You might expect a company announcement to build a $9.4 billion complex in a community would be met with fireworks and a parade. But that's not the climate for resin plants these days.
St. James Parish, La., is the latest community to see organized opposition to a big plastics investment. Local activists are trying to stop Kaohsiung City, Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group from building a $9.4 billion industrial complex to produce polyethylene, polypropylene and ethylene glycol on a 2,400-acre site. The project is expected to create about 1,200 jobs in the region.
"There's a fierce opposition" to the project in the St. James Parish community, Pam Spees, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told Plastics News' Sarah Kominek.
Activists on the Gulf Coast have tried to stop chemical plant projects before — that part is not completely new. They charge that the chemical industry pollutes the air and water and harms the health of local residents, including communities of color.
One new wrinkle with the FPG project involves pellet pollution. Activists point to another company's agreement to pay $50 million to settle a lawsuit over pellets allegedly discharged from its facility that polluted a waterway in Texas.
Two environmental activists left containers of pellets collected from the Texas plant on the front porches of the homes of plastics industry lobbyists in Louisiana. The activists ended up being charged with terrorizing, a felony that could carry a sentence of up to 15 years.
"They've been trying to raise awareness about the existential threat that a facility that this size and type poses to their community," Spees said. "That is not an overstatement with a facility that massive in an area like that; it really does spell the end of a community that's already been struggling."
Let's take a deep breath for a second and use some common sense. Leaving bags of pellets and notes on someone's doorstep might not be the most polite way to get their attention, but it doesn't warrant criminal charges, not to mention a long prison sentence. How about littering, instead? I think both sides would appreciate the irony in that charge.
Will the environmental advocates cause FPG to cancel the project? Gov. John Bel Edwards doesn't think so. He told a local newspaper last week that the state can have economic development and still protect the environment.
"I believe we can strike the right balance between public safety, on the one hand, and economic development, on the other, and the job creation and economic impact that comes from all of that," Edwards told The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge, La.
At the moment, environmental groups are challenging the state's air permitting process. Edwards thinks the permits, which have already been approved, will be upheld.
"You have standards in place, and, if an application is put in that meets the applicable standards, then you permit it," Edwards told the newspaper. "I mean, that's the way this works, and, if [environmentalists would] like to change the standards, then that's something that EPA needs to look at," he said.
We might see the Environmental Protection Agency take a closer look at resin plant permits in the future. That's included in the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, introduced in Congress earlier this year by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif. That's one of several plastics bills that Congress is considering right now. It's too soon to say if it will have any legs, but it's significant that plastics are getting this kind of attention.
The plastics industry doesn't like framing these debates as jobs vs. the environment. There should be a balance. Plastics manufacturing needs to be part of a safe, sustainable economy.
The plastics industry is global, and if resin plants aren't built in the United States (or Canada, which is also seeing some resistance to new investment), they will be built somewhere else — maybe somewhere that doesn't have the same level of scrutiny over pollution and safety.
I suspect that Edwards is correct and FPG will be allowed to move ahead in St. James Parish. But I've been surprised before. Who else remembers the small community in Ireland that stopped a U.S. compounding plant from locating there?
We're seeing new levels of scrutiny on plastics plant investments in 2020, and I don't think it's going to get any easier in the future. It's just another reason why plastics need to work on becoming a real link in a circular economy.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.
Plastics News editorial cartoon by Rich Williams. Cartoons are available for purchase at www.plasticsnews.com/data-lists/cartoons