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Toxic Gumbo

In the "Cancer Belt," Louisiana Black Communities
Fight Industrial Polluters

By Ron Nixon
Special to

A string of lights illuminate the night sky over the rural, 100-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana. During the day, these lights give way to clouds of smoke that rise from the giant mechanical structures that dot the area's landscape. The structures belong to 138 companies that comprise a virtually who's who of the petrochemical industry: Texaco, Borden, Occidental Chemical, Kaiser Aluminum, Chevron, IMC-Agrico, Dow, Dupont to name a few.

State and local officials call this progress. The petrochemical industry, they say, contributes billions of dollars and jobs to the state and local economies. Residents who live in the areas nearby the industry call it another name: "Cancer Alley." For them, the area's industry has yielded few jobs, destroyed the natural environment and brought a host of illnesses they attribute to emissions from the plants. Residents say the area is but one more example of what they call environmental racism—the targeting of communities of color for undesirable facilities.

A number of studies suggest that such claims are not unfounded. Nationally, a 1987 study by the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice found Blacks were four times were more likely to live in areas with toxic and hazardous waste sites than Whites. A 1992 investigation by the National Law Journal found that when government does enforce environmental regulation and fine companies, fines are much higher in White communities than in Black ones. In Louisiana, reports by the US Commission on Civil Rights and an unreleased report by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region Six, have raised concerns about the location of chemical plants and their possible impact on the health of their neighbors, who are primarily people of color.

These reports, and a host of activities by environmental justice groups nationwide, prompted President Clinton in 1993 to sign an executive order directing federal agencies to examine policies for disproportionate impact on people of color. As part of these efforts, the Clinton Administration set up the Office of Environmental Justice at the EPA. Locally, the state of Louisiana passed it's own piece of legislation on environmental racism. Yet, here in the chemical corridor, such legislation means little. In Louisiana, the chemical industry is king. What these companies want, they usually get.

Yet, there is one small town where residents hope to break this trend.

Convent is a small, sleepy town that lies at the center of Cancer Alley. The town is divided by the Mississippi River. A number of modest homes, small churches and a few stores exist alongside run-down mobile homes and other dilapidated structures where people continue to reside.

Like the rest of Cancer Alley, Convent has its share of industry. Along River Road, the narrow two-lane highway that runs in and out of town, IMC-Agrico towers over the humble surroundings. A nauseating smell emanates from the plant at all times. A giant grain elevator owned by the Japanese company, protrudes into the heavens spewing dust on the earth below. Some say the dust destroys the paint on their homes and cars. Along the river, ships and barges transporting products and raw materials for these industries flow back and forth.

According to the EPA's latest toxic release inventory, over 23 million pounds of toxins were released over Convent. The majority of these releases were in two zip codes, both majority Black. It's here that Shintech, a Japanese company, hoped to build the nation's largest Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) production plant. If built, the plant would have added 600,000 pounds of air pollution. The company hopes to start building on 2,400 acres of land from three former sugar cane plantations -- plantations where Blacks once toiled as slaves. The symbolism is not lost on Jerome Ringo, a former petrochemical worker who's helping to organize local citizens here to stop the building of the plant. "The descendants of the people who worked the sugar cane plantations still live here," Ringo said. "Just like on the plantations they're locked in. The people can't leave and the industries won't leave."

Clifford Roberts, 71, was born and raised in Convent. Except for a stint in the Marine Corps and a few jobs elsewhere, he has spent most of his life here. He had hoped to retire and live peacefully in the house he bought more than 30 years ago but the encroachment of the petrochemical and other industries has him fighting. Roberts and his wife Gloria, a retired school teacher, have been working to organize local people to stop the siting of Shintech. As part of a group of black and white residents calling themselves St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment, Roberts and others have gathered more than 1,000 signatures on petitions and got more than 300 people to the initial public hearing on Shintech's local permits.

Not an easy task in an area where a significant part of the population is impoverished and nearly 47 percent are without a high school education. Organizing is made harder by the fact that people are desperate for jobs, any jobs. After the initial public hearing, Roberts says the numbers of people willing to attend meetings have dropped. "Most people are afraid to come forward," he said. "Many are looking for jobs or they might have a relative who works for the parish and they're scared that person will be fired if they say something."

