NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Louisiana judge has thrown out air quality permits for a Taiwanese company's planned $9.4 billion plastics complex between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, a rare win for environmentalists in a heavily industrialized stretch of the Mississippi River often referred to as "Cancer Alley."
The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality brushed off its environmental justice analysis while violating the Clean Air Act and the agency's duty to protect the public, District Judge Trudy White wrote.
Opponents of the plans called Wednesday's ruling in Baton Rouge a victory for environmental justice. FG LA, the local Formosa Plastics affiliate, said Thursday that it would appeal.
"Stopping Formosa Plastics has been a fight for our lives, and today David has toppled Goliath," said Sharon Lavigne, who founded the group Rise St. James in 2018 to fight plans for the plant. "The judge's decision sends a message to polluters like Formosa that communities of color have a right to clean air, and we must not be sacrifice zones."
The judge, who is Black, wrote that for Lavigne and other residents, "the blood, sweat and tears of their Ancestors is tied to the land" once dominated by plantations where enslaved people labored.
Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality is reviewing the ruling and has no immediate comment, press secretary Gregory Langley said in an email Thursday.
FG LA wants to build 10 chemical plants and four other major facilities on 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares) in St. James Parish near Welcome, a mostly Black community of about 670.
"FG respectfully disagrees with Judge White's conclusion," the company, which intervened in the lawsuit to support the department, said in a statement emailed Thursday. "We believe the permits issued to FG by LDEQ are sound and the agency properly performed its duty to protect the environment in the issuance of those air permits."
The complex is among current and proposed facilities involved in an Environmental Protection Agency investigation of whether state health and environmental agencies have discriminated against Black residents. And the Army Corps of Engineers has been reviewing its environmental assessment of Formosa's wetlands permits since August 2021, under orders from a civilian Pentagon official.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and local officials have promoted the project, saying it could generate 1,200 permanent jobs and millions of dollars in taxes.
White's 35-page ruling said Louisiana's environmental justice analysis ignored EPA evidence that cancer risk from industrial pollution already makes Welcome "one of the most burdened communities in the United States."
"LDEQ never weighed the impacts associated with the 13.6 million tons per year of greenhouse gases that LDEQ has authorized ... against the purported benefits of the project, and the added environmental burden to already over-burdened majority-Black communities," she wrote.
And, she wrote in bold italics, the agency "must take special care to consider the impact of climate-driven disasters fueled by greenhouse gases on environmental justice communities and their ability to recover."
Nikki Reisch, director of the climate and energy program at the Center for International Environmental Law, called the ruling "a win for environmental justice, for climate justice, and for human rights."
"It sends a clear message to the government of Louisiana and to the Formosa Plastics Group and to states and corporations everywhere: You cannot write off communities or edit out the reality of environmental racism and climate change," she wrote.
The judge also wrote that the permits would go against EPA standards for 24-hour exposure to soot, also called "fine particulate matter," and nitrogen dioxide, which contributes to ozone formation.
A new source must provide computer models to show that it won't "cause or contribute to" violations of the standards or of allowable increases, she wrote. But she said that under FG LA's modeling "the violations are not even close in some instances."
The state acknowledged this but argued that EPA memoranda let it could "allow contributions below a level LDEQ determines significant."
It can't do that, White ruled.
She said the department violated its duty to protect the public by dismissing threats to health as unrealistic "when the record shows the opposite."
The company's air quality model shows that emissions would increase violations of air quality standards even if it complied with the permit, and doesn't explain how that would avoid a requirement to avoid harm to the maximum extent possible, White wrote.