“David Has Toppled Goliath”: Court Cancels Air Permits to Formosa Plastics

Sharon Lavigne and RISE St. James have worked for years to block Formosa Plastics from constructing a gigantic plastics factory in Welcome, a small town with a predominantly Black population in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Thanks to RISE’s advocacy, legal actions, community-building efforts, and speaking truth to power, the community has now successfully—and permanently—fended off Formosa’s nearly 2,500 acre, $9.4 billion plastics factory.

The news came last week when Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court reversed the state’s  previous decision to issue Formosa the air pollution permits needed to proceed with construction and ultimately operation. With the permits, Formosa’s plastics factory would have tripled cancer-causing air pollution in the region, spewing out more than 800 tons of toxic air pollution annually. Now Formosa must leave St. James Parish, or attempt to start the process of building a plastics factory in St. James from square one, which is unlikely due to the steep price.

Sharon Lavigne in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Photo by Erica Cirino

Stopping Formosa Plastics has been a fight for our lives, and today David has toppled Goliath. The judge’s decision sends a message to polluters like Formosa that communities of color have a right to clean air, and we must not be sacrifice zones.

Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of RISE St. James

In St. James Parish, as in many other parishes along the southern banks of the MIssissippi River, heavy industry—particularly relating to petrochemical and plastics—is overtaking the rural landscape. St. James alone is already overburdened by 12 polluting facilities. Like all plastic-manufacturing plants, Formosa’s proposed plant would have polluted the air, land, water, plants, animals, and people; it would also have added to the serious injustices and health disparities that the people of color who live in this parish have been subjected to face. It would have released significant amounts of climate-warming gases; a serious concern, especially in a region so often hard-hit by serious storms. 

The court’s decision on Formosa builds upon another recent victory in the community, with the news that South Louisiana Methanol was effectively ousted from St. James when the Parish Council voted to reject the company’s appeal to build a factory in a residential area. For more than a decade, Lavigne and her community have worked to block these kinds of industrial developments in St. James Parish. In 2018, Lavigne, a retired teacher, dedicated herself full-time to the cause of addressing environmental injustice in her community: She joined her neighbors to form RISE St. James, a faith-based grassroots organization.

Formosa is only one of many major petrochemical and plastic companies that have attempted to set up shop in St. James in recent years. It’s now just become the latest to have been pushed out as a result of RISE’s local efforts. People living in St. James and other communities affected by injustice and pollution spend much time active in community meetings and hearings, sharing testimony, gathering documentation of pollution, and much more to keep polluters at bay. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a problem that could be better addressed if we acted proactively instead of reactively.

Communities should not be fighting for their lives, but they are forced to due to systemic injustice. Justice cannot be served until we choose to protect rather than subject communities of color and other underserved groups to dangerous and dirty industrial development and activities.

Erica Cirino, Plastic Pollution Coalition Communications Manager
Petrochemical landscape in southern Louisiana. Photo by Erica Cirino

Plastic Helps Fuel Environmental Injustice

In recent years, environmental injustice has increasingly been recognized as a core component of the issue of plastic pollution disproportionately impacting Black, Brown, and Indigenous (BIPOC), and rural and low-income communities. These systemic injustices are built into government policies, society, and our economy. There is a strong connection between environmental and social injustice, racism, and classism and exposure to air pollution caused by waste incineration, landfills and illegal dumps; industrial water and soil contamination; heightened risk of accidents and explosions; and myriad other environmental injustices in the U.S. and globally.

There is no plastic production that is aligned with the right to a healthy environment.

Jane Patton, Louisiana resident and Campaign Manager, Plastics & Petrochemicals, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

For communities facing environmental injustice, Sharon Lavigne has this advice to offer:

First of all, believe in God and believe in yourself. Stand up and fight for your rights and the rights of your community and never give up. Make noise! If your local politicians are not helping you and your community, replace them! Get them out of office and put people in place who care about you and your community.

Sharon Lavigne, RISE St. James

Plastic Pollution Coalition recognizes that social and environmental justice are all part of a single, globally connected Movement for Justice. Vulnerable communities like St. James deserve protection and respect. Every unjust industrial development that is stopped, like the Formosa facility in St. James Parish, is one less polluting project that could potentially harm people and the environment.

Unfortunately, concessions attached to the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act may soon be advanced, and these could fast-track numerous coal, crude oil, and gas development projects across the country. Just today, the executive directors of 13 climate and environmental justice organizations risked arrest at the Capitol to denounce Senators Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer’s “dirty deal” to fast-track fossil fuel project approvals. Manchin yesterday released the text of his deal, which was written by and for the fossil fuel industry. 

You can help prevent more frontline communities from being threatened by plastics and petrochemical expansion in the United States by signing a petition against this “dirty deal.” Take and help amplify this action at a key moment when Congress must decide whether or not to decide to stop the deal from moving forward.


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