The New Orleans City Council is considering a resolution opposing a massive Taiwanese plastics facility in St. James Parish that could release the same type of tiny pellets that blanketed New Orleans riverbanks last summer.
The resolution, slated for consideration on Thursday , won’t have much impact on the proposed $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics plant slated for an area near the Sunshine Bridge, more than 45 miles upriver, but it could express New Orleans’ “value systems” and bring more attention to river pollution, said Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer.
“I don’t think people in New Orleans really and truly understand how interconnected we are via the Mississippi River and our waterways,” she said, noting that plastic pollution can harm water quality, fisheries and the beauty of a city that depends on tourism.
The resolution, sponsored by Palmer and Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen, would urge the petrochemical industry to reduce “toxic emissions and (take) stronger steps to clean up current contamination” from the CMA CGM Bianca, a cargo ship that spilled an estimated 743 million lentil-sized plastic pellets, known as nurdles, into the river near Napoleon Avenue on Aug. 2.
No cleanup orders or penalties have been issued by the U.S. Coast Guard or other government agencies. The Coast Guard, which typically leads river and marine pollution cleanups, determined it has no jurisdiction over the nurdles because they are not considered a “hazardous material,” like oil or chemical waste, under the Clean Water Act.
The initial cleanup response fell to small groups of loosely organized and poorly-equipped volunteers.
“It really is unconscionable that it was volunteers with five-gallon buckets and brooms cleaning this up,” Palmer said. “We’re sitting here talking about expanding an industry in which our state leaders have failed us. The response from the state and the industry is ‘it’s not our responsibility.’”
Almost six months after a cargo ship spilled millions of plastic pellets into the Mississippi River, large numbers of the pellets, known as “n…
Formosa said its facility was approved by state and local regulators and will be operated in a safe manner.
“The project underwent a rigorous environmental and operating permitting process and will also comply with multiple laws, regulations and permits designed to protect public health,” Formosa spokeswoman Janile Parks said.
The company urged the New Orleans City Council to reject the resolution.
“Groups opposed to (the Formosa) project in St. James Parish are attempting to have the New Orleans City Council pass a resolution in opposition to the project since their efforts to have the St. James Parish Council pass a similar resolution have been unsuccessful,” Parks said. “In fact, the (parish) council and the planning commission in St. James Parish previously and unanimously approved the project and its location, which is in an area designated for industrial use. We urge the New Orleans council to carefully consider the facts and deny any resolution opposing (Formosa’s) project in St. James.”
Formosa estimates the facility will generate thousands of construction jobs and 1,200 post-construction jobs over the next eight years.
In 2019, Formosa agreed to pay $50 million to settle a lawsuit in which a judge ruled the company had illegally dumped billions of nurdles from a manufacturing facility in Port Comfort, Texas.
Two members of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade faced felony charges for dropping a box of Formosa’s nurdles on the doorstep of a Louisiana chemical industry lobbyist in late 2019. The unusual form of protest elicited a response by a police hazardous materials team and the activists’ arrest by Baton Rouge police on charges of “terrorizing.” The charges were rejected by the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s office in December.
Louisiana environmental activists have warned that the Formosa facility in St. James will bring more air pollution to the region and add more plastic waste to the already plastic-saturated waters of the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico.
An LSU study found that the Gulf has one of the highest concentrations of plastic waste in the world. The likely source of much of the plastic is the Mississippi, which acts as a giant collector of plastic and other waste that eventually drains into the Gulf.
Nurdles and plastic fragments are often mistaken for food by fish and other wildlife. Plastic can cause digestive blockages and internal injuries, and it often carries a variety of pesticides and other pollutants that animals absorb into their systems.
“That moves up the food chain and can end up on our plate,” said Michael Esealuka, an organizer with Healthy Gulf.
The New Orleans council resolution has received support from several New Orleans restaurant and hospitality businesses, including Dickie Brennan and Company, which owns Brennan’s Steakhouse in the French Quarter.
In a letter to council members, Brennan’s owners said the plastic from the Bianca spill “will exist in our waterways for thousands of years, obstructing the bellies of birds and fish. The petrochemical industry is a threat to our wildlife, our communities, our seafood industry, and our economy in Louisiana.”
The Formosa plant is also opposed by environmental groups in St. James, where there are fears that the facility will increase air pollution in an area with an already high concentration of petrochemical facilities.
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“We are a sacrifice zone for the state,” said Sharon Lavigne, founder of Rise St. James. “We are full. We cannot take anymore. All we get are sickness and death.”
Lavigne said New Orleans leaders are speaking more strongly against Formosa than her parish’s leaders.
“I want to thank the New Orleans council for trying to help St. James, because our public officials in St. James are not trying to revoke this decision – this death sentence for St. James,” she said.
This article was produced in partnership with The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, which are members of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
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