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Wanhua Wrinkle

St. James Parish council sends chemical plant’s land use permit back to planning commission

5th August 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Meghan Holmes
Contributing Writer

On July 24, the St. James Parish council voted unanimously to return a previously approved land use permit for Wanhua Chemical’s new $1.25 billion plastic manufacturing facility back to the parish planning commission.

Initially approved in a 5-3 vote, local residents and advocacy groups, represented by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, filed an appeal in May to reverse the decision and stop the plant’s construction, arguing, among other things, that residents less than a mile away could be exposed to harmful phosgene emissions.

Subsequent public records requests on the part of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic exposed unannounced meetings between parish officials and Wanhua executives in the days prior to the planning commission vote, leading residents to sue the parish for violation of Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law.

“There’s been a lot of communication between the company and the parish and state government,” said Anne Rolfes with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “They got this permit through the planning commission and now they want federal tariff exemptions in a foreign trade zone. This shouldn’t be happening after they’ve already received land use approval; everything should have been on the table.”

About a month ago, St. James Parish officials received notice from the Port of South Louisiana that Wanhua had applied to seek exemptions from federal trade tariffs. A proposed Foreign Trade Zone for the complex could also mean exemption from inventory taxes as well as sales tax, both of which parish officials considered part of their initial deal with the company. Parish council members sent Wanhua’s permit back to the planning commission at the appeal hearing while local officials and company executives work to resolve the tax dispute in the time before the permit’s next review.

Parish officials told The Advocate that the company has promised to waive any sovereign immunity and commit to pay sales and inventory taxes, and in a June 18 letter to the parish, Alex Liu, chief executive officer of Wanhua Chemical’s U.S. operations, said the company regretted any miscommunication with the parish about the trade zone.

Last November, Wanhua applied for at least 60 exemptions from federal trade tariffs, some of which have been denied, and some of which are still pending. “This request to the Port of South Louisiana for a foreign trade zone designation could be a way to still get around tariffs even though some of their exclusion requests have been denied,” said Kimberly Terrell, director of community outreach with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. “The exemption requests are for different chemicals and pieces of equipment.”

Some of the products Wanhua requested to be tariff-exempt are part of China’s “Made in China 2025” program, a strategic effort on the part of the country to strengthen and upgrade their manufacturing capabilities. “The tariff exemption of some chemicals was denied because they’re strategic to this program,” Terrell said. “This initiative supports Chinese-based industry and subsidizes certain products to help make them global leaders.”

Wanhua’s U.S. operations are overseen by Wanhua China, which is ultimately controlled by a municipality in eastern China. “Municipal governments in China have no real political power,” Terrell said. “The ultimate controlling party is the central government of China, and executives within the company serve on committees dedicated to developing and maintaining ties to the Communist party.”

Local residents opposed to the plant and advocacy groups argue that the Wanhua’s ties to mainland China “make accountability and enforceability an issue,” said Lisa Jordan, director and supervising attorney with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. “If this company violates a law, will they say, ‘Sorry, but we are a sovereign nation,’ when it comes time for enforcement? This is something that we know our clients and parish officials are concerned about.”

Residents have also expressed concern about the cumulative impact of another plant in the area, with Mosaic, Occidental Chemical, and Raven Energy all nearby. “We don’t want anymore chemical plants in this area,” said District Four resident Myrtle Felton. “The chemicals are already making people sick, and they want to keep building more plants.”

During the recent parish council meeting, several representatives from the chemical industry voiced support for the plant, touting the jobs and revenue it would bring to the parish. Opponents argue that jobs typically go to people outside the immediately impacted communities, comprised primarily of low-income people of color.

“For our clients, the concern is at several levels,” Jordan said. “At the base level, they’re already inundated with pollution and there has been an explosion of new facilities in the area. It’s one thing when they’re U.S. companies. Now, we have governments from other countries picking this low-income, minority community to come in and dump on, and enough is enough.”

The St. James Parish planning commission will review Wanhua’s land use permit again in late August. In the meantime, there will be a public hearing where local residents and advocates plan to speak. “We were not part of the process at all,” Felton said. “When we started trying to find things out, the parish said it was too late, but I don’t think it’s ever too late to stop something.”

This article originally published in the August 5, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

St. James Parish council sends chemical plant’s land use permit back to planning commission