ST. JAMES PARISH, Louisiana — For decades, “the great sucking sound” of outsourcing flowed in one direction. Jobs of all kinds migrated from high-wage countries to their impoverished counterparts. Think textiles moving from the Carolinas to India, and autos from Michigan to Mexico. China was the biggest beneficiary, as U.S. manufacturers were attracted to its massive, low-wage labor force and minimal environmental standards.
Yet in a strange twist, China has begun outsourcing its own dirty industries back to the U.S. often with the help and “incentives” of American politicians. At least that’s what’s happening here in St. James, a small parish, population 22,000, nestled between New Orleans and Baton Rouge on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Three lifelong residents of the parish — Barbara Washington, Gail Leboef, and Myrtle Felton — recall the formerly bucolic characteristics of St. James. “Lifelong” understates their connection to the area, as all are descendants of slaves who worked the sugar plantations that dominated this region. Ms. Washington’s great-great-great-great grandmother, shortly after her liberation, purchased 34 acres of land in the parish that remains in her family today.
For much of their lives, St. James Parish, particularly around the small town of Covent, where Ms. Washington invited me into her home, was an idyllic setting in which to raise a family. Children walked to school along a path along the river. Family-owned businesses, like Hymel’s Seafood Restaurant, dished up Cajun classics.
Today, schools and corner stores have closed. Even the post office is gone. And Hymel’s, which opened in 1954, served up its last oyster po’ boys in December.
In its place, heavy industry has moved in. Driving into the parish along the Mississippi is now downright surreal: massive refineries, pipelines and chemical plants tower over the few remaining sugar fields.
Small neighborhoods, made up largely of mobile homes, sit tucked in nearby lanes and alleyways abutting the facilities, as do a few humble churches. A 2014 land use change that rezoned large swaths of St. James Parish from residential to “residential/future industrial” has abetted the development, as has its strategic location along the Mississippi.
The industrialization has brought with it jobs and economic growth — though local residents say they’ve seen few of the benefits from either — but also a slew of concerns. St. James sits on a stretch known locally as “cancer alley,” and residents speak of their many neighbors who have gotten sick. Ms. Washington says she knows some 50 people who have died of cancer, including her 57-year-old sister.
Wanhua Chemical, a Chinese company deeply tied to the Communist Party, is the latest company to set its sights on St. James. It plans to build a $1.25 billion facility here to manufacture MDI, a component of polyurethane foam. The plant will spew some 300 tons of toxic air emissions a year, including 1,700 pounds a year of phosgene — a gas used in chemical warfare. Another 10 million pounds per year of toxic liquid waste will be produced as well. Any sort of mishap at the plant would represent a nightmare scenario too: a 2016 explosion at one of Wanhua’s plants in China killed four workers.
What’s worse, Louisiana taxpayers will be paying for the privilege: Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has pledged a cash grant of more than $4 million to the company. Nor will Wanhua have to pay property taxes for a decade.
Wanhua has repeatedly dissembled about how tied it is to the Communist Party. Kimberly Terrell, director of community outreach at Tulane Environmental Law Clinic in New Orleans and a scientist by training, says, “In its response to the Land Use Permit Appeal [to St. James Parish], Wanhua falsely claimed that neither Wanhua U.S. nor Wanhua China is owned by the Chinese government.”
However, Ms. Terrell says, “publicly filed documents contradict this claim by proving that Wanhua U.S. is 100% owned by Wanhua China, and that Wanhua China’s ‘ultimate controlling shareholder’ is a municipal government of the PRC. Like all local governments, Yantai is entirely controlled by the PRC central government and the Communist Party of China.” Wanhua even has its own Communist Party committee embedded within the company’s leadership structure.
The president of St. James Parish, Timmy Roussel, who has been supportive of the Wanhua proposal, did not respond to an interview request. But in a separate interview, Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson defended the deal and those like it.
“I think we’d all agree that we could be comfortable in a world without incentives,” Mr. Pierson says. “But my challenge is, Texas has got incentives, and Mississippi and Alabama have incentives and so economic development agencies across the South are quite competitive for these important investments.” Mr. Pierson says he is worried about environmental issues — “I’m going to breathe the same air!” — but says safeguards are in place.
President Trump’s tariffs on China may halt the Wanhua facility before ground is even broken. The company argues that the 25% tariffs levied on a series of Chinese goods will make the plant’s construction uneconomic. (The facility will largely use parts made in China and simply be assembled in Louisiana.) Wanhua is now attempting a workaround that would see it establish a Foreign Trade Zone, which would exempt it from tariffs and local taxes. The rub is, Foreign Trade Zones were established in 1934, during the height of the Great Depression, with the express goal of promoting American manufacturing.
And Wanhua Chemical, an agent of the Chinese Communist Party, is anything but that.
• Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.