September 8, 1998
by Woody Justice
Convent, Louisiana, has been in the news lately, alternately as a definitive example of environmental racism or just another case of NIMBYs (not-in-my-back-yard) blindly halting progress. It is a low-income community where fewer than half of the adults have a high school diploma, located in St. James Parish, which ranks third in that state for toxic releases. Shintech is a Japanese conglomerate planning to build a $700 million polyvinyl chloride (PVC) factory in a town already burdened with six chemical works. The proposed facility includes an on-site waste incinerator and would be built 1.5 miles from an elementary school.[Web Editor's Note: This page was previously uploaded with the wrong distance above. Sorry for the inconvenience.]
Most of the residents who attended the re-opened air-permit hearings last January vocally opposed the potential new neighbor's plans; their concerns were over further degradation of the local environment, long-term health effects from factory discharges, and dissolution of their community. Shintech brought in paid consultants and dozens of employees from their Freeport, Texas, PVC factory (the largest in the world until the Convent facility is completed); their testimony consisted of references to jobs and growth in tax revenue (hardly air-quality issues). While it is true that some Convent inhabitants endorsed the proposal, they belong to a "citizen's" group financed with taxpayer dollars and organized by the state Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) to oppose the efforts of the community groups that object to the proposed facility.
That sounds on a par with events here in Mobile County, even when Governor Foster's grant of a 10-year Industrial Tax Exemption for $130 million is included, but the deal gets even more disreputable. The hearings were only being held because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected LDEQ's air permit for Shintech over some 50 technical errors. (EPA headquarters did that; Region 6 EPA didn't find anything wrong.) The water permit approving the discharge of 8 million gallons of contaminated wastewater per day into the Mississippi River was recently upheld by a judge, and Shintech officials and state regulators declare that the air permit problems are merely technical and can be modified to meet EPA approval.
Opponents claim it is a tainted permit process, prejudiced against fair review. They accuse LDEQ officials and employees of showing bias in favor of Shintech and against the citizens, and point to Governor Foster's threats, bombast and strong-arm tactics toward anyone opposed to the factory as further evidence of favoritism. Additionally, a St. James Parish Council official reportedly provided Shintech with personality profiles of all council members (including their industry attitudes) and then shredded the documents when asked to make them public. Adding to the confusion, the state NAACP initially opposed the project but wavered when NAACP's St. James chapter endorsed it. The state NAACP eventually declared neutrality, though President Johnson compromised this with statements emphasizing the number of black leaders that favor the operation and casting some of the opponents' actions in a negative light. On the same day of this announcement, the state small-business development board pledged $2.5 million for a nonprofit program headed by Johnson -- $500,000 more than the group had requested, even though its loan request missed the deadline, lacked crucial information, and had been labeled a bad risk.
The anti-PVC citizen groups have been represented by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic under a program that allows qualified law students to gain legal experience while providing a public service. They practice under direction of the clinic's staff lawyers and serve individuals and community organizations that can't afford legal representation. The clinic cannot compete with the private bar and doesn't even consider the cases that would interest a private attorney, such as cases in which monetary rewards are likely. The Governor resents their intrusion, calling the law students "vigilantes" and comparing them to the dreaded trial lawyers, and has threatened TELC's funding.
At the request of members of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the state Supreme Court reviewed the rules allowing students to practice law for indigent clients. Because the anti- PVC community group is affiliated with a national organization, Greenpeace in this case, the court ruled in June that they do not meet the indigent-client requirement. Opponents are suspicious that several of the judges involved in the decision are up for re-election, and the same business interests acting as petitioners have made huge campaign contributions and even publicly endorsed the Chief Justice's candidacy.
So members of a community group where 49 percent of the households earn less than $15,000 per year do not qualify for free legal assistance. And the Governor's tax break that buys 165 jobs in a chemical factory (at $800,000 each) means that those funds are unavailable to support local needs such as public schools. And a legal clinic is closed off from an avenue where the help is needed and where it did some good. Under a previous governor, TELC successfully petitioned to tie big tax breaks to environmental compliance and forced LDEQ to enforce its environmental rules -- increasing the industrial base and inspiring cleaner business, according to the former LDEQ Secretary.