Pat Melancon, president of the St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment says people are simply overwhelmed. "Whatever we do, Shintech and its people match everything we do," she says. " If we take out an ad in the local papers, they take out a full page ad. People tend to get discouraged when faced with these kinds of odds."

Melancon points to the initial public hearing for Shintech's local permits as an example. At that hearing she says the state and local officials stacked the deck. Most of the people who were called to testify early were representatives of Shintech flown in for the occasion, local officials who support the company and representatives from the state chemical industry " who simply overwhelmed people with technical jargon." The first citizens who opposed the plant didn't get to speak until 11:00 pm, she said. "Most people had gone home by then. They couldn't afford to stay."

Like most people here, what worries Roberts and Malancon most, is the health impact of Shintech locating in Convent. The company's property abuts two small Black neighborhoods on both sides. Three schools, where the majority of students are Black, and a public housing facility are nearest to the plant's property. While state and local officials have denied chemical exposure as a cause of illness, nearly everyone in these communities can name someone who has or has died of cancer—conditions they blame on toxic chemicals. They fear that the Shintech plant will add to health problems that people in Convent already have. "A lot of people have cancer and illness like influenza," said Robert who recently lost a brother to colon cancer. "We know it's the chemicals that are causing this illness no matter what they say."

Of particular concern is the production of Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) at the proposed Shintech facility. PVC is commonly used in a number of products including pipes, wire and cable coating, credits and packaging materials. It's a product necessary in every day life, PVC manufacturers like to boast. But the production of PVC can be dangerous. The main ingredient in PVC is vinyl chloride, a colorless vapor with a mild, sweet order. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, data shows that vinyl chloride can cause cancer and a host of other medical problems. Not an enticing prospect for the numerous people here who say they already suffer from a variety of cancers. More recent studies indicate that PVC might also cause illness other than cancer. Many scientist now suspect that vinyl chloride may cause reproductive problems such as low sperm counts and infertility. "They're just adding stuff on top of other chemicals," says Elmenda West, an elderly Black woman who lives just down the road from where the Shintech plant would be located. "Shintech needs to go home. We don't need any more chemical plants here. We've got enough."

David Wise, a project manager for Shintech, is quick to point out that the company was asked to come to Convent. The company, he says, has established a good relationship with local citizens. He blames much of the opposition on environmental groups and people who live miles from where the plant would be built. It's hard to confirm the existence of broad support for the plant among residents here where more than 1,000 signed petitions opposing the plant. There is little doubt, however, that the company has support where it counts: local and state elected officials, a high-powered PR firm, and a medical report downplaying environmental causes of cancer.

  • The parish president of St. James, Dale Hymal, has been solidly behind plans to build the plant—some say to the point of lobbying for the company while ignoring residents' concerns. On April 9, 1996, before Shintech had even submitted its formal application for permits, Hymal wrote the company offering the commitment and support of his office to secure a new plant site.

  • The parish director of operations, Jody Chenier, sent a secret fax listing members of the local coastal zoning committee and planning committee to Shintech attorneys. The purpose of this fax was unknown but the committees' membership was shown broken down by race and occupation. Background comments on each member were included. For one Black member on the coastal zone committee Chenier wrote, " Very quiet, non-controversial."

  • A few weeks later, about 400 people received an unsigned letter directing them to write the Department of Economic Development supporting Shintech. The letter portrayed opposition to the plant as a "negative few" and from "radical national environmental" groups. The writer suggested residents who received it "copy this letter and share it with friends." The letter was eventually traced back to the Parish president's office through the letters' postage meter stamp. The 400 people who received the letter were people on a job waiting list.

    "The history of this letter is very disturbing," said Mary Lee Orr of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN). LEAN, a state-wide group has filed an ethics complaint against the Parish president's office with the State Ethics Commission on behalf of the St. James citizens. "It is hard to believe that taxpayers money can be used to support a particular position in the permitting process. How can a parish president's office use taxpayer's money to directly tell citizens to write letters of support for Shintech to the assistant secretary of DEA while [the] local, state and federal permitting process were ongoing?"

