Massoud Hayoun

China’s Louisiana Purchase: Environmental concerns in ‘Cancer Alley’

Chinese company behind methanol plant in mostly black Louisiana town has come under fire for shirking health laws

This article is the second installment of a three-part series on China’s role in redeveloping southern Louisiana called China’s Louisiana Purchase. The first part investigated links between Chinese government officials, Chinese gas giant Shandong Yuhuang and Gov. Bobby Jindal. The third part examines New Orleans' controversial bid for EB-5 investments.

ST. JAMES PARISH, La. — No one asked Lawrence “Palo” Ambrose if he wanted a Chinese company with a controversial environmental record to build a methanol plant in his neighborhood. But if they had, the 74-year-old Vietnam War vet would have said no.

A town hall meeting about it in July at St. James High School, which is close to the site of the plant, in a sparsely populated area with mobile homes and a few farms, took place only after the St. James Parish Council approved the project.

“We never had a town hall meeting pretending to get our opinion prior to them doing it,” said Ambrose, a coordinator at St. James Catholic Church. “They didn’t make us part of the discussion.”

The St. James Parish Council did not respond to interview requests at time of publication.

Edwin Octave, 92, who lives with his family in the area, agreed with Ambrose. “I don’t think the way they went about getting the plant was right. They bought the property before they tell people it’s going to happen.”

Ambrose used to be a member of the parish council, from 1992 to 1996. He said his neighborhood of St. James Parish where the plant will be built is 90 percent black. “The only ones that are white are the farmers,” he said, and there aren’t many of those in the area, part of a district that the state government hopes to industrialize. Exxon is among several energy companies with facilities in a zone between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that locals, following cues from environmentalists, have started calling “Cancer Alley” because of burgeoning health concerns that they say are due to the past few decades of industrialization.

Environmental scientists told Al Jazeera in late 2013 that the 150 petrochemical companies and 17 refineries in the area were releasing dangerous levels of toxic chemicals into the air and water. In Mossville, a predominantly black community a few hours west of Baton Rouge in southern Louisiana, 91 percent of residents said they were experiencing health complications they believed to be related to more than a dozen industrial plants in the area. Fourteen facilities that manufacture, process, store or discharge toxic or hazardous substances are in the small area.

Asked why the community wasn’t consulted, Ambrose said, “I think it’s because we’re black. But I can’t put my finger on that alone to say that was the only reason … Blacks are still somewhat second-class citizens.” 

Most of the council’s nine members are white. A little over half the parish’s residents are black, and most of the rest are white, according to official statistics.

Kenny Winchester, 54, who owns a nearby gas station and is black, agreed with Ambrose that race likely played a role in why the the council didn’t consult the community before approving the project. 

Advocates said it’s not unusual that communities in the area aren’t asked to weigh in on projects.

Darryl Malek-Wiley, an environmental justice organizer in New Orleans for the Sierra Club, said the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) doesn’t disseminate information clearly. “You have to know to read the legal pages and superfine print,” he said.

“We have talked about the need for the community to be noticed right at the beginning [of negotiations],” he added, but it’s not a legal requirement. “They don’t know about something until they get a press story saying it’s a done deal.”

DEQ spokeswoman Jean Kelly said community members are given notice during the company's application process. “A proposed permit is public noticed, and the community has an opportunity to comment on it," she said. Information on the proposed methanol plant can be found, he said, on the DEQ website using the agency interest number for it, 194165.

Asked if the information is available anywhere else, Kelly said in an email, “I’m not sure on this, as it has not been public noticed yet, but for an air permit, it is a local public library, the DEQ public records room and in EDMS [the DEQ electronic document management system]. It could also be procured through a public records request.”

Still, many locals say they heard nothing about the project before the July 2014 announcement that the various parties involved would move forward. 

Raymond Zeringue, 60, a worker on a nearby sugar cane farm who is white, said, "Really, I haven’t heard a lot about it,” said. “Other than there’s a methanol plant that’s being built, no information has been made public. They should have had better information handed out — more pros and cons to it.” 

