CONVENT, LA. — Here, where the Mississippi creeps its last few miles before emptying into the sea, petrochemical plants have grown like Spanish moss along the mighty river's muddy banks.
To some residents, the idea of adding yet another plant to the 16 already standing in St. James Parish is an unjust imposition on a poor, mostly black community with few means of fighting back. But to others in the area, the prospect of $45,000 jobs coming to town can only be a good thing.
The proposal to build a $700 million plastics plant here in the heart of the chemical corridor has set off a battle between these contrasting views that will resonate from Baton Rouge to Washington. The decision on whether to go ahead with the proposal or stop it will be the first since President Clinton ordered each federal agency in 1994 to make achieving "environmental justice" a part of its mission.
The issue of environmental justice is a relatively new one in the US. It holds that minority communities and poor people should not be disproportionately burdened with polluting industries. With this in mind, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to rule next month on whether it is racially discriminatory for the Shintech plastics company to construct its new chemical plant in sugarcane fields near the predominantly African-American community of Convent.
"This is a test case," says Lois Gibbs, founder of the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice. "It sets a real strong precedent around the country. What happens here is going to affect [other sites in] Newark, N.J., Indiana, Ohio."
The debate has attracted the attention of industry advocates, environmentalists, and civil-rights organizations across the country. Indeed, Greenpeace and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have attacked the proposal, while Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster (R) has charged opponents with meddling in a much-needed development project.
Here in St. James Parish, a Louisiana equivalent of a county, the general sentiment is hard to gauge, and opinions run as deep and wide as the Mississippi. But one local NAACP poll, denounced by opponents of the plant as inaccurate, indicates that as many as 70 percent of St. James residents favor Shintech's proposal.
Still, many here are fighting the plant. "My main concern has always been the grave threat it poses to the health and safety ... of this community," says Pat Melancon, president of St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment, which filed lawsuits against Shintech with the help of Tulane University's Environmental Law Clinic in New Orleans. "It's like planting a bomb in a residential community and hoping it never goes off."
Ms. Melancon's group successfully petitioned EPA to overturn the plant's original permits, which were issued by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality in May. The EPA cited technical reasons, not racial ones, in its decision, but Administrator Carol Browner said that environmental justice must also be considered.
St. James resident Carol Gaudin, who is black, scoffs at the idea that the proposal has anything to do with racism and says she doesn't think Shintech would be any worse than the other 16 chemical plants already lining the river banks in St. James.
"The only kinds of industry we have coming into the area are chemical and oil industries," says Ms. Gaudin, who heads a pro-plant group partially financed by Shintech. "A majority of people in the community would like to have the plant come, provided there's a benefit to the community."
Benefits to the community
Shintech, a subsidiary of Japanese chemical giant Shin-Etsu, promises 165 full-time jobs and 90 contract positions, plus 1,800 temporary jobs during construction. In an agreement securing the support of the local NAACP, the company pledged $500,000 toward job training and small-business development.
Plant manager Richard Mason could not be reached for comment, but he has said that Shintech chose the site for its access to the river, railway lines, and raw materials such as natural gas and salt. The company denies that race is a factor in the location.
Lisa Lavie, an attorney with the Tulane University law clinic, says that environmental racism can be more subtle than that. Historically, industries locate in poor, minority areas, she says. More than 80 percent of the residents in a four-mile radius of the proposed plant are black. "It's a reality, that's who's being affected."
Yet some area residents look forward to the prospect of high-paying plant jobs. Unemployment in Convent hovers above 60 percent, while the parish has 12 percent unemployment and the state 6 percent. "If we're going to have children and expect them to stay here when they grow up, there have to be jobs," says John Braud Jr., a retired engineering professor and a resident of neighboring Ascension Parish. "I have 10 kids, nine of whom live in the river parishes and have good industrial jobs."
Who will get the jobs?
Others worry the jobs will go to outsiders with more education and training. Emelda West says her family has never been able to secure a high-paying plant position. "What makes people believe Shintech is going to be any different?"
But Nannette Jolivette, a former member of the Tulane law clinic who is now representing plant supporters, says it's unfair to assume that local people can't educate themselves and get better jobs. "Their position is, 'Give me an opportunity to move up, and maybe I'll move out, but right now I can't go anywhere,' " she says.
Poor people, she adds, don't have the luxury of being anti-industry. "Their poverty will kill them long before the possibility of some [pollution-related illness]. That's a hard reality the environmental groups don't understand."