  • Shintech recently contributed $5,000 to the reelection campaign of Mike Foster, governor of Louisiana. Harris, Deville and Associates, a Baton Rouge public relations firm hired by the company contributed another $5,000. The firm also provided more than $2,000 in in-kind contributions.

Harris, Deville and Associates have widely distributed a study by researchers at Louisiana State University that dismisses the existence of a cancer alley. The cancers that do occur in the area, according to the study's authors, are attributable to poor diet and smoking. But [epidemiologists] reviewing the study question its findings.

First, they say, the report combined small parishes like St. James which had the effect of masking any excess cancers that might be occurring in smaller towns like Convent. "These analyses have little sensitivity to the research questions about cancer excess which might be associated with environmental contamination in communities along the Mississippi," wrote David Richardson, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina School (UNC) of Public Health. "While the focus might have been on communities along the river, in these analyses the 'river parishes' are combined with Baton Rouge which must dominate it statistically."

Dr. Ted Schettler, a Boston physician and author of "Generations at Risk: How Environmental Toxins May Be Affecting Reproductive Health in Massachusetts," agrees. "If there were cancer clusters within these geographical regions common, they would probably be missed by this coarse analysis." Schettler suggests that to find excess cancers it might be more useful to use smaller units of analysis—like census tracts. Another problem, says Steve Wing, an epidemiologist at UNC is that the study focuses only on cancer. Exposure to PVC, Wing says, has been shown to cause other types of disease. While it is difficult to prove a direct link between chemical releases and cancers, other researchers have shown that the chemical corridor does have higher rates of cancers. Furthermore, these studies show that not all cancers can be attributed to smoking or lifestyle.

Dr. Marise Gottlieb of the Tulane University Medical School showed that those who get their water from the Mississippi River have as much as a 2.1 times greater chance of contracting rectal cancer as those who do not get their water from the river. Cancer rates were highest in or downstream from the Chemical Corridor. Further research by Gottlieb showed that residents who live within one mile of the petrochemical facilities have 4.5 times greater chance of getting lung cancer than those who live further away. Findings by Dr. Pelayo Corryea support Gottlieb's conclusions. Dr. Corryea found that persons living within two miles of a chemical plant had a 60 percent higher lung cancer risk than those who do not. Corryea's findings were adjusted for smoking habits.

Jobs. That how state and local officials explain their support for the Shintech facility. The plant is supposed to provide 165 permanent jobs to local residents. Plus, a Shintech spokesman says, company data shows the plant will provide millions of dollars in revenue to the local economy. But Shintech is receiving more than it will give says Dan Mills, research director of the Louisiana Citizens for Tax Justice. Mills points out, like most industries that seek to locate in Louisiana, Shintech got the standard industrial package: A 10- year property tax exemption which saves the company $94.5 million over the next ten years. The state has also designated the area where the plant plans to build as an enterprise zone.

Enterprise zones (EZ) are created in economically depressed areas to help alleviate poverty. The zone provides for the rebate of sales and use taxes during construction. Shintech's rebate added up to $35 million. Shintech would get a corporate income tax credit of $2,500 for each new job created. For the 165 jobs they will create the company will get $412,500. The total savings to the plant, $129.9 million. Over the same period, St. James Parish as a whole will get $18 million in public monies—and the Black communities nearest the plant, more pollution.

In an area where nearly half of residents are without a high school education, it's doubtful that the plant's would-be neighbors will benefit from Shintech's much-touted, $40,000-a-year jobs. As Pat Malancon points out, industrial packages haven't brought much in the way of economic development to the town:

"In my life, I've seen five petrochemical companies come into Convent. I have seen [local] business close down and the area become more depressed as these industries have come in. We haven't seen any economic development. We've seen the opposite."

A study by Paul Templet, former head of the Department of Environmental Quality, confirms this. The study found that for all the incentives given to industry, the companies provide more pollution than jobs. Templet's findings suggest that while Shintech will contribute to the parish's tax base and provide some jobs, these benefits will be negated by the added stress on the local infrastructure and the environment.

