Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#615 - Environmental Justice In Louisiana, 09-Sep-1998

Alongside the Mississippi River in southern Louisiana, a tiny,
predominantly African-American community called Convent (population
2052) is locked in struggle with a giant Japanese chemical corporation
called Shintech. In 1996, Shintech announced plans to spend $700
million building 3 chemical factories and an incinerator next to homes
and schools in Convent, but the local people are just saying No. Each
year, the Shintech plant in Convent would produce 1.1 billion pounds of
polyvinyl chloride (PVC, better known as vinyl). Shintech officials
acknowledge that their "state of the art" plant would be permitted to
emit 611,700 pounds of toxic air contaminants each year, many of them
known to be potent carcinogens. That's almost 300 pounds of industrial
poisons for each man, woman and child in Convent each year. The people
of Convent see Shintech's plan as a continuation of years of race,
class and environmental injustice --more disadvantaged people being
dumped on by the chemical industry. The chemical industry sees it as a
continuation of past triumphs.

What began as a local struggle to stop Shintech in Louisiana has grown
into a national and international debate over (a) the power of civil
rights laws to stop polluting industries from locating in communities
of color, and (b) the need for a phase-out of PVC.

Under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, residents of
Convent have filed a complaint with U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA), charging that their civil rights were violated by the
Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality's [LDEQ] 1997 decision to
issue air permits to Shintech. EPA's regulations under Title VI
prohibit racial discrimination either as an intent or consequence of
state environmental agency actions. The civil rights law gives EPA the
authority to intervene in state permitting decisions. Living with over
16 million pounds of toxic air releases every year from ten surrounding
industries, Convent residents make a very strong case that the state of
Louisiana has been guilty of environmental racism for years.[1]

Convent is located in St. James Parish, in the heart of "Cancer Alley,"
the 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and
New Orleans where there are presently over 140 petrochemical and other
industrial plants. (In Louisiana, counties are called parishes.)
Convent is over 80% African-American, and 40% of its 2052 residents
live at or below poverty level.[2] According to EPA's ongoing Title VI
investigation, Shintech would expose the African-American population in
St. James Parish to anywhere from 71% to 242% more airborne industrial
poisons than the white population.[3] In 1995, 10 facilities within 4.5
miles of the two elementary schools in Convent emitted over 16 million
pounds of toxic air pollutants, an average of 250,000 pounds of
industrial poisons per square mile; the national average is 382 pounds
per square mile.[4] A recent study examining cancer deaths in St. James
Parish found an excess mortality of 41% for whites and 59% for African-
Americans for the years 1979-1992.[5]

Four years before Shintech announced its plans for Convent, the
Louisiana State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil
Rights issued a report on environmental racism in Louisiana. The
Committee concluded that, "many black communities located along the
industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans are
disproportionately impacted by the present State and local government
system for permitting and expansion of hazardous waste and chemical
facilities.... In spite of the disproportionate impact upon certain
communities, the State and local governments have failed to establish
regulations or safeguards to ensure such communities are reasonably
protected from a high concentration of hazardous waste and industrial
facilities and risk associated with living in and around such

During more than two years of battle, Convent area residents have been
steadfast in their opposition to Shintech. Some residents say they
oppose Shintech because they want a healthy future for their children
and grandchildren. Others base their opposition on the environmental
degradation of their community that has already occurred as a result of
massive industrial development.

Under the banner cry "Enough is enough!" residents have joined together
to form St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment.[7] Reaching
out to a diverse coalition of supporters, residents have gained the
help of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference (SCLC, founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), EPA's
National Environmental Advisory Committee (NEJAC), and all of the
members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus. Residents are united in
their opposition to Shintech and their unity crosses racial lines. As
one newspaper reported, "Had the Romeville Elementary School [where a
Shintech permit hearing was held in January] been a boat it would have
capsized. One side was filled with Shintech opponents, the other side a
small group of Shintech supporters."[8]

In March of this year, EPA issued its INTERIM GUIDANCE FOR
pollution permits.[9] EPA's GUIDANCE document was intended to help
EPA's Office of Civil Rights process a backlog of citizens' complaints
that allege discrimination resulting from the issuance of environmental
permits. As of August, 58 Title VI complaints had been filed with EPA.
EPA has acknowledged that the Shintech case is shaping its Title VI

A corporate backlash has developed against EPA's Title VI initiative,
led by the National Association of Manufacturers. The Environmental
Council of States (an association of state environmental agencies), the
U.S. Conference of Mayors, and a number of corporate-funded think tanks
such as the Washington Legal Foundation have been vocal in criticizing
the emerging Title VI guidance or calling for its elimination.

Corporate critics charge that EPA's efforts to enforce the civil rights
law will derail other federal programs, such as brownfields, which is
EPA's plan to find new uses for Superfund dump sites in rundown urban
areas. The Congressional Black Caucus says there is no conflict between
Title VI and brownfields. They say the brownfields program requires
meaningful community participation. A well-run brownfields project
would not violate the civil rights of people of color because they
would be involved in the program's design and implementation, the
Caucus says. Nor would citizens object to a project if they saw that it
provided jobs without threatening their health or environment. As
Congressman William Jefferson (D-LA) put it, "dirty industries are not
the only option for revitalizing poor communities."[11] None of the 58
Title VI complaints filed with EPA has involved a brownfields project.