Also, last month EPA issued audit results critical of LDEQ - for the third time in three years. Citing the state environmental protection agency's own records in a study, TELC claimed lax enforcement and a climate too eager to work for industry against the public's benefit. (Governor Foster believes that the agency "should not be a policeman with polluters.") Together with the community advocacy group Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the clinic asked EPA to audit LDEQ procedures and decisions. Conclusions in the recent report included practices of not following up after finding violations, lack of record keeping to show the status of cases, and setting fines too low to encourage compliance.
In what appears to be a done deal that gives no consideration to public input, the Shintech opponents have one last hope for victory. Claims of environmental racism and a Civil Rights complaint lodged by citizens in the mostly low-income, African-American community have prompted EPA's instruction that LDEQ also consider environmental justice issues in its decision. EPA is now under serious pressure to respond not only for the Shintech case, but also for the dozens of complaints that have stacked up across the country.
A 1987 United Church of Christ study described the extent of environmental racism and revealed the consequences for the victims of polluted environments:
There are 15 factories in the US that make vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) and ethylene dichloride (EDC), the basic building blocks of PVC, both of which are known carcinogens. Fourteen of these facilities are in Louisiana and Texas, in communities with greater than the national average of people of color. According to a Greenpeace analysis of Census Bureau data from 1990, communities in the same zip codes as the nation's existing EDC/VCM facilities have a 55 percent higher percentage of people of color, a 48 percent higher percentage of people living below the poverty line, a 9 percent lower household income, and a 24 percent lower per-capita income (all relative to the national average). The proposed Shintech facility would only further skew this demographic.
"Cancer Alley" is more than just a soundbite. There is a distinct geographical correlation between high cancer rates and high death rates, relative to the national average, in people who live in counties bordering the lower Mississippi River, especially in the corridor from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, where 136 major chemical factories discharge wastes into the waterway. One Greenpeace study (peer-reviewed and made public) reveals that people who derive their drinking water from the Mississippi River below St. Louis are twice as likely to get colon and rectal cancer as those who don't, for example.
Chemical industries clustering in areas of lower household income and higher non-white populations is not news. But does poverty attract pollution or does pollution breed poverty? It appears that both conditions are intertwined. Common sense suggests that lower-income communities lack the issue- awareness, political voice, and financial muscle to successfully oppose polluting industries and so are attractive targets for expansion. However statistics also show a link between exposure to toxic releases and developmental problems in humans, problems that keep people from achieving, problems that make them unable to take advantage of better opportunities, problems that contribute to the downward spiral of financially oppressed and socially depressed communities. In fact, several recent studies suggest that pollution makes for unhealthy communities as well as unhealthy individuals.
Researchers at Dartmouth College in 1997 suggested that pollution causes people to commit violent crimes -- homicide, aggravated assault, sexual assault and robbery. According to this neurotoxicity hypothesis of violent crime, toxic pollutants (lead and manganese in this study, but dioxin and PCBs also hinder proper neural system development) cause learning disabilities, an increase in aggressive behavior, and loss of control over impulsive behavior. After controlling for all the conventional measures of social deterioration, researchers found that environmental pollution and alcohol uptake (which may have a compounding action because lead diminishes the liver's ability to detoxify alcohol, potentially increasing its effects, while alcohol increases the uptake of toxic metals in animals and probably has similar action in humans) have a strong effect on violent crimes, completely independent of any of the "traditional" predictors of violent crime such as poverty, poor education, etc. They conclude that when our brain chemistry is altered by exposure to toxins, we lose the natural restraint that holds our violent tendencies in check and the community suffers for it.