But many say such tradeoffs aren't unusual for southern states like Louisiana. While the use of incentives to attract industry is widespread, no region does it quite like the South. In his study, "The Selling of the South," James Cobb found that the region's economic policies mirrors that of most Third World countries. "Foreign investors appreciate not only the South's cheap labor and low taxes but also its apparent ability to absorb industries that produce large amounts of waste and contaminants," Cobb wrote.

According to the Green Index, an annual report that rates states on their environmental health conditions, 9 of the17 states with the highest per capita amount of toxic pollution, 9 of the 12 states producing the most hazardous waste, and 108 of the 179 facilities that pose the greatest risk of cancer are in the South.

"In the South, everything is for sale," says Bob Hall, the report's author. For Hall and other critics of the South's industrial policies, "everything" includes cheap land, cheap resources and cheap, cheap lives—especially Black lives. A recent Louisiana state ad in the Wall Street Journal seems to bolster this argument. The ad features the headline, "What has Louisiana done for business lately?" over a man in a suit bent over backwards. Advertising copy below touts the state passage of tort reform legislation, low taxes and low wages along with current governor Mike Foster's background as a businessman.

Willie Fontenot, who runs the Citizens Access Unit at the State Attorney General's Office, says that many members of state and local government see helping industry as an important part of their job. "Most elected officials don't see a conflict between community concerns and business," says Fontenot.

Many residents see the battle to change that view as part of their people's historical struggle for human dignity and a better quality of life. It was more than a century ago, emancipated slaves came to the coast of the Mississippi River to escape the harsh reality of slavery. Here they built homes, schools and houses of worship. It is here, too, they hoped to secure economic and social independence from their former masters. Today, residents say, they are fighting to secure emancipation of another kind.

The experiences of black communities in Convent are not unique. It is one of many areas in the Gulf Region fighting the expansion of plants like Shintech which have spread like cancer along the Mississippi River. There have been more than 14 expansions of PVC plants in the past few years. Most take place in low income, national minority communities in the South. Many of these companies have polluted the air and fouled the water while promising economic benefits that never materialize. In addition, these companies use their enormous economic and political clout to buy science, politicians and public relations firms to counter activities of communities and groups struggling for the most basic of rights—clean air and clean water.

The EPA Region 6 Office in Dallas, Texas decided to delay the issuance of Shintech's air permit until the Louisiania DEQ address the environmental justice concerns raised in a citizens' petition. "We brought to EPA's attention the discriminatory impact of locating Shintech's polyvinyl chloride (PVC) complex in the predominantly African American poor community of Convent," said Monique Harden, Greenpeace Toxic Campaigner who coauthored the petition with the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic.

The petition also challenges the air permit because it failed to meet the Clean Air Act standards for minimizing accidental chemical releases. In a letter to the DEQ, the EPA wrote, "The petitioners raised concerns that merit your attention prior to permit issuance." EPA also plans to visit Convent to meet with residents and look at health and environmental problems. Citizens welcome this scrutiny.

Gloria Roberts, a local resident said, "The EPA realizes that environmental justice is important to protecting the health and environment of our community."]

For the communities, it's about survival. In the end, Convent could go the way of their neighbors down the Mississippi River—towns like Sunrise, Reveilletown, Morrisonville which no longer exist. Contaminated and bought out by Dow, Georgia Gulf, Placid Oil and other companies, these communities were once safe havens for ex-slaves. Now they are toxic ghost towns. Years ago, Louisiana officials struck a Faustian deal with the chemical industry. Today, black residents are paying the price with their health, their communities—their very history. A former resident of Morrisville summed up the experience:

"They moved outwards slowly… They weren't always this close. But before you realize it, they were building right outside your door… Suddenly, every blade of grass is important to me. My husband planted those pine trees in the yard. You have to live another lifetime to get all this back."

Due to extensive community opposition, Shintech was forced to pull out of Convent completely. The company decided to scale down its plans and build a smaller plant in Plaquemine, Louisiana just south of Baton Rouge.

For more information on the Shintech campaign, please contact Damu Smith at Greenpeace at

-- April 9, 2001

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