Louisiana activists fighting to block a huge plastics plant in a corridor so dense with industrial refineries known as Cancer Alley won a legal victory this week when a judge canceled the company’s air permits.
In a sweeping opinion published Wednesday, Judge Trudy White of Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District in Baton Rouge said residents of the small town of Welcome, where the $9.4 billion petrochemical plant would have been built, are descendants of enslaved Africans.
“The blood, sweat, and tears of your ancestors are bound to the land,” Justice White wrote. “His ancestors farmed the land with hopes and dreams of passing down productive, unpolluted farmland along the Mississippi to their families.”
He said that when Louisiana state regulators awarded 14 permits to FG LA LLC, a subsidiary of Taiwan-based giant Formosa Plastics, they used “selective” and “inconsistent” data and did not consider the effects of pollution on the predominantly black community. . .
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The decision is the latest in a series of blows at the proposed petrochemical plant. Those who have been fighting the plant said they expected it to be the death sentence.
“People said he couldn’t do it, the government approved it and he was wasting his time,” said Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of Rise St James, a local advocacy group that led the lawsuit against the plant.
The judge’s ruling cited Lavigne’s statements to the court that the land where the plant would be built is “sacred.”
Janile Parks, a spokeswoman for FG LA LLC, a member of the Formosa Plastics Group, said in a statement that the company still planned to build the complex, which it calls the Sunshine Project.
The company “intends to explore all legal options in light of Judge White’s ruling as the project continues to seek successful permitting.,” Mrs. Paris wrote. She argued that the permits issued by the state were “robust” and that the project had met state and federal standards.
Greg Langley, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said “we are reading the judge’s ruling and looking at our options.”
Ms. Lavigne, who lives in Welcome and whose grandmother is buried near where the petrochemical complex would have been located, noted that St. James Parish was already home to 12 petrochemical facilities within a 10-mile radius.
“The air is toxic; you can’t drink the water; you can’t plant a garden,” Lavigne said in a telephone interview Thursday. “I felt that these plants are shortening our lives.”
He compared the victory in court to David’s loss against Goliath, saying that while he hoped the company would appeal, “we beat them and it will continue to do so.”
The plant would be the world’s largest plastics and plastics feedstock production facility. It has been on hold since November 2020, when the federal government suspended a permit amid protests from local environmental groups.
State and company officials have said the 2,500-acre complex would create 1,200 jobs and add millions of dollars to the local economy. It would also release 800 tons of hazardous air pollutants a year by using ethane and propane as raw materials to make a variety of products, according to the lawsuit.
The canceled permits would have allowed the company to emit ethylene oxide, a substance that a 2016 Environmental Protection Agency study could conclude that it causes cancer even with limited exposure. The facility would also have emitted more than 13.6 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, the equivalent of 3.5 coal-fired power plants.
State officials had argued that the health of those living around the plant would not be affected. In her ruling, Judge White said the state had not conducted a cumulative assessment of the carcinogens and other contaminants that would be released and could provide no evidence to support her conclusion about the plant’s safety. She called the state’s decision to grant air permits “arbitrary and capricious.”
The city of Welcome is in a part of a district that is home to a third of the chemical plants in St. James Parish.
“It’s a shocking victory that nobody thought was possible a couple of years ago,” Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, told an environmental group that was among the organizations that had sued to overturn the permits. She called the decision “transformative” and argued that it would make it more difficult for state officials to grant permits for polluting facilities to operate in places where there is local opposition.