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October 20, 1998

US vs. THEM

by Woody Justice

If you have followed the Shintech story (see Harbinger 9/8/98 & 9/22/98) you know that public opposition in Convent, Louisiana, forced a multinational to change its expansion plans. The polyvinyl chloride (PVC) manufacturer decided to build a smaller facility next to an existing Dow Chemical factory in Plaquemine, near Baton Rouge. It may sound like a magnanimous gesture by a company just concerned with being accommodating and harmonious. It's meant to. However, the reversal came only after a two- year fight by a local community group assisted by non-profit legal and organizational help, with state agencies and the judiciary and the governor's office all firmly backing the corporation.

In what is supposed to be a win-win compromise, the new facility will only generate 30 percent of the air emissions planned for Convent, using Dow-produced feedstock delivered by pipeline. The governor's office is unhappy because the reduced investment "will have dramatically less impact on Louisiana's economy." (So, like many other Southern states, more pollution equals more money and that's a good thing.) Tulane's Environmental Law Clinic probably will not be able to assist any opposition group in that community since the state Supreme Court adopted new rules last July that limit free legal help. Greenpeace vowed to fight the new plan, calling it a "face-saving move for an obsolete and dirty industry." The company hopes to avoid an "environmental justice" showdown since the racial make-up of Plaquemine is more balanced between blacks and whites. Residents there already endure a toxic-burden similar to that of St. James Parish and, because Dow has agreed to reduce its air emissions by an amount equivalent to the new factory's output, they are asking why Dow isn't limiting pollutants already if they have that capability.

The company also made clear that its previous permit application for Convent hasn't been withdrawn, just suspended contingent on a final decision on the Plaquemine site.

So, is it racial, or is it in fact a poverty issue and blacks generally suffer more from poverty and its side effects, like industrial "parks" filled with chemical "plants." One reason that polluting companies are attracted to already-afflicted areas is easily deduced: When a polluter moves in, those who are financially able to flee will seek out cleaner air and quieter surroundings; a greater percentage of the remaining population is lower on the economic ladder; property values plummet; factory sites become more affordable, attracting more industries; and the cycle continues. What's more, permitting is easier: the level of effective opposition in a poor community can be expected to be far less than that of a neighborhood with better-educated residents with more financial resources.

Desperation is also a factor. With few attractive jobs available, "well-paying" becomes a relative term. If some people can secure employment with above-average wages and benefits (which need not be lavish in a below-average community), then they provide a pro-industry support base. Offensive industries prefer hard-up areas where the perception is that one job in ten is reason enough to keep quiet, not make waves, give the company free reign. As environmental consultant Barry Castleman explains, "Acceptable risk, crudely put, is the risk a worker will take for his family when threatened with losing his job by a plant closing in mid-January as the alternative."

Another potential justification is protective coloration, similar to a hunter in camouflage. Toxic industries band together in places like Cancer Alley because it will be impossible, or nearly so, to prove which polluter is at fault when future complaints are pressed. Too cynical? Consider this: Some 6,200 workers died in on-the-job accidents last year. Depending on the reference, that figure can be seen as "good" or "bad" - one can compare that to the vastly larger number of total workers or to the increase or decrease from previous years. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) attempts to reduce that number to zero through mandated workplace regulations, enforcement of them and fines for noncompliance. (One of the many effective "Big Government" programs.)

So Dupont, for example, (or Dow, or Degussa) reduces short-term profits by investing in safety programs that are intended to completely eliminate accidental deaths, a goal of "zero." There are many reasons for a business to spend money toward that end - aside from OSHA penalties. A company has training and job-knowledge investments in its skilled workforce, costs that are only recouped in longevity. Unsafe workplaces have higher accident-insurance rates, are less-attractive to the non-desperate job- applicant, enjoy less-favorable community perception, and of course accidental deaths can bring lengthy and expensive court battles on the part of the decedent's survivors. In short, a death on the job can only be pinned on the company, but hundreds of deaths in a community inundated with toxic pollutants from multiple sources have no clear origin.

At the same time that they protect their workers on the job, some of these firms allow emissions of toxic chemicals that guarantee 1 cancer-death per 100,000 people - is that also their goal? They boast of meeting EPA mandates for toxic releases - brushing off the argument of zero-discharge. Adherence to the regulatory "limits" defeats any public opposition to an increase in local pollution levels, and cumulative totals are not even considered. They complain of additional environmental regulations that cut into profits, that unnecessarily restrict business practices on the off chance that someone's life may be saved - yet for under-the-table business deals, companies like Dow are willing to take extra measures to further reduce pollutants.

Their strongest weapon is the art of statistical manipulation known as risk assessment, from which federal and state acceptable limits for protection of the public and environmental health are drawn. Our best weapon (besides community organizing) is the Toxics Release Inventory mandated by the Community Right-To-Know Act. (More on these in upcoming articles.)

Why is Mobile County (and Alabama) so stricken with polluting companies and apparently powerless to slow their proliferation? Last year citizens of Pascagoula effectively shutout a planned hazardous waste treatment facility (see Harbinger 1/7/97 "Mississippi Spurning" & 11/11/97 "Laidlaw Pulls Out"). Community activists along with business professionals and Sierra Club members organized more than 1,000 people to attend public meetings. In Convent, St. James Parish Citizens for Jobs and the Environment gladly accepted help from such radical entities as Louisiana Environmental Action Network and Greenpeace. They knew they had to yell to be heard.

In both of these cases, the opposition groups were fighting against industries heavily backed by their states' administrative and legislative resources - not just the chambers of commerce, but the governors. Neither Mississippi's nor Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality is a champion of the people any more than is the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Our problem lies with the official state and local paradigm that all development is good and all regulation bad. This doesn't mean that we have to lie down and forget any hope of healthy communities in which our children can raise their children. It does mean that the few activists out there need to cultivate environmental awareness and civic responsibility in the average citizen, to build a base of public input that will help steer local decisions.

Whether it is fact or merely perception, Baywatch (formerly West Bay Watch) has an appearance of being an elitist club of NIMBY doctors and lawyers. To beat the further incursions of chemical conglomerates, the members should put on their white-rubber shrimp boots and talk to the cane-pole fishermen, the blue-collar workers and the fruit-stand farmers. And stop being so darned polite to their opponents. The battles are being won in the trenches, not the boardrooms or country clubs.


"Kings will be tyrants from policy, when subjects are rebels from principle."

--Edmund Burke


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