Two environmentalist groups have filed suit to stop Shintech Inc.'s proposed Convent, La., PVC plant.
The groups — St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network — filed suit June 13 in Louisiana's 23rd District Court. The suit specifically calls for the court to revoke a coastal use permit granted to Shintech late last year by the St. James Parish Council.
The suit disputes Shintech's claims of environmental safety and accuses the company of obtaining information that could be used to influence local officials. Shintech officials disputed both charges.
Shintech filtration methods will not prevent harmful chemical emissions from affecting the coastal area, according to Lisa Lavie, a law fellow with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, which prepared the suit.
``Residents have a right to protect property in the coastal zone,'' Lavie said. ``Louisiana is losing acres of coastal land each day, so we have to look at what we're getting back for what we're giving up.''
Shintech controller Richard Mason has countered by saying the plant's proposed emissions have been found to be safe by independent third-party toxicologists and will not be a problem to area residents.
``Apparently some people in St. James Parish don't feel safe living six or seven miles away from a PVC plant,'' Mason said in a June 24 telephone interview from his Houston office. ``But in Westlake, La., there are some incredibly stupid people building $200,000 and $300,000 homes on the fence line of PVC plants.''
A public records search conducted by the groups unearthed a pair of documents that parish operations director Jody Chenier sent to W. David Tidholm, a Houston-based attorney representing Shintech. According to Lavie, the documents contain information about members of the parish's coastal zone advisory committee, which reviewed Shintech's permit request.
The documents list the members' names, races and genders, as well as their opinions on industrial development, Lavie said.
``The problem is those documents indicate parish officials had an interest in seeing the permit granted,'' Lavie said in a June 23 interview from New Orleans. ``They seem to give Shintech information as to who's on their side and who's not on their side so they would know who would be good to approach.''
Lavie added that residents found records of a third such document, which officials later said was destroyed. Neither Chenier nor Tidholm could be reached for comment.
Mason said he does not recall seeing the documents in question and described the furor surrounding the proposal as ``hysteria.''
``It's classic `When did you stop beating your wife?' '' Mason said. ``If you showed me four pieces of paper, I wouldn't be able to tell you which one was the document they're talking about.
``I didn't give [Tidholm] instructions to [obtain the document] and I'm pretty confident no one at Shintech gave him that instruction,'' Mason added.
The coastal use permit was approved by the St. James Parish Council after residents appealed the advisory committee's recommendation to issue the permit. Now Lavie says the permit should be revoked ``until a decision can be made by people who are still objective.''
Mason contends Shintech may not even need the permit, since the site is not 8 feet below sea level, a standard established by the state's Department of Natural Resources.
``The lawsuit is not a tremendous issue for us,'' Mason said. ``The problem I have with it is that St. James Parish has to waste their money on it.''
The lawsuit is the latest act in the drama surrounding Shintech's attempt to build a plant that would produce 1.1 billion pounds of PVC each year on a 2,400-acre riverfront parcel. The plant, with a projected cost of $700 million, also would produce 1.1 billion pounds of vinyl chloride monomer, 1.1 billion pounds of caustic soda and 900 million pounds of chlorine annually.
Shintech officials have said the plant will create 165 permanent jobs, along with 2,000 construction jobs during the 18-month building process.
The company already has received air and water permits for the project, but local challenges to those permits, as well as claims of environmental racism, remain unresolved.
The permit challenges are being reviewed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The environmental racism claims stem from the site's proximity to a federal housing project which is primarily minority-occupied.
Although Shintech has not exercised its option to purchase the property, Mason has said the company plans to break ground on the project by the end of this year.