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Shintech Inc. officials say they will break ground this year on a major PVC plant in Convent, La., despite local efforts to stop the project on the grounds of environmental racism.

The company called the claims ``totally groundless,'' and said the Environmental Protection Agency missed its deadline to halt the project.

The Houston firm was granted air permits May 23 by Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality. The permits were issued after state officials determined the proposed plant's emission levels for chloralkyline, vinyl chloride monomer and finished PVC were within state limits.

However, EPA spokeswoman Cheryl Hoechstetler in Dallas said EPA is reviewing the case after receiving two petitions filed by area residents and Tulane University's Environmental Law Clinic. The petitions claim the Shintech plant would violate the Clean Air Act. EPA's Washington headquarters has the ability to revoke or revise the permits, Hoechstetler said.

Controversy has centered on the site's proximity to a low-income government housing project that is primarily minority-occupied. Some area residents, as well as representatives of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, say the plant will have a negative impact on the community, regardless of the economic growth it is expected to provide.

Lisa Lavie, an environmental law fellow with the law clinic, said Shintech is guilty of ``environmental injustice'' because the area where it wants to build the PVC plant already is subject to emissions from fertilizer, oil and grain manufacturers.

``Shintech would be adding a large number of licensed emissions to the area,'' Lavie said in a June 2 telephone interview.

Under the Clean Air Act, Shintech is responsible if its actions affect the community.

The company still needs to acquire water and incinerator permits, but Dick Mason, Shintech controller and secretary, said construction on the $700 million plant should begin this year.

The plant is to have annual capacity of 1.1 billion pounds of PVC, 1.1 billion pounds of vinyl chloride monomer, 1.1 billion pounds of caustic soda and 990 million pounds of chlorine. Shintech also has a 21-year-old plant in Freeport, Texas, that makes 2.8 billion pounds of PVC annually.

In spite of Mason's confidence, Shintech has not exercised its option to purchase the Louisiana site from Entergy, a multistate power company that has owned the 2,400-acre property for 25 years but has not developed it.

According to Mason, the Shintech plant will create 165 permanent jobs along with 2,000 construction jobs during the 18- month building process.

Mason said claims of environmental injustice brought against Shintech are ``totally groundless.'' He said the company did not take the community's demographics or economic status into consideration because there are only 10 residents within a 1-mile radius of the site. The housing project is about 11/2 miles away, Mason said.

``It's not like there's a community sitting on the fence line,'' Mason said.

Shintech also is defending itself with an April 3 letter from the EPA Dallas regional office to the Louisiana DEQ stating the group has no technical comments on Shintech's air permits. In addition, Mason claims the EPA's 45-day window for challenging the permits expired April 1.

Lavie countered that residents acted within a 60-day public response period that began after the EPA letter was sent. Lavie added that she expects EPA to make a decision by mid-July.

On the state level, the standard six-month review process was expanded to 10 months in the Shintech case, according to Kay Long, senior lawyer for the Louisiana DEQ.

``Our department looked at everything it could look at under environmental justice and found no reason not to issue the permits,'' Long said.