Shintech Inc. sees a bright future for PVC - it must, why else would the company plan to spend $1 billion to build a 1.3 billion-pound-per-year resin plant in Iberville, La.?
Perhaps that is evidence that most of the environmental challenges to PVC have not really taken root. But there's more to the story.
First, it is notable that the local reaction, at least so far, has been pretty positive. Contrast that to 1997, when Shintech proposed building a 1.1 billion-pound-per-year PVC plant in Convent, La. That time, local opponents, who were concerned about toxic emissions and noise, worked with Greenpeace, civil rights leaders and Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic to stall Shintech's project.
Eventually Shintech dropped that plan, choosing instead to build a scaled-down plant in Plaquemine, La. - and now, this proposed plant in Iberville. Perhaps it's too early to say that, this time, everyone locally is on Shintech's bandwagon. But it's not overstretching to say that the fact that there were no candlelight marches with protestors singing ``Kumbaya'' last week is a victory for Shintech.
The unsuccessful Convent project was a poster child for the environmental racism issue, the idea that politicians and industry have a pattern of siting polluting factories in minority communities. The strength of that protest a few years ago took a lot of people by surprise, especially since it happened in Louisiana - a state that's very familiar with and mostly comfortable with the chemical industry.
Shintech worked more closely with environmental groups this time. The company may not exactly have enthusiastic support from that sector, but it appears that at least Shintech has enough cooperation to build the plant. So give credit to Shintech, which, stung by the opposition eight years ago, has learned some lessons about building public support, in advance, for its plans.
Some more notable points on the Shintech story:
* The post-2000 economic slowdown also must have played a role in the lack of vocal opposition this time. Most communities need jobs, and businesses looking to invest millions of dollars in a local economy and create 200 permanent jobs are in short supply.
* The type of permits Shintech needed from the state in 1997 were new, and the Department of Environmental Quality was still unfamiliar with them. That, as much as legal challenges from opponents, bogged down the process. Since then, the state has processed hundreds of those kinds of permits, so approval should be easier.
* PVC still is attacked regularly from some quarters, with most of the recent problems related to phthalates, which are used to soften some products. But despite the de-selection of some products - which invariably attracts public attention - PVC still is the most economical material available in many of its key applications, especially in construction. Even in medical, with health-care costs soaring, firms are not in a hurry to pay more for alternative materials.
* The fact that Shintech is investing in resin capacity in North America is notable. A lot of resin companies are building plants, but few in this region. Most of the activity is in China. Shintech wants a bigger slice of the North American PVC market, which could be a fairly safe bet, considering the resin's important tie to the fairly stable construction market.
Also, the PVC market isn't hurt as much by high natural gas prices, at least compared with other resins like polyethylene. That makes the North American location less of a gamble for Shintech.