A 125-person-strong protest Aug. 9 at the home of Louisiana Republican Gov. Mike Foster Jr. hasn't stopped Foster from throwing his weight behind Shintech Corp.'s attempt to build a PVC plant in that state.
Foster was not at his Baton Rouge home when anti-Shintech demonstrators marched on the house. Law enforcement officials guarding the building presented opposition leaders with a letter from Foster at that time.
``We are both enthusiastic environmentalists and stewards of the environment,'' Foster wrote. ``We simply have a difference of opinion on the proposed Shintech plant.''
Foster, who received a $5,000 campaign donation from Shintech in December, has supported plans for a $700 million Shintech plant in the coastal town of Convent because of the 165 permanent jobs and tax revenue the plant will bring.
The plant would 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. It is expected to offset Shintech's 21-year-old Freeport, Texas, plant, which produces 2.8 billion pounds of PVC annually.
Opponents claim the plant's emissions will be unsafe and have accused Houston-based Shintech of ``environmental racism'' because of the site's proximity to a minority-occupied federal housing project.
Two opposition groups, represented by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, have challenged air and coastal land use permits issued to Shintech by state and local officials. The Environmental Protection Agency decided Aug. 12 the air permit challenge is outside of its jurisdiction, but the agency still is reviewing the environmental racism charge. A state court is considering the coastal land-use challenge.
According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, Foster has threatened to remove Tulane University's tax-exempt status because of the law clinic's attempt to stop Shintech, but a member of the governor's staff said in an Aug. 12 telephone interview from Baton Rouge that Foster merely has raised the issue and does not plan to act on it.
``The governor is very supportive of Tulane, but he believes the law clinic has overstepped its boundaries and become an obstacle to the situation,'' said Casey Kimberlin, Foster's deputy press secretary.
Tulane Environmental Law Clinic lawyer Lisa Lavie said Aug. 12 by telephone from New Orleans that Foster ``is clearly frustrated at what we've done on behalf of the people.''
Foster, a construction firm owner who has campaigned heavily to lure new business to Louisiana, also has suggested that private donors reconsider making contributions to Tulane University in New Orleans because of the law clinic's actions.
Foster, who is traveling and could not be reached for comment, has made two unscheduled visits to St. James Parish in the past month, including one with state officials of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to talk to residents about the Shintech project. Kimberlin said Foster found no opposition to the plant on either trip.
The proposed plant ``will have a tremendous impact on Louisiana's economic development, particularly in one of the poorest areas in the state,'' Kimberlin said.
The Convent/Romeville area has an unemployment rate of 7 percent, according to the state's Department of Economic Development.
But Lavie countered that Foster's open support of Shintech ``may backfire on him'' in the eyes of the EPA, which is expected to issue a ruling Sept. 2 on Shintech's air permits.
``I think when the EPA sees the heavy-handed way in which Foster has handled the whole thing, it might be further proof of why they need to step in,'' Lavie said.
The issue grew even more complicated Aug. 7 when three local groups in favor of the plant entered the coastal land-use lawsuit in which St. James Parish and Shintech are named as defendants.
Two of the groups are made up of African-Americans who live near the proposed site, while the third is composed of local business officials.
Richard Mason, Shintech controller, said the intervention of those groups reinforces Shintech's contention that residents closest to the site of the proposed plant are not against its construction.
``One of the frustrations I've had throughout this process is that the opposition has been very vocal about representing the people of St. James Parish,'' Mason said. ``But that representation runs counter to our polling data and my personal experience in talking to people in the parish.''
The groups entered the case ``to provide a middle ground and speak for the community,'' according to Nannette Jolivette, a lawyer representing all three groups.
``These residents have worked for years to try to get a business in the area who will hire African-Americans,'' Jolivette said from her Lafayette, La., office. ``They don't expect Shintech to come in and save them, but it could be a springboard to better socioeconomic status.''