Army: Full environmental review of $9.4B plastics complex

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FILE – In this March 11, 2020, file photo, Myrtle Felton, from left, Sharon Lavigne, Gail LeBoeuf and Rita Cooper, members of RISE St. James, conduct a live stream video on property owned by Formosa in St. James Parish, La. A Pentagon official who supervises civil works by the Corps of Engineers, on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, ordered the Corps to make a full environmental assessment of a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex planned in Louisiana. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A civilian Pentagon official ordered the Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday to conduct a full environmental assessment of a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex planned in Louisiana, drawing praise from environmentalists.

Jaime Pinkham, the Army’s acting assistant secretary for civil works, ordered the review after a virtual meeting with opponents of a Corps wetlands permit that allowed Formosa Plastics Group member FG LA LLC to build 10 chemical plants and four other major facilities on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Critics praised the decision.

“The Army Corps has finally heard our pleas and understands our pain. With God’s help, Formosa Plastics will soon pull out of our community,” said a statement by Sharon Lavigne, who founded the local group Rise St. James to fight the planned complex announced in 2018.

Formosa, based in Taiwan, wants to produce polyethylene, polypropylene, polymer and ethylene glycol on 2,400 acres (970 hectares) in St. James Parish. Dubbed The Sunshine Project because it’s near the Sunshine Bridge, the project is expected to provide 1,200 permanent jobs and up to 8,000 construction jobs, the state has said.

The Corps issued a permit in September 2019 to let FG LA dredge and fill wetlands and create detention ponds in wetlands, according to a lawsuit by opponents. It said the site includes more than 900 acres (364 hectares) of wetlands, of which nearly 62 acres (25 hectares) of wetlands and nearly 50 acres (20 hectares) of other waters would be permanently affected.

It could take years to put together a full environmental impact statement, Lavigne said in an interview.

She said she silently thanked God when Pinkham said he was planning the order.

“I had to touch myself to see if I’m real,” said Lavigne, who earlier this year was awarded a Goldman Environmental Prize honoring grassroots environmental activism.

Within an hour, she said, Pinkham’s memo to the Corps’ commanding general was posted on his office’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Pinkham, who supervises and sets policy for the Corps’ civil works, wrote that he is committed to having the Army “be a leader in the federal government’s efforts to ensure thorough environmental analysis and meaningful community outreach.”

The Corps needs “to thoroughly review areas of concern, particularly those with environmental justice implications,” Pinkham wrote.

Major construction has been on hold since the Corps agreed in November to reconsider its permit for the plants in Welcome, where the Census Bureau estimates that nearly 97% of the 880 residents are Black.

Pinkham’s tweet and letter provide little detail about what procedures the Corps intends to use, said an emailed statement from FG LA. “The company will continue to work with the Corps as we receive more guidance on the additional evaluation and has no further comment at this time,” it said.

The memo does not identify the Corps’ commanding general. He is Lt. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon, according to the agency’s website.

One of the people who challenged the permit, Julie Teel Simmonds of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the decision was a step toward greater oversight even if the permit wasn’t scrapped.

“Although it does not revoke the permit, it at least lays out the proper process for an adequate environmental review of the project, which the Corps failed to do before,” Simmonds said in an email.

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