Additionally, New York's Center for Constitutional Rights is suing Governor Foster, LDEQ and Shintech under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The suit, filed on behalf of Convent residents, contends that permitting the additional pollution will unfairly impact people -- many of them children -- already suffering from respiratory diseases. (There is a certain justice to that legal action: People already afflicted by pollution should get protection from further environmental degradation.) The risk assessment process that determines allowable pollution limits is already under suspicion. Significant doubts exist about whether the assessment adequately protects healthy, robust individuals, let alone children, the elderly and the infirm.
Although corporate polluters complain bitterly that they are being strangled by environmental regulations, in truth, all of the nation's environmental laws taken together impose controls on only about one-half of one percent of the 71,000 chemicals currently in use. In other words, 99.5 percent of the industrial chemicals are entirely unregulated. For the 350 or so that do get some form of scrutiny, studies look at only gross health effects such as cancer. Recent evidence suggests that there are many more subtle kinds of harm that should concern regulators, like reproductive maladies, developmental disorders, chronic illnesses and other sublethal effects on the immune system, the reproductive system, and the nervous system. And it affects more than just those dwellers in Cancer Alley: While industrial discharges of those chemicals are "regulated," all of the 6 trillion pounds of plastics, solvents, glues, dyes and fuels produced annually in the US eventually enters the environment.
As Peter Montague, editor of Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly, points out, "From extraction of raw materials (natural gas and petroleum), through the production of resins (the building blocks from which particular plastics are made -- propylene, phenol, ethylene, polystyrene, and benzene), to the manufacture of end products, use, and final disposal in a dump or incinerator somewhere, plastics are a permanent environmental affliction. Besides the human-health and environmental ills caused by plastics, it seems fitting to reflect on the hidden [military, social and foreign policy] costs of our national addiction to petroleum-based plastics, most of which are unnecessary, and are also more toxic and environmentally destructive than the natural materials they have replaced."
The Shintech opponents feel like they are being railroaded into accepting something that will be a detriment to their community and their lives, without gaining any benefit from it. How many jobs will be available for undereducated local residents, many of whom already suffer health effects from the existing eight factories in the parish? They are not only worried about regulated permitted releases, but accidents and unreported releases above regulatory limits that have been the rule for the chemical industry, especially given LDEQ's lax position on enforcement. Another concern is the claimed relative harmlessness of the chemicals. A recent journalistic investigation exposed an industry-wide cover-up of the toxic effects of PVC. Corporate memos, as incriminating as the infamous tobacco papers, prove collusion among chemical companies to hide health problems discovered in PVC-factory workers. (More on that in the next issue.) Besides the problems with PVC's toxicity, residents have to be concerned with the chemical additives used in the products themselves. Many of the toxic plasticizers, stabilizers and flame retardants -- essential to deliver the characteristics desired in a product made from PVC -- are carcinogenic, and others are linked to immune system damage and endocrine disruption.
There is a history of communities being literally wiped off the map. The Louisiana towns of Reveilletown and Morrisonville both no longer exist because of the vinyl industry. Suits against Georgia Gulf and Dow Chemical brought out-of-court settlements that forced the buy-out and relocation of the residents. No doubt that was a hollow victory for the towns' survivors.
People who are well-off and/or distant and not subject to imminent doom may wonder if we shouldn't just write off these places that are already afflicted. The residents, in addition to being too poor or old or disabled to move, may have a sense of roots and community and belonging that endures. What they have may not be much by average standards, but to them it is worth fighting for.
Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly (formerly Rachel's Hazardous Waste News) offers a free e-mail newsletter. Current & back-issues can be found on-line at http://www.monitor.net/rachel/ and ftp://ftp.std.com/periodicals/rachel/
Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) maintains an internet site at http://www.leanweb.org/ with information on Shintech and other environmental campaigns. One of the links presents quotes and photos of Cancer Alley victims and residents http://www.witnesstothefuture.com/meet/cancer.html
Read about the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic at http://www.law.tulane.edu/studorg/els/TELC.htm
Look up the claims of Greenpeace and the references cited by them at http://www.greenpeaceusa.org