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Mossville, Louisiana: environmental racism in “cancer alley”, United States


Description:

"Gather current and former Mossville residents (in Louisiana's "cancer alley") in a room and you're likely to hear a litany of health problems and a list of friends and relatives who died young". (3). In 2014, an article in Mother Jones (2) explained that in 1790, a freed slave named Jim Moss found a place to settle down on a bend in the Houston River in the bayous of southwest Louisiana. Although never formally incorporated, the village of Mossville became one of the first settlements of free blacks in the South. But over the last half century, Mossville was surrounded. More than a dozen industrial plants now encircle the community of 500 residents, making it quite possibly the most polluted corner of the most polluted region in one of the most polluted states in the United States. In 2014 a proposal to build the largest chemical plant of its kind in the Western Hemisphere would all but wipe Mossville off the map. The project, spearheaded by the South African chemical giant SASOL, would cost as much as $21 billion. (2). There were already 14 industrial facilities around Mossville, a small community. In 2015 , Christian representatives, using the language of "environmental justice", reported that a "new chemical plant is being built in the small African-American town of Mossville in southwest Louisiana, raising significant concerns about health, safety, and environmental impact. The plant’s owner has offered to pay Mossville residents to move out of their homes and sell their churches. The company says it is being generous, but some longtime residents and religious leaders feel they are being forced out. “The church is the hub of the community, as far as relationships and as far as love and caring for one another,” said the chairman of the deacon board at Mount Zion Baptist Church, Mossville’s oldest house of worship."

A 1998 EPA study had found chemical toxins in the hamlet’s air 100 times higher than the national standard. Another study found that 84 percent of residents had some sort of central nervous system disorder. Its residents at one point appealed to an international court, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, on the grounds that the continued pollution of the neighborhood constituted environmental racism. (2). 

Indeed, in 2010,  the IACHR had agreed to review this case of contamination in Mossville involving allegations of environmental racism. (1). The IACHR heard a complaint filed by the New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights(AEHR) on behalf of the people of Mossville, La. An autonomous body of the Organization of American States, the IACHR along with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights comprise the inter-American system for promoting and protecting human rights.

The review would consider whether the U.S. government has violated the predominantly African-American community’s residents’ human rights to life, health, equality, freedom from racial discrimination, and “privacy as it relates to the inviolability of the home” by allowing numerous industrial facilities to locate there and emit millions of pounds of highly toxic chemicals every year. “I am grateful that the Commission decided to take our human rights case,” said petitioner Dorothy Felix, who served as the volunteer vice president of Mossville Environmental Action Now, MEAN).  “We believe that environmental protection should not be based on the color of our skin.”(1). 

Located near Lake Charles in southwestern Louisiana’s Calcasieu Parish, the unincorporated rural community of Mossville is surrounded by 14 industrial facilities that each year spew more than 4 million pounds of highly toxic chemicals to the environment. The pollution includes known carcinogens including dioxin, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, solvents like xylene and toluene, and heavy metals such as lead and mercury. Mossville was featured in the 2002 documentary film “Blue Vinyl,” which explores the negative health impacts of polyvinyl chloride production. The area has the largest concentration of vinyl plastic manufacturers in the U.S., as well as a coal-fired power plant, oil refineries and chemical production facilities.

Serious health impacts from the pollution have been documented among Mossville residents by the University of Texas at Galveston Medical Branch and the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. A 2007 study showed that the types of dioxin compounds found in the blood of Mossville residents are the same types emitted by the industrial facilities. Dioxins are among the most toxic chemicals known to science.(1). 

In the late 1990s, Mossville area residents began collecting air samples that revealed violations of state standards for pollutants including vinyl chloride and benzene. The EPA confirmed violations, fining some facilities. The effort spread to communities throughout Louisiana’s so-called “Cancer Alley” and led to the formation of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a grassroots pollution monitoring project. (2). 

The petition to IACHR from Mossville residents alleged that the U.S. government and local political subdivisions ignored their obligation to protect human rights by allowing all of these polluting industries to build and operate near Mossville.

In its response, the U.S. government asserted that the IACHR “does not have authority to request that the United States adopt precautionary measures” to prevent communities from being treated like Mossville because such an action is based on commission rules that were not formally approved by the individual countries that belong to the OAS. (1). However, “Our government is a member of the OAS and has also ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which create clear obligations to protect our human right to freedom from racial discrimination whether it is intentional or the result of a policy or action,” said attorney Nathalie Walker, AEHR’s co-director. “However, these obligations are rarely acknowledged by our government, much less upheld.”

Monique Harden, AEHR’s other co-director, noted that Mossville is one of a number of communities of color across the U.S. that are disproportionately burdened with toxic pollution as a result of government decisions.

“The good news is that a judicial review by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights can open the door to ending the pattern of environmental racism by introducing a human rights framework for environmental protection,” she said.

The issue of environmental injustice in the U.S. South had been in the spotlight many times. In October 2009,  Environmental Justice leaders representing more than a dozen polluted communities from six Southern states met with Environmental Protection Agency leaders and asked them to take action to better protect the health of the region’s low-income communities and communities of color. That meeting came after environmental justice leaders urged the EPA to address historic problems in its Region 4 office covering eight states in the Deep South, with its legacy of racism and unequal environmental protection.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Mossville, Louisiana: environmental racism in “cancer alley”, United States
Country:United States of America
State or province:Louisiana
Location of conflict:Mossville, near Lake Charles
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Chemical industries
Thermal power plants
Oil and gas refining
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Vinyl chloride
Coal
Electricity
Chemical products
Natural Gas

