Lawsuit Appeals Permit for Formosa Plastics to Build in Louisiana's 'Cancer Alley'
A coalition of local and national groups on Friday launched a legal challenge to a Louisiana state agency's decision to approve air permits for a $9.4 billion petrochemical complex that Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group plans to build in the region nationally known as "Cancer Alley."
Louisiana residents and environmental justice advocates have pressured local, state, and federal officials to reject permits for the proposed project in St. James Parish. Critics have raised concerns that the complex would adversely affect public health and the environment by emitting cancer-causing chemicals and producing an estimated 13.6 million tons of planet-heating emissions annually.
Earthjustice filed the new lawsuit (pdf) in the Louisiana 19th Judicial District Court on behalf of RISE St. James, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulf, No Waste Louisiana, Earthworks, and the Sierra Club. The suit appeals the air permits issued by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ).
"Louisiana violated the Clean Air Act when it gave Formosa the greenlight to double toxic air pollution in St. James," Earthjustice attorney Corinne Van Dalen said in a statement. "It's time for LDEQ to put Louisianans first and reject more pollution that puts their health, safety, and environment at risk."
BREAKING: We’re challenging Louisiana’s decision to approve air permits for a massive proposed petrochemical comple… https://t.co/DzByCNCLGF— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice)1581708454.0
As the lawsuit explains:
LDEQ granted Formosa Plastics permits to construct 14 separate major facilities, including 10 chemical plants. The planned chemical complex would manufacture ethylene and propylene, primarily to produce plastics. The other four facilities would support these operations. Formosa Plastics would build this complex a mile from an elementary school in Welcome, and less than one mile from the community of Union in Convent. Its massive air pollution emissions would vastly add to the significant environmental and health burden that African American communities in and near St. James must suffer—including from two new recently permitted methanol petrochemical plants, and Nucor Steel's major expansion project.
Formosa Plastics' air emissions will also spread to communities across St. James Parish, contributing to the region's air pollution problems. The permits would allow Formosa Plastics to release fine particulates and nitrogen dioxide in quantities that exacerbate ongoing violations of EPA's mandatory national standards in St. James Parish. And they would allow Formosa Plastics to be one of the largest industrial sources in the state for some of the most dangerous carcinogenic air pollutants, such as benzene and formaldehyde, and one of the largest in the nation for others, such as ethylene oxide.
In an email to the Associated Press on Friday, LDEQ spokesperson Gregory Langley said that "we don't comment on ongoing litigation."
Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, called the permit approval "a new low" for LDEQ, pointing out that the department received over 15,500 comments from residents opposing the complex.
"Formosa Plastics would be one of the largest plants in the world, but our state used the same old rubber stamp to approve the project," said Rolfes. "We will act to protect the people of Louisiana since the state has clearly failed to do so."
The proposed Formosa Plastics Plant would increase the cancer risk in the 7th District, according to @Earthjustice.… https://t.co/ikvsokUMG5— LA Bucket Brigade (@LA Bucket Brigade)1580509900.0
Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of the local organization RISE St. James, declared that "LDEQ doesn't care about people's lives."
"They should have consulted the citizens of St. James, not the public officials, before approving these permits. It just tells me that people in higher office can do what they want and poison an entire African American community," she said. "RISE is going to fight to save the lives of the people in our community. This approval is making our fight harder, but it's making us stronger, and we will fight until the end to stop Formosa."
Great profile of Sharon Lavigne, a leader in the fight to #StopFormosa and its massive plastic-making plant in Loui… https://t.co/Ot5eUS9esc— Ctr4BioDiv Ocean (@Ctr4BioDiv Ocean)1581702363.0
Representatives from national organizations signed on to the suit expressed support for the community members battling against the project but also put the fight into a broader context.
"This plant would poison the people of St. James Parish and worsen the climate crisis just so Formosa can churn out more throwaway plastic," said Lauren Packard, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Using our oversupply of fracked gas to create products that add to the plastic pollution crisis is appalling. We stand with the local community in opposing this dangerous project."
As Common Dreams reported last month, Environmental Integrity Project found that greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. oil, gas, and petrochemical industries could jump about 30% by 2025 compared with 2018 because of additional drilling and 157 new or expanded projects "fueled by the fracking boom." The Formosa complex would have the highest potential yearly emissions among all the future and petrochemical and plastics projects included in the analysis.
"The fight against Formosa's polluting and unjust petrochemical complex is part of a growing national movement to address the triple threat of climate chaos, plastics pollution, and environmental racism," Earthworks energy campaigner Ethan Buckner said Friday. "By issuing these permits to Formosa, LDEQ yet again acquiesced to the fossil fuel industry's reckless plans to rapidly expand in the face of our worsening climate crisis."
"As investors sour on oil and gas companies, plastics are Big Oil's lifeline. And LDEQ threw them the rope," Buckner added. "Yet the voices of Cancer Alley's leaders are stronger than ever, and we will defend their right to clean water, air, and a stable climate."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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