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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Obama Administration Divided Over Cancer Alley Case

Air Date: Week of July 29, 2011

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Mossville Louisiana sits in the shadow of 14 petrochemical refineries. When residents felt the US Government wasn’t protecting their right to a healthy environment, they reached past the American regulators, legislators and courts to take their case to the highest human rights court in the western hemisphere. Now candid approval from the highest U.S. environmental regulator appears to have boosted their petition. Living on Earth and Planet Harmony’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Mass, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Mossville, Louisiana is one of the most polluted places in the nation. More than a dozen industrial plants spew millions of pounds of toxic chemicals a year into the environment. When the federal government failed to act, residents of Mossville sued the U.S. for not protecting their environmental human rights. Last year, the community – mostly African American – caught a break when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made the historic decision to hear their case. Now, Mossville residents may have caught another legal break, as Living on Earth and Planet Harmony’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports.


View of the Georgia Gulf facility from the home of a Mossville resident. Houses within a one-mile radius have been abandoned or bought out. (Courtesy of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Six years ago Christine Bennett made her first trip to her nation’s capital to file a human rights complaint against her government.

BENNETT: Being here in Washington DC, going to make a petition is one thing. But it’s whether or not we’re going to be heard is the most important thing. Will somebody do something about it or are we just wasting our time?

SRISKANDARAJAH: Bennett and her neighbors have been waiting a long time. The story of their rights not being protected goes back generations. Emancipated slaves settled the bayous of Mossville, Louisiana. They had land, but no voting rights to protect it. After World War 2, plastics companies found little resistance to building factories in these disenfranchised black neighborhoods. Fourteen of those petrochemical plants ring the town today.

BENNETT: I’m living where my grandparents lived and I am one of the fourth generations. But now the place that was once so beautiful and so clean is now a dump.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Each year the air is loaded with four million pounds of carcinogens, earning this place the nickname “Cancer Alley.” Government researchers have measured three times the national average of dioxin in the bodies of Mossville residents. They argue that there are no environmental justice laws on our books to protect America’s most vulnerable communities. So that’s the case they took to the Inter-American Commission, a last line of defense for human rights in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. Government fought this arguing that the U.S. has plenty of environmental laws that protect its citizens. But last year, in an interview with Living on Earth, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, seemed to agree with the people of Mossville.

JACKSON: I think the Mossville case is a really interesting one because what the petitioners argue as I understand it is in order to get heard is that they basically had to make the case that the laws of this country do not provide them an opportunity for redress. And it is true that at this point there are no environmental justice laws; there’s nothing on the books that gives us the ability to do it.


The Conoco Phillips oil refinery is one of several facilities that release pollution including dioxins in Mossville. (Courtesy of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights)

SRISKANDARAJAH: It was what the community of Mossville had been waiting to hear: A high-ranking Government official agreeing with the main argument in their case. Administrator Jackson is the first African American EPA head and she’s from Louisiana. Since she took the job, she has made environmental justice a priority of her agency. But even apparent support from Administrator Jackson didn’t put the human rights petition in the clear.

HARDEN: I think no one in Mossville operates under the assumption that everything will be great without struggle because that hasn’t been their experience.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s Monique Harden. She’s the lawyer for the people of Mossville and has been making the case that they have to go outside of the U.S. to resolve their human rights abuses. The State Department argues back that the citizens can still appeal within the American legal system. To Harden, Administrator Jackson’s comment seemed to bolster the Mossville case.

BENNETT: Her statement was just very positive and very affirming and so when we read a few months later the brief that was filed by the U.S. government countering that, we felt that, well, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing here because we’ve got the person in charge of environmental protection of the United States agreeing with the Mossville human rights petition and we’ve got others within the U.S. government saying, it isn’t so.


Many Mossville residents have left their homes due to the pollution. (Courtesy of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Harden included Jackson’s statement in briefs she filed to the Commission last March, but the government hasn’t responded. The EPA and the State Department both declined to talk to Living on Earth as well. So we asked someone who advises on environmental human rights cases what this means. Barbara Johnston is a Senior Research Fellow for the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, California. She says the government’s silence speaks volumes.

JOHNSTON: I think there’s a minor war occurring (laughs) with all sorts of skirmishes over where our priorities are, whether we are actually going to actually demonstrate that we are indeed a nation that has great and huge concern of environmental justice, especially in cases of demonstrated environmental racism versus our economic liability. Because if the U.S. comes out with a petition that acknowledges its liability in this particular case, there is a very, very, very, very long list of injured parties out there.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Which would make environmental justice a very, very, very expensive proposition. But environmental human rights lawyer Monique Harden says it may be expensive but that would be the cost of living in a society that values all citizens and neighborhoods equally.

HARDEN: What so often happens, in communities that are struggling for environmental justice, is that they’re in dialogue mode but there’s no remedy. And a favorable decision by the Commission would create a different paradigm for what governmental regulation of the environment should look like.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In the meantime, the Mossville case has already opened an avenue for Americans to resolve environmental human rights abuse. A Navajo group fighting a uranium mine in New Mexico, has just filed their own human rights petition to the Inter-American Commission. And they cite the Mossville case as supporting their claim. For Living on Earth and Planet Harmony, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.

GELLERMAN: And be sure to check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. It pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at myplanetharmony.com.

 

Links

Read the US Government’s argument before the Commission

The Mossville rebuttal

 

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