ST. JAMES PARISH, La.— Utility crews unexpectedly broke ground on Formosa Plastics’ massive proposed petrochemical complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana, this week, surprising community members and other opponents, who are demanding work on the site stop until after the COVID-19 public health crisis passes.
Formosa Plastics has issued a stop-work order to the Entergy utility crew that worked on the site March 23 and 24, but it’s not clear how long that stoppage will last. RISE St. James, Louisiana Bucket Bridge, Healthy Gulf and other groups in the large national coalition that opposes the project have asked Formosa, the St. James Parish Council, the Army Corps of Engineers and state officials to guarantee protection of the site, which contains burial sites that have not been properly assessed and is the subject of two lawsuits challenging the project.
“Why do the residents of St. James and everywhere else have to abide by the governor’s stay-at-home orders and Formosa does not?” said Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James. “Why does Formosa have special privileges and we who have lived here all our lives do not?”
News reports confirm that Entergy’s work on the site was for the Formosa project and that work stopped “at the customer’s request,” but it’s unclear whether that’s related to the current flood risk on the Mississippi River or how long the stoppage would last. Local residents are already at risk from unacceptably high levels of air pollution, which research indicates may increase the risk of viral infection.
“Formosa Plastics is showing us its true colors by starting work at the site during a pandemic and digging there despite the high water levels in the Mississippi River,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “We call on the governor to acknowledge that Formosa Plastics must stop activity at the site. Our governor has provided much needed leadership on the coronavirus. We call on him to take that same firm stance with Formosa Plastics and run the company out of our state.”
Entergy, the local utility, began laying poles on the site of Formosa Plastics on Monday, the day Louisiana’s stay-at-home order went into effect throughout the state. The trucks blocked one lane of a two-lane highway in the parish as residents were trying to buy food and provisions before the order went into effect at 5 p.m.
Formosa Plastics attorneys were contacted this week by counsel representing members of RISE St. James asking for information about the activity. They indicated Formosa’s headquarters in Taiwan has ordered work to stop on site but have not yet responded about how long the work stoppage would last.
“We’re asking Formosa to delay work on the site until the burial sites are investigated and our lawsuits are resolved. Now that we’re all locked down by this pandemic, we need assurances no work will take place,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s appalling that work would start during an unprecedented public health crisis.”
St. James residents have waged a two-year battle to protect the parish from the Taiwanese plastics giant. According to its own permits, Formosa Plastics would double the toxic air pollution in the parish. The company’s track record of disregarding local communities led a Texas judge to approve a $50 million settlement to mitigate environmental harm in communities there and refer to the company as a “serial offender” of its Clean Water Act permit.
“It is immoral and manipulative behavior to use a catastrophe such as COVID-19 to deflect attention from Formosa’s plan to pollute St. James Parish by its continued construction,” said Pastor Gregory Manning with Justice and Beyond. “The governor must declare a moratorium on building this plant while it is impossible for advocates of St. James to properly stand in solidarity with them.”
Formosa Plastics’ activity happened despite the prohibition on digging near the Mississippi River levee, an activity deemed dangerous because of the high water levels of the river.
“We are not even able to bury people at our St. James Catholic Church,” said Milton Cayette, a St. James resident and member of RISE St. James. “For months we’ve had to lay people on top of the tombs because the river is too high for us to dig. But Formosa, a company from Taiwan with no family and no loved ones in our parish, gets to dig. This isn’t right.”
“If we're going to mobilize construction crews, we need them to build hospitals, not promote more air pollution,” said Scott Eustis, community science director with Healthy Gulf. “This is a time of overlapping crises, when the river is in flood, workers are being laid off from the existing plastics plants, we are witnessing community spread of the novel coronavirus, and our hospitals are in urgent need of improvements. We can't afford to have crews working in close quarters, digging into the river levee, to help build another unnecessary facility.”
“Given its past disregard for the environment, worker safety and human rights, it is unsurprising and unfortunate that Formosa is beginning construction, ignoring the additional health risks the COVID crisis presents to the already vulnerable St. James community,” said Ethan Buckner, an energy campaigner with Earthworks. “Formosa must cease all activity until the COVID-19 emergency is over, and furthermore, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality should listen to overwhelming opposition to Formosa in St. James and revoke the project’s permits."