FOR Florence Robinson, the gray smoke rising above the Mississippi River's soft banks has become a political rallying point.
"This is the stuff that is poisoning our communities, especially for the people who live along the river," she says. "As long as this sort of thing continues, we are a community at risk, and I'm just not willing to accept that."
What Ms. Robinson won't accept in particular is the amount of toxic discharge that daily comes from the state's huge petrochemical industry, most of which operates in areas of high minority concentration along the riverside.
"This has been going on for decades," continues Robinson, who is a biology professor at Southern University and an activist with the North Baton Rouge Environmental Association, "and we're not going to change it overnight. But at least we have begun, we've started the fight to make things clean around here again."
Activists are battling a phenomenon both they and scholars say can be easily documented: environmental racism, or the correlation between companies that pollute and the mostly poor, minority neighborhoods in which they do it. The controversy is not new, but activism and the response to it are.
In 1987 a study by the New York Commission of Racial Justice concluded that more than 50 percent of the petrochemical and hazardous-waste companies that operate in the South do so in areas of high minority concentration. This pollution seeps into the surrounding air, water, and ground, posing serious health risks to nearby residents. Pollution a way of life
But, until very recently, pollution has been looked upon as just a way of life by many of the people living near such plants. "It's been a white thing," says Robinson. "Traditionally those of us in the African-American community just haven't even thought about the environment as an issue."
Through a series of demonstrations, conferences, and lobbying efforts here in recent months, activists are trying to make the issue more public, and many believe they are succeeding.
In early March hearings before the House subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, subcommittee chairman Don Edwards (D) of California seemed to pick up on the challenge: Noting that his staff research shows that up to 40 percent of the nation's hazardous-waste landfills are in predominantly minority communities, Mr. Edwards said residents face severe health hazards.
But Pat Bryant, the director of the New Orleans-based Gulf Coast Tenants Organization, sees a silver lining in all of the pungent smoke. With more than 15,000 members from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama politically active in his group, Mr. Bryant says the Deep South is on the verge of a civil rights revival.
"What you're seeing is a growing number of people in these small, poor, minority communities realizing that the environment is just as important to them as the economy," said Warren Flint, director for the center for environmental programs at Xavier University in New Orleans, a predominantly black institution.
"These are people who are no longer afraid to take on the biggest, and perhaps only, employer in their communities."
In Louisiana, such communities often have roots in the state's antebellum era, when hundreds of plantations employed laborers and housed them in shacks near the river. By World War II, petrochemical plants also began appearing near the river's edge. Shift in neighborhoods
"They were great sites for our plants," said Richard Kleiner, director of public affairs for the Louisiana Chemical Association. "And the irony is that in many spots along the river, the plants were there first, then the workers built housing. And the vast majority of the workers then were white."
"Of course by 1990 the racial composition of these neighborhoods had greatly changed. Now they are mostly black," he adds. "But the idea that we intentionally put plants in predominantly black neighborhoods really isn't true."
Whatever the origins of the communities, few deny that they are today hotbeds of industrial pollution. Between here and New Orleans lies a forest of petrochemical plants that for decades have been the state's largest employer, providing nearly 30,000 jobs in a $15 billion industry. More than 240,000 people work in petrochemical-related jobs.
Mr. Kleiner, the industry spokesman, adds that the environmental-racism movement overlooks the positive effects the business has had on minority residents. According to a Louisiana Chemical Association survey last year, more than a quarter of the state's petrochemical industry is composed of minority workers, most of whom bring home paychecks above the $20,000 mark, a high income in Louisiana.
Kleiner also notes that "there has been a big emphasis on minority training, recruiting, and hiring ... We are trying to reach out to the minority community, to those who live near our plants, to find out what their concerns are. I just think we need to talk more and build up some trust."
That trust, however, could prove elusive. A recent industry survey indicated that nearly 55 percent of minority residents here responded negatively when asked if they thought the chemical companies cared about their concerns. Thirty seven percent said they doubted those same companies would work to reduce pollution. Only 26 percent of whites thought the firms would avoid environmental cleanup.
"While it is always good for opposing sides to talk with one another, that's no longer going to be enough," says Wendy Brown, a professor of law at Tulane University. Ms. Brown, who specializes in environmental law, adds that many communities throughout the South have begun to file suits against polluting companies, and some have even prevented companies with spotty pollution records from moving in.
"Environmental racism is something the legal community has been slow in understanding," Brown continues. "Clearly the grass-roots community has been ahead of us on this one."