Gail LeBoeuf makes an unlikely climate justice campaigner. Although the 67-year-old resident of Gramercy, a small town in south Louisiana by the banks of the Mississippi River, has been fighting against local pollution for the last few years, she spent most of her career working at an area plastics manufacturer.
“These plants just kept popping up, one after another, built by these billionaires who decided they just want to make money. So they come into these little river parishes, and sweep everyone else aside,” she said.
Stood by a soggy roadside, surrounded by sugarcane fields, she pointed to the horizon where the latest polluting plant in this heavily polluted region of the US, known locally as Cancer Alley, is due to be built.
Named the Sunshine Project, the sprawling plastics facility owned by the Taiwanese plastics giant Formosa, has become a focal point in the fight against industrial pollution in the region. St James parish neighbours St John the Baptist parish, home to the most toxic air in America and the subject of a year-long Guardian series, Cancer Town.
In January Louisiana’s Environment Department [LDEQ] granted the Sunshine project its final set of permits, allowing for 800 tonnes a year of toxic pollutants to be blasted into the air around the complex’s 14 separate plants.
The air here is already among the most polluted in America, and local campaigners like LeBoeuf have been arguing for years that the cocktail of new pollutants, including the cancer causing compounds ethylene oxide, styrene and benzine, mark an intolerable risk to their health. In the fifth district of St James parish, an area just 103 sq miles, there are already eight industrial plants operating. The new project is slated across 2,300 acres of land.
The Sunshine Project will not only be a major contributor to local toxic pollution, but will also be a significant source of greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions. LDEQ has permitted Formosa to release an astonishing 13.6 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of three and a half coal fired power stations.
A spokeswoman for Formosa said that the facility could emit less GHG than permitted, as the totals in the permit “were generated based on the facility operating at maximum levels, 100% of the year”. The spokeswoman did not cite a separate figure however.
The spokeswoman said the company would “perform a variety of emissions testing and monitoring activities” at the facility.
The permit marks the project as the single biggest emitter of climate pollution under construction in the US, according to an analysis of oil and gas industry proposals conducted by the Environmental Integrity Project, a DC based advocacy group. The sector announced about $204bn in spending on 340 new or expanded projects since 2010, according to the American Chemistry Council. Many of them are to produce plastics – which the research firm IHS Markit forecasts will grow an average of 3.5% to 4% per year through 2035.
This boom in plastic production is fueled by cheap oil and gas released by fracking. The industry is planning 157 new or expanded plants and more drilling over the next five years, according to a report from the Environmental Integrity Project. These projects will release up to 227m tons of additional greenhouse gases by the end of 2025 – a 30% rise from the industry’s footprint in 2018.
Steven Eric Feit, an attorney for the Center for International Environmental Law’s climate program, said oil companies are banking on plastics growth for when oil demand for transportation peaks.
“The story from the oil industry for how they’re going to see growth in the 21st century is plastics, that’s what they’re saying,” Feit said.
Many of the biggest facilities are along the Gulf Coast – with eight of the top 10 by size in Texas or Louisiana. The other two are in Appalachia, a region already struggling with the toxic legacy and decline of the coal industry.
Like other environmental justice battles in the deep American south, the fight to stop Formosa is being fought by a group of local black women, like LeBoeuf and Sharon Lavigne, founder of Rise.
Sat at her home in Welcome, less than a mile from the proposed Formosa site, she argued that presidential candidates in the Democratic field, should be doing more to view the struggle against toxic polluters like Formosa in the context of the climate crisis.
“The federal government needs to step in on this,” she said. “And I think all the candidates for president talking about fossil fuels need to be in our corner too.”
More recently, however, campaigners here have begun to realize they are also part of a global struggle against the climate crisis.
At a private town hall meeting on 20th January held with newly elected St James councilman Mason Bland, LeBoeuf and other activists from the environmental group Rise St James recalled pushing their representative to rescind a series of land use permits granted to Formosa. LeBoeuf said she also asked her local representative to think about Formosa’s direct links to the climate crisis.
“Do you believe in global warming and climate change?” LeBoeuf recalled asking.
“I’m not going to answer that question,” Bland replied, according to LaBoeuf.
The Guardian contacted all seven members of the St James parish council, including Bland, to ask whether they were concerned about the climate crisis and Formosa’s contribution to it. None responded with answers to the questions.
The discovery of fracking – a method of injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure to release oil and gas – vastly expanded the supply available to drillers. In turn, oil and gas prices plummeted. Fracking has also made it cheaper to make plastics, which come from a byproduct of the extracted gas.
And experts agree that the rapid boom in plastics production has been overlooked as the lower-emitting gas has allowed the US to phase out coal plants, at a benefit to the environment.
“Industry is saying this is good because we’re replacing coal, but they don’t talk about what else they’re doing with it – which is making plastic and chemicals,” said Courtney Bernhardt, research director at the Environmental Integrity Project.
According to a recent legal complaint filed against Formosa by lawyers representing local residents, the amount of greenhouse gases released by the plant will be the equivalent of 6.5% of Louisiana’s total energy related emissions by 2016 standards. The permits issued by LDEQ actively skirt the issue of greenhouse gas releases, arguing that because there is no way to measure precisely how the surrounding area will be affected by the emissions, there is no reason to block the construction.
Beyond greenhouse gases, the 157 oil and gas projects planned around America could emit thousands of tons of pollution that contribute to smog and the particle pollution that contributes to asthma and heart attacks. They will also emit sulfur dioxide – which damages the lungs, and nitrogen oxides – which feed fish-killing “dead zones” in waterways.
Last week, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, a staunch supporter of the Sunshine Project, announced a new initiative to confront the climate crisis in the gulf coast state, which faces severe coastal erosion and rising sea levels as a consequence of global heating.
“Louisiana will not just accept or adapt to climate change impacts,” Edwards, a Democrat, said at a news conference in Baton Rouge. “Louisiana will do its part to address climate change.”
The governor has created a new “Climate Initiatives Task Force” to reduce emissions among the dominant oil, gas and petrochemical industries in the state, and has committed at least a further $115m to coastal restoration. Notably, Edwards did not announce any binding emissions reduction targets.
Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, described the plan as “laughable” and said the most effective and meaningful way to combat climate change in the state would be for a moratorium on new petrochemical facilities in the state.
“If we’re serious about reducing carbon emissions, let’s move towards halting them,” Rolfes said.
LeBoeuf and other members of Rise had not been contacted about the governor’s new taskforce and did not expect to be part of the initiative.
As she stood at the grounds of the sprawling site, on which Formosa plan to begin construction this year, she spoke about the recent news that two suspected slave graveyards had been found on the land.
Formosa did not inform the community of the archaeological discovery, which was only made public following a public records disclosure. The information has led Rise St James to argue that the parish council should reconsider its permits, an argument that has thus far had little traction.
“It’s still a plantation,” said LeBoeuf, who traces her ancestry back through generations here. “Those people were slaves on the plantation back then. Now we’ll be slaves to an industrial plantation.”