Louisiana’s Cancer Alley

The environmental justice movement notched important victories in Louisiana this week by blocking two planned petrochemical plants — a move that will prevent huge amounts of greenhouse emissions from entering the atmosphere.

The petrochemical complexes would have both been built in St. James Parish, home to what is commonly known at Louisiana’s “cancer alley.” With the emergence of shale gas drilling over the past dozen years, many companies have flocked to the area to take advantage of inexpensive natural gas. There are now approximately 150 oil refineries, plastics plants and chemical facilities there.

But over the past few days, two of those projects — Formosa Plastics and South Louisiana Methanol — were shelved. Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court reversed the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to issue air permits to Formosa Plastics. And LDEQ said that South Louisiana Methanol failed to modify its permit within the time allotted.

The rulings’ consequences lie in these numbers:

$9.4 billion. The amount the Taiwanese company Formosa Plastics would have spent building a new petrochemical complex covering 2,400 acres

$2.2 billion. The amount South Louisiana Methanol had planned on spending on its chemical plant



P.S. - ProPublica reported that “the air around Formosa’s site is more toxic with cancer-causing chemicals than 99.6 percent of industrialized areas of the country” already.


The U.S. chemical industry, where I made my career, has been dramatically changed within my lifetime by environmental regulations. New Jersey’s cancer alley was essentially put out of business. Many manufacturing plants were closed because the cost of mitigating pollution was higher than the profit from the plants.

This is a good thing for the local population, which had lived with egregious air, water and soil pollution for many decades.

On the other hand, thousands of well-paid union workers were fired without alternative high-paid jobs available. I remember this well during the 1980 recession since my job was selling industrial water treatment in many of these plants. Huge plants with thousands of workers (giant parking lots) were summarily shut without warning to the workers. In some cases, middle-aged workers who had held jobs in these plants since high school committed suicide since they couldn’t find alternative jobs during the recession.

A huge amount of chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing was offshored to India and China, with even weaker environmental and worker safety protections.

As the world’s population becomes ever more prosperous, the new middle class wants all the products of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Plastics, fabrics, chemicals of infinite variety, drugs and so many more. They have to be made somewhere.



There was also lots of consolidation in the chemical industry following adoption of environmental regulations. Rather than spend millions installing environmental treatment at each plant, it was cost effective to merge with a competitor, expand capacity if necessary and do the environmental investment once rather than multiple times.

Environmental treatment also favored larger plants where the operation could be more efficient and be operated by better trained personnel.

Profitable operations that could tended to consolidate but those that could not afford the changes shut down.

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I am surprised that any company even considered building a green field site. I have assumed for 40 years that no new petro chemical sites would ever be built.

As such any existing petrochemical plant has a value just because it exists in that Petrochemical complex that stretches from
Victoria Texas to Mobile Alabama and is fully integrated. For example: The pipeline that moved Ethylene between refineries that had ethylene as a by product to refineries that used it as an input was connected to the salt domes in Baytown. This allowed people to speculate in ethylene and it provided buffers when intake and output did not match.

That particular site also stored huge volumes of other gases like natural gas, propane and others.

These connections and the existing permits can make unprofitable sites worth buying and operating until they can be converted to profitable products.

The fact that these companies attempted green field construction indicates that technology is not creating space dense productivity fast enough to keep up with demand for petro chemicals.

The plastics plant is especially eye brow raising as these have been added on to many if the motor fuels refineries. (Motor fuels are commodities and have razor thin margins) plastics can be very lucrative so are often added to plants to boost margins as well as to piggy back existing permits.


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A huge amount of chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing was offshored to India and China, with even weaker environmental and worker safety protections.

How soon we forget.
I seem to remember way back in March of 2020 when we were all concerned over how much of critically needed supplies and feed stocks were all made elsewhere. You know…masks, PPE, medicines.