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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Shintech: Proposed Plastics Plant Looks Elsewhere

Air Date: Week of October 2, 1998

In the face of protests and complaints of environmental racism, the Shintech Corporation of Japan has announced it won't build a plastics plant in Convent, Louisiana. The company says it will try its luck in another Louisiana town, Plaquemine, about 40 miles away. Shintech wanted to locate its new polyvinyl chloride plant in Convent, a low-income community which houses ten other chemical plants already. The town is 80 percent African- American. Production of polyvinyl chloride releases dioxin, a deadly toxin. Colin Crawford is an environmental law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. While he calls the Shintech decision a victory for environmental justice, he says it's not the end of the story.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the face of protests and complaints of environmental racism, the Shintech Corporation of Japan has announced it won't build a plastics plant in Convent, Louisiana. The company says it will try its luck in another Louisiana town, Plaquemine, about 40 miles away. Shintech wanted to locate its new polyvinyl chloride plant in Convent, a low-income community with 10 other chemical plants already. The town is 80% African-American. Production of polyvinyl chloride releases dioxin, a deadly toxin. Colin Crawford is an environmental law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. While he calls the Shintech decision a victory for environmental justice, he says it's not the end of the story.

CRAWFORD: The larger question remains unaddressed, and that is what kinds of jobs and education are we going to provide to these communities in the long run, so that they won't be facing yet another Shintech and another heavily-polluting industry in their midst?

CURWOOD: What happened in the case of Shintech? Why did this Japanese firm decide to back out right now?

CRAWFORD: Certainly it had a lot to do with the fact that there was all of this public mobilization at the community level, and that that was picked up nationally. But I think that there are probably other things going on. The PVC market now has slowed down considerably in recent months. There's great overcapacity in the market, and there are indications as well that the Asian economic crisis has slowed up the ability of foreign buyers to purchase American PVC products. So, I think that the story, as is usually the case in these environmental justice battles, is a little more complicated than just local community victory.

CURWOOD: You're not a fan of Shintech. You've characterized their behavior in the past as industrial predation. What do you mean by that?

CRAWFORD: It's hard to escape the conclusion that they've chosen a community in a poor and very disadvantaged neighborhood because it is easier to site there than it is to site elsewhere. And despite assurances to the contrary, the evidence does not suggest that these companies come in and hire large numbers of local residents at higher-paying levels, but instead come in and give a few lower-paying jobs to local residents. And so, in other words, it's just not clear that the net economic benefits are as powerful as a company would like to suggest.

CURWOOD: Shintech is now planning to build a smaller plant, what, about 40 miles upriver from Convent outside of Baton Rouge. It's in the town of Plaquemine. You've looked into the demographics there in Plaquemine. What did you find?

CRAWFORD: The demographics in Plaquemine, it is true, it's a more affluent community than was Convent, Louisiana. It is also less heavily African-American. But it is still much more African-American and much poorer than the majority of communities in this nation. And so that begs the question in environmental justice, you know, at what level are we going to look at this? Are we going to look at this in terms of its relation to other places nationally? Are we just going to look at it in Louisiana? So it may be that we're only seeing a sort of high-stakes game of 3-card Monty, and that they're just hiding the ball for a while. So I think it's really important to continue to be vigilant and watch what this company is doing down there.

CURWOOD: Professor Crawford, when we last talked you said one of the problems with environmental justice cases is a lack of clear precedents to work from. That there really aren't standards that the EPA has for making rulings. So, do we have one now? I mean, what kind of precedent has this case set for future environmental justice cases?

CRAWFORD: Well, Steve, I think it sets a precedent in two respects. First, it puts corporations on notice that they have to deal with local communities, even if those communities are poorer and less well educated than other communities. And that's a very important precedent, and we even see that in Shintech's behavior in this last week, because Shintech is now going to the new community in Plaquemine, and they're holding a series of public forums to discuss the project, and that is all to the good. So that's a very important precedent. At a legal level, the precedent is interesting for another reason. This action was taken in part because of new interim EPA regulations interpreting Title VI. Title VI is the Federal law that governs the administration of Federal funds. And if there is determined to be any disparate impact with respect to race or ethnicity, then there will be a violation of Title VI. And so, there is a very important precedent here in saying that Title VI involves questions of environmental justice. And it will be interesting to see what happens with that.

CURWOOD: Colin Crawford is an environmental law professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. He spoke to us from member station KPBS. Thanks for joining us.

CRAWFORD: Thank you very much, Steve.

 

 

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