EPA was expected to issue a decision on the Shintech civil rights case
this summer. However, in June, EPA asked its Science Advisory Board
(SAB) to review its techniques for assessing disproportionate "burden."
The SAB review has delayed further action. EPA's assessment of
disproportionate "burden" combines 1990 census data and industry-
reported air emissions estimates. Unfortunately, EPA has never
independently assessed the quality of the industry-reported emissions
data. An initial response from the SAB is expected in October. By
deferring to its Science Advisory Board, EPA evidently hopes to appear
scientific in its reasoning, not political. However, EPA has played
politics in numerous attempts to offer residents lower emission levels
from surrounding industries in exchange for the construction and
operation of Shintech's chemical behemoth.[12] Residents have
consistently refused such offers, demanding that area industries should
be reducing overall emissions even if Shintech is sent packing.

Lawyers describe the Shintech case as a BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION for
the environmental justice movement. (BROWN VS. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF
TOPEKA was the federal lawsuit that ended the official policy of
apartheid in U.S. schools, in 1954.) The ultimate decision by EPA or
the courts will answer the $700 million question: can environmental
regulators say "no" to Shintech in defense of an African-American
community already enduring significantly elevated levels of industrial
poisons in the air?

The failure by Louisiana state government to protect the environment of
communities of color, as reported by the state Advisory Committee to
the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, has turned ugly. Louisiana
authorities and corporations have launched --there is no other word for
it --VICIOUS attacks against Convent residents and their supporters.
Louisiana Governor Mike Foster first claimed the community favored the
Shintech proposal. When that failed, Foster brutally maligned the
Tulane Environmental Law Clinic for providing legal assistance to
Convent residents and threatened to revoke Tulane University's tax
exempt status. Foster's threats, multiplied by contributions from
allied corporations, led the Louisiana Supreme Court in June to set
draconian new rules that prohibit the Clinic from ever again
representing a client group like the St. James Citizens for Jobs and
the Environment --a stunning setback for any group that needs an
attorney and can't afford one. The Foster administration has also
investigated and threatened to take away the non-profit tax status of
organizations that have opposed Shintech at public hearings (such as
Louisiana Environmental Action Network [LEAN], Louisiana Communities
United, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and others).
Governor Foster has pledged to devote the resources of his entire
administration to locating the Shintech PVC plant in Convent. As the
Governor explained to a New Orleans newspaper columnist, the Louisiana
Department of Environmental Quality's (LDEQ) job is "to go out and make
it as easy as they can within the law" for Shintech to get their

Shintech Vice President of Manufacturing Erv Shroeder says, "Shintech's
siting decision has been based upon its assessment of basic economic
factors such as availability of raw materials, direct access to deep
water and access to rail transportation. At no point during the site
selection process did Shintech consider the racial composition or
income-earning composition of the surrounding residents."[14] But that
is exactly the point. The people of Convent, just like many other
communities that face the same kind of malign neglect, are tired of
being treated as invisible by transnational corporations that are blind
to everything except the local resources they can exploit. They say,
"Enough is Enough!"

[To be continued next week.]

--by Charlie Cray and Monique Harden*


* Charlie Cray is with the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign
[charlie.cray@green2.greenpeace.org] and Monique Harden is an attorney
with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund [400 Magazine St., Ste. 401, New
Orleans, LA 70130]. Telephone (504) 522-1394; E-mail:

[1] 1995 EPA Toxics Release Inventory.

[2] Maxine Waters and 37 other Congressional Representatives' letter to
Carol Browner, Administrator, US EPA, July 16, 1998.

[3] U.S. EPA, "Draft Revised Demographic Information Re:
LDEQ/Shintech" (April 1998).

[4] 1995 EPA Toxics Release Inventory.

Orleans: Xavier University Deep South Center for Environmental

[6] Louisiana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil

[7] Contact: St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment, P.O. Box
331, Convent, LA 70723.

[8] Mike Dunne, "Foes cite pollution, injustice," BATON ROUGE SUNDAY
ADVOCATE, January 25, 1998, pg. 1b, 2b.

for purchase from EPA; see www.neis.com/justice.htm.

[10] Ann E. Goode, Director, Office of Civil Rights, U.S. EPA,
Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of
the Committee on Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, August 6,

[11] Joan McKinney, "Jefferson joins fight opposing Shintech," THE
[BATON ROUGE] ADVOCATE, July 17, 1998, page A1.

[12] Ann E. Goode, U.S. EPA Office of Civil Rights, Letter to J. Dale
Givens, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and
others, June 19, 1998.

[13] Lolis Eric Elie, "A call from the governor," NEW ORLEANS TIMES-
PICAYUNE, September 4, 1998.

[14] Shintech News Release, March 28, 1997.

Descriptor terms: shintech; pvc; plastics; chlorine; dioxin; citizen
groups; la; convent; lean; charlie cray; monique harden; air pollution;
vinyl; civil rights; civil rights act of 1964; epa; sab; african-