Denka chemical plant.)

Still, residents in St. James have been pushing back against industry in recent years. For the most part, Washington says, they haven’t had much success.

“We've lost many battles, but we are still in the fight,” she says.

Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
Barbara Washington, an organizer with RISE St. James, outside her home in St. James Parish.

Several years ago, Chinese chemical company Wanhua announced plans to build a new plant in St. James. RISE St. James and other groups had been fighting it -- through public comments, vocal opposition, and lawsuits filed by Tulane’s Environmental Law Clinic. Parish officials ultimately approved the plant.

But then, other details started coming out, like the news that Wanhua was seeking a special trade status that would exempt it not only from Trump’s hefty tariffs, but also some local taxes. The parish council asked the planning commission to reconsider Wanhua’s construction permit, but Wanhua pulled its permit application before any new decisions could be made.

To Barbara Washington, it felt like a rare victory against industry. More than that, she wonders whether the industry-friendly winds were changing in St. James.

“It does seem different,” Washington says after Wanhua’s decision. “Like, okay, they hear us now. And they see that we are not backing down.”

Wanhua has said very little about it’s decision to pull the permit application, so it’s unclear how much had to do with community opposition, construction costs, or the trade war with China.

In a statement, Wanhua said it was changing the scope of the project due to an “increase in the capital expenditure budget.” St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel says the company told him the expected cost of building the plant rose from $1.5 billion to $2 billion. He says the company did not tell him why the costs had escalated.

Wanhua had expected to create more than 100 jobs at the new site. Even though he says he supported the council’s decision to revisit approval of the plant, Roussel ultimately supported the project and says he was “disappointed” to see the jobs go.

“It's a gigantic investment in St. James Parish,” says Roussel, “with $85,000 annual salaries that just disappeared. Dissipated.”

It’s unclear what comes next for the project. In a statement, Wanhua representative William Day said a new location was under review. It did not specify where, but said “the Company's plan and commitment to build an MDI facility in the U.S. remains unchanged, and will continue to implement it.”

Roussel hopes Wanhua still considers St. James for the project.

“If they come to us and ask us to help them find another piece of land we probably will help,” he says. “Whether it will happen or not I'm not sure.”

If Wanhua does want to return to St. James, Roussel says it will have to restart the permit application process from the beginning.

In any case,  several other plants proposed in the parish. So even though Wanhua might not be on its way, the tension between residents and industry seems here to stay.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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