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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Justice in St. James Parish

Air Date: Week of

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has revoked key permits for a new plastic factory proposed for this largely African American section of Louisiana. The agency is responding to complaints of environmental racism in this community which is already home to 10 chemical plants. Law Professor Colon Crawford joins Laura for an analysis of the decision.


KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy sitting in for Steve Curwood.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has issued a ruling in a high-profile environmental justice case. EPA Administrator Carol Browner revoked the permits needed for a proposed plastics plant to operate in St. James Parish, Louisiana, a mostly African-American community. The proposed factory would be one of the largest polyvinyl chloride facilities in the country. Polyvinyl chloride production releases dioxin, a chemical that's been linked to cancer and reproductive disorders. Meanwhile, the state of Louisiana says it will reconsider whether the Japanese-owned Shintech company should be allowed to build the plant in the community. St. James Parish is already home to 10 chemical factories, and opponents of the Shintech plant argued that adding another plant would increase risks to human health. Joining us from San Diego is Colin Crawford, a professor at Thomas Jefferson Law School, and author of Uproar at Dancing Rabbit Creek: Battling Over Race, Class, and the Environment. It's the story of another small Southern town, Knoxubee, Mississippi, and that community's fight against a chemical waste dump. Professor Crawford, what do you make of EPA's decision to revoke the Shintech permit to build a plant in St. James Parish?

CRAWFORD: Well, what's striking to me here is that Carol Browner, the EPA Administrator, came out and issued this decision in such a public, high-profile case, and came forward and said that EPA was really going to take this question of environmental justice very seriously in an area of the country that's long been accused of being the most heavily polluted area with a very high concentration of African-American residents.

KNOY: What factors, Professor Crawford, is the EPA supposed to consider when it looks at an environmental justice case?