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

Originally published on Al Jazeera America – Jan. 28, 2015

***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.

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