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Mossville is located in Louisiana's "cancer alley". The industrial boom began in and around Mossville during World War II. Vinyl chloride makers, refineries, a coal-fired energy plant and chemical plants now operate in what was once rural country, rich in agriculture, fishing and hunting. Companies located in the area (Georgia Gulf, Conoco Phillips, Entergy, PPG Industries, and Sasol) have reported releasing dioxins, a cancer-causing, highly toxic group of chemicals, according to EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory. (5). The health and well being of Mossville residents has been harmed with elevated rates of disease. Studiesby the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found alarming results — residents had more than three times the national average of dioxins in their blood, elevated dioxins in breast milk, and high cancer mortality rates A university study found Mossville residents were two to three times more likely to suffer from health problems, including a high incidence of ear, nose, and throat illnesses, central nervous system disturbances, and cardiovascular problems, as well as increased skin, digestive, immune, and endocrine disorders.(5). Ever determined to reclaim their lives, Mossville residents have fought back against the polluters and had real results, including winning relocation for many families due to a 1994 Condea Vista spill of one million pounds of ethylene dichloride that caused well water contamination.

Robert Bullard, author of "Dumping in Dixie," says it's no surprise industry chose Mossvillle, an unincorporated community founded by African Americans in the 1790s.(3). "What happens is zoning becomes very political, and what happens is people with power, with lawyers and elected officials who can fight for them and make decisions for them, oftentimes will get things placed away from them and placed in locations where other people live".(3). Deprived of power, Bullard says, African-Americans have borne the brunt of living near industry, landfills and hazardous facilities. (3). Another voice denouncing the fact is that of Wilma Subra (a chemist), who says: "The people of Mossville are like an experiment. They know that they have high levels of dioxin in their blood...". (3).

Project area:1200
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:1000
Start of the conflict:2010
Company names or state enterprises:Georgia Gulf from United States of America
Sasol from South Africa
Condea Vista from United States of America
Relevant government actors:EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)
International and Finance InstitutionsInter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR (or CIDH))
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:MEAN (Mossville Environmental Action Now)
Advocates for Environmental Human Rights(AEHR) (New Orleans)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Neighbours/citizens/communities
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Environmental Justice activists in the United States
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Oil spills, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Potential: Fires, Global warming
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts, Deaths
Other Health impactsDioxin. Pollution from vinyl chloride production. High cancer rates.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Other socio-economic impactsA well-known case of "environmental racism".

Outcome

Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Court decision (undecided)
Migration/displacement
Under negotiation
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Development of alternatives:"We have tried every way to protect our community using environmental and civil rights laws, but the government has set it up so that we can’t get justice. Because we are fighting for our human rights to live and see our children grow up in a healthy environment, we need a major change in our government that stops the environmental destruction of Mossville and other communities of color. U.S. laws allow environmental racism, but human rights law prohibits this injustice.”
–Delma Bennett, Mossville resident (MEAN webpage)".
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:There have been glimmers of hope (through the IACHR in 2010, later through EPA interventions), but injustice continues to the bitter end of Mossville as a place.

Sources & Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

INFORME ANUAL DE LA COMISIÓN INTERAMERICANA DE DERECHOS HUMANOS 2010
http://www.cidh.oas.org/pdf%20files/ANUAL2010.pdf

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

(5) Environmental Justice & the PVC Chemical Industry. Center for Health, Environment and Justice. (2009). Focuses on PVC pollution.
http://www.chej.org/pvcfactsheets/Environmental_Justice_and_the_PVC_Chemical_Industry.html

Wilma Subra, Industrial Sources of Dioxin Poisoning in Mossville, Louisiana: A Report Based on the Government’s Own Data (2007).
https://www.loe.org/images/content/100423/mossville.pdf

R. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. WESTVIEW PRESS. Boulder , Colorado.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS IN COMMUNITIES ADJACENT TO PVC PRODUCTION FACILITIES by Wilma Subra (Inventory of PVC releases in the USA, including in the Mossvile area).
http://www.pvcinformation.org/assets/pdf/Wilma_Subra_report_on_PVC_fenceline_communities.pdf

Merrill Singer, Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut. Down Cancer Alley: The Lived Experience of Health and Environmental Suffering in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor. [The article specifically engag

es the argument made by Auyero and

Swistun (2009), based on groundbreaking ethnographic research in an Argentine shantytown named Flammable ].
(PDF Download Available). Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51564478_Down_Cancer_Alley_The_Lived_Experience_of_Health_and_Environmental_Suffering_in_Louisiana%27s_Chemical_Corridor [accessed Mar 24 2018].

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Proceso, Mexico, caso de racismo ambiental, Mossville, Louisiana, USA (un "palenque" de Estados Unidos). Por La Redacción , 25 abril, 2010
http://hemeroteca.proceso.com.mx/?p=107812

(2) Mother Jones. A Massive Chemical Plant Is Poised to Wipe This Louisiana Town off the Map. SASOL’s proposed facility may spell the end for a 224-year-old community founded by freed slaves. Tim Murphy. Mar. 27, 2014
https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/03/sasol-mossville-louisiana/

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

(4) Environmental Justice in Mossville. August 28, 2015. Religion & Ethics.
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2015/08/28/august-28-2015-environmental-justice-mossville/26861/

(3) Toxic towns: People of Mossville 'are like an experiment'

By David S. Martin, CNN Medical Senior Producer. February 26, 2010
http://edition.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/02/26/toxic.town.mossville.epa/index.html

(1) Sue Sturgis, GRIST, Louisiana environmental racism case gets hearing from Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Apr 2, 2010.
https://grist.org/article/louisiana-environmental-racism-case-gets-hearing-from-inter-american-commis/

Other comments:The situation in 2018 appears to be as bad as it was in 2010, when the case was to be heard at the IACHR.

Meta information

Last update18/08/2019

Images

 

Source: A Mossville resident protested ongoing contamination in 2007. Mossville Environmental Action Now