The company slated to run the plant, Yuhuang Chemical Inc., is a subsidiary that Chinese natural gas giant Shandong Yuhuang formed in 2012. In recent months Shandong Yuhuang has received some press in China for reportedly shirking environmental regulations — letting off toxic emissions in the northeastern city of Heze, which local environmentalists have said is grappling with rising cancer rates and undrinkable water. Yuhuang Chemical says it will send the lion’s share of its product back to China, even though the People’s Republic already has a surplus of methanol.

Yuhuang Chemical, Shandong Yuhuang and the CEOs of both companies, Charlie Yao Chaoliang and Wang Jinshu, did not respond to interview requests at time of publication.

The St. James plant is one of a slew of new Chinese energy deals being touted by Chinese press and being negotiated with Louisiana development authorities. The state is set to give Yuhuang Chemical an incentive package of $9.5 million over the next five years if the project goes ahead. The administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal did not respond to a request for comment.

Yuhuang Chemical has filed for expedited permits to construct and operate the plant on 1,100 acres — situated between a high school, two churches and an assisted living facility for senior citizens — from the DEQ, which is set to study the impact on the local environment and deliver its decision on March 6. Steel and iron production plants in the area have already drawn criticism from local environmentalists.

At the July town hall meeting, Ambrose said the company and officials were “dishing up a good bowl of soup. They tell you only what ingredients in it are good enough to eat.” He felt his questions on potential contamination of the nearby Mississippi River were not adequately addressed.

Sign of things to come

New Orleans–based economic development nonprofit Greater New Orleans Inc. (GOINC), which is 25 percent government funded, helped select the site.

“St. James benefits from its location on either side of the Mississippi — deep water access,” said GOINC’s president and CEO, Michael Hecht.

“When you have our labor rates, the abundance of cheap natural gas as a feedstock, we’re becoming — if not a low-cost — a good-cost, high-convenience location for foreign companies.”

Hecht said he’s talking to a Chinese company “once a month now” in a variety of industries, including the energy sector. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we had one major Chinese announcement per year in coming years in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge markets,” he said.  

How to maximize the benefit for Louisiana remains to be seen. He said, “The challenge we have in Louisiana is to figure out how to engage … Chinese investment in a way that not only benefits the Chinese investor but the Louisiana community. That is still a question to be determined. What type of investment do we want? What requirements do we want to put on it? That’s a question to answer as a community.”

He was uncertain how many jobs in the Yuhuang project would be sourced locally. “You would assume a good portion of those 400 are going to be local,” he said. “It’s going to create, I believe, 400 direct jobs, it’s expected. The question is how many of those jobs will be sourced locally. The incentive package they received from the state was dependent on the expectation that a sizable portion would [go to locals].”

Ambrose said he wasn’t confident the project would create a significant number of jobs for locals. Malek-Wiley said that with petrochemical company projects like this, “most plants will create just 50” long-term jobs. “It’s very capital intensive but doesn’t take many people to operate,” he said, adding that it will only add to the environmental burden on the St. James community.

‘Environmental racism’

St. James Parish gas station owner Kenny Winchester said he hopes U.S. environmental standards will be enough to prevent any abuses too detrimental to the health of his community. “There shouldn’t be a problem if they follow the rules,” he said. “If they take shortcuts, we’ll have a problem.”

But Malek-Wiley said that hope isn’t realistic. “It’s not feasible to just hope they will abide by regulations. Most of the industry environmental reporting requirements are done by companies without a secondary check with the Department of Environmental Quality or EPA,” he said. “In effect, if a company was doing wrong, it would have to write itself a ticket. I know every time I’m going down the interstate too fast and there’s no cop, I pull over and write myself a ticket … No, it doesn’t happen that way.”

The only way to tell if a company breaches regulations, he said, is “after the plant’s built, unfortunately.” An environmentalist nonprofit focused on opposing petrochemical pollution in the region, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, could “teach folks how to take air samples in their community,” he said, and that tactic has led to “a number of companies to be fined for air pollution, but that’s after the fact.”

After successfully organizing legal bids around black communities not consulted on energy projects, Malek-Wiley believes that “with St. James Parish, they could have brought up concerns about environmental racism.” 

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