Any journalist who covers anything related to the environment will tell you how they feel about Earth Day in three words. It’s similar to how many single people feel about the messaging surrounding Valentine’s Day:
“Make it stop!”
While the sentiment and history behind Earth Day is legit, it has been unfortunately hijacked by organizations touting their “green” work, which largely serves as a ploy to sweep their behavior the other 364 days of the year under the rug.
One problem with how we commemorate Earth Day is that we largely overlook the poorer communities that could benefit the most from a greater focus on the environment.
Take St. James Parish, a Louisiana community on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, as an example. St. James Parish is small in size and population — 86 square miles and just over 20,000 people call it home. But many of residents feel overwhelmed by the specter of a $9.4 billion petrochemical plant that a Taiwan-based conglomerate is seeking to build. The company says the project will create 8,000 temporary construction jobs and 1,200 permanent jobs paying upper-middle income wages.
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Opponents of the plant, often called the “Sunshine Project,” say it will just pile more environmental problems on this section of the Mississippi River that has long been called “Cancer Alley.” The region has attracted many new petrochemical plants over the past few decades, and critics of the industry say an increase in illnesses including cancer has been among the results. Even one trade publication acknowledged data suggesting 85 percent of the air pollution in St. James Parish is concentrated in areas where residents are overwhelmingly Black.
Further, local critics of what would be a massive plant the size of 1,200 football fields have pointed to a $50 million settlement that the company, Formosa Plastics, paid in 2019 after staff at another plant in Texas was accused of illegally discharging plastic pellets into local waterways. While state political leaders continue to push for the plant’s approval, construction and opening, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revoked the Sunshine Project's permit in November. For now, the plant’s future is in limbo.
Environmental concerns are not the only reasons driving the pushback against Formosa Plastics. Last summer, a group of Black residents in St. James Parish accused the company of preventing them from visiting a burial ground of slaves located within the site.
Further, at least one nonprofit said the plant does not make any economic or financial sense. The promise of exporting plastic feedstocks from the plant to China aren’t promising, they argue, as the country is building up its own plastics manufacturing capacity. There’s also a case to be made that the market for petrochemicals in the U.S. is close to being tapped out. And the costs of the plant’s construction continue to rise.
Then, of course, there is the timing of such a project: Mobilizing activists during the era of COVID-19 has been tough, and some of the company’s actions over the past year have been bad for optics.
Such opposition does not lie solely in St. James Parish: New Orleans’ city council has voiced its opposition to the project. “What happens upstream is going to reach us down here,” council member Kristin Gisleson Palmer told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “The plant might be in St. James, but the environmental effects have the potential to spread over a much larger area.”
Bottom line: The controversy swirling around the Sunshine Project is far beyond a jobs-versus-environment debate, as plenty of locals say any promises of employment are not worth the risks.
“The plants aren’t building our communities,” Clyde Cooper, a St. James Parish council member, said in an interview with the Washington Post. “They’re destroying them, and we have to stop it.” That’s a sentiment shared by many activists who have been saying for decades that environmental degradation has been most punishing to communities of color and poorer urban and rural areas across the U.S.
Image credit: St. James Parish/Facebook
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.