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Appeals court green lights new petrochemical plant in Lousiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’

A Louisiana appeals court has ruled that plans for a petrochemical facility can proceed in a part of the state colloquially known as “Cancer Alley” due to its disproportionate number of petrochemical plants and cancer rates.

In the Friday ruling, Louisiana’s 1st Circuit Court of Appeals upheld air quality permits issued by the state Department of Environmental Quality for a new Formosa Plastics facility in St. James Parish. The facility is set to be built along the western bank of the Mississippi River, already the site of about 200 petrochemical facilities in St. James and other parishes. The proposed plant would span 2,400 acres, making it the largest such plant in the country, according to EarthJustice, which represented plaintiffs in the case.

The 85 miles that comprise “Cancer Alley” account for a quarter of U.S. petrochemical production, which has been linked to disproportionately high rates of cancer in the largely Black and low-income area.

Data from the Louisiana Tumor Registry indicates that seven of the 10 census tracts with the highest cancer risk in the U.S. are in the area, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said residents of the town of Reserve in St. John the Baptist Parish are at 50 times the national average risk for cancer. The estimated emissions from the planned Formosa plant could triple levels of carcinogenic pollutants in the surrounding community, according to an analysis by ProPublica.

In 2022, Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District voided Formosa’s permits, siding with the local activist group RISE St. James. In the Friday ruling, the appeals court overturned that decision, writing that the Department of Environmental Quality “reasonably and within its vast discretion determined that any adverse environmental impacts were avoided and/or minimized as much as possible consistent with the public welfare.”

“Once again the state of Louisiana is putting polluters before people,” Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James said in a statement. “We have a right to clean and healthy air, and we will keep fighting to make sure our communities are not sacrifice zones for industry.”

“We are extremely disappointed with this court’s decision. It allows LDEQ to continue its practice of greenlighting petrochemical plants, one after another, without stopping to assess the total impacts of cancer-causing pollutants on the communities nearby,” senior Earthjustice attorney Corinne Van Dalen said in a statement. “The fight is far from over, and we will be with RISE St. James and local communities every step of the way.”

The ruling does not fully clear the way for construction of the plant. Formosa must still prepare the environmental impact statement required to secure a wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Today’s results assure FG’s permits issued by LDEQ remain active and further enable LDEQ to broaden the reasoning for its decision to award the permits. LDEQ provided a robust and detailed Basis for Decision and Response to Comments in which it fully explained its reasons for approving FG’s Sunshine Project in St. James Parish,” Janile Parks, director of community and government relations for FG LA LLC, owner of the St. James project, said in a statement to The Hill. “Today’s decision by the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal correctly affirmed LDEQ’s decision to issue FG’s permits.”

Updated Jan. 24 at 10:14 a.m.

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