Saturday, April 13, 2024

A company promised 100 high-paying jobs in Jefferson Parish. Now it’s just 13 at half the pay

by BIZ Magazine

By Wes Muller, Louisiana Illuminator

A company that said it would bring more than 100 six-figure-salaried jobs to a Jefferson Parish community if officials allow it to build a chemical plant there has filed plans to create only 13 jobs at half the promised pay. It also wants residents to shoulder a $47 million tax exemption in return for those jobs. 

American Plant Food (APF) is a Texas-based company that produces ammonia fertilizers for large industrial-scale farms. It wants to open a new manufacturing plant along the west bank of the Mississippi River in Waggaman. For nearly a year, the company has been using the allure of high-paying jobs to promote its plans, but records filed with state regulators cast doubt on those claims. 

APF initially said it would create more than 100 new full-time jobs at the new plant with an average salary of $120,000 per year, according to flyers it distributed to Waggaman residents during an open house last October. That’s a hefty $12 million annual payroll. 

Times-Picayune article from Oct. 28, 2022, also reported the company’s claim with a little more detail but a slight adjustment to the salary figure. It stated the plant would create 220 temporary construction jobs plus 100 permanent jobs with an average salary of $100,000 per year for “plant managers, logistics, technical and maintenance workers and equipment operators.” 

Even with the salary adjustment, a $10 million annual payroll is still significant and befitting a company in the state’s second most populous parish.

In its request for an air pollution permit from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality in March, a company official signed a state form certifying that APF planned to create 103 new permanent jobs at the facility. In an effort to rush the approval process, APF paid LDEQ an expedited application fee of $4,000. 

Just three days later, however, APF filed paperwork to apply for Louisiana’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) and indicated it planned to create only 16 new positions at the plant, according to the Louisiana Economic Development agency (LED), which manages ITEP. Later that month the company filed its full application with a revised job-creation figure of only 13 positions at an average annual salary of just $56,000, which is far below the initial promised pay and slightly below the median household income for Jefferson Parish.

Despite this, the company’s website still claimed as of Monday that the project will create 100-plus jobs with $100,000 annual salaries. 

The exact cause of the discrepancy is unclear. The company didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Many Jefferson Parish residents want answers and are working to stop the company’s construction plans in the meantime. 

Resident Lisa Karlin hoped to discuss the matter at the Louisiana Board of Commerce and Industry meeting Wednesday. The company was scheduled to appear before the board regarding its pending ITEP application, but board members deferred the matter until next month. 

Karlin was still allowed to enter her own comments into the record. She said APF misled the public and wants the board to reject the company’s ITEP application.

Louisiana’s ITEP is one of the most lucrative corporate tax incentives in the country. It offers industrial manufacturers huge exemptions on property taxes, which local governments rely on to pay for things like schools, drainage, levees, roads, hospitals, law enforcement and other public services. 

“The promise of 100 high-paying jobs along with American Plant Food’s commitment to hiring locally got the attention and the support of the public,” Karlin said.

That support will certainly disappear once people learn the true number of jobs being created, the significantly lower salaries and the large incentives the company wants taxpayers to subsidize, she said.

APF’s total 10-year tax exemption would amount to $47.3 million. In return for forgoing $5.9 million in revenue per year, Jefferson Parish’s economy would receive an injection of just $728,000 per year in the form of employment income from APF’s payroll — a value that is eight times less than what the company would get from the parish each year. At that rate, it would take 65 years for the parish to recover the cost of the exemption.

The company did indicate it would have an additional payroll of $1.1 million for contract personnel and $17.6 million for construction workers who would build the plant, but those are temporary and could include out-of-town laborers.

Jefferson Parish Councilman at-large Ricky Templet did not respond to a request for comment on the matter. Councilman Byron Lee, whose district includes the site of the project, also did not return calls. 

Karlin and other residents have meanwhile taken the fight to a second front and have submitted formal comments to LDEQ in opposition to the company’s air pollution permit.

APF is proposing to build its plant on an 800-acre complex owned by Cornerstone Chemical Co., where several other facilities are located and handle the same kinds of chemicals APF will use to produce its fertilizer. APF plans to use sulfuric acid and an ammonia feedstock that another company, Dyno Nobel, already produces at the Cornerstone complex through its manufacture of explosives. 

APF has applied for a “minor source” air permit as opposed to a Title V Clean Air Act permit that has stricter emissions standards. Environmental groups argue LDEQ should not allow APF to have a standalone minor source permit and should instead consider APF and Dyno Nobel as a single major pollution source. 

The U.S. Census tract that contains the site is on the eastern edge of the so-called Cancer Alley industrial corridor. It already experiences heavy air pollution and rates of cancer that are roughly 30% higher than the state average and 44% higher than the national average, according to data from the Louisiana Tumor Registry.

In APF’s own air permit application to the state, it included the EPA’s air toxics data showing the area within a 2-mile radius of the project site has a cancer risk index of 59 — more than double the national average of 29 and higher than the state average of 41. 

Like many other industrial facilities in Louisiana, the APF project is sited in a mostly Black community. The same 2-mile radius area has a population that is 64% minority, compared with the parish average of 47% and state average of 41%, according to Census data referenced in APF’s permit application.

Dozens of people have submitted comments to LDEQ on the matter. APF’s air permit and its ITEP application both remain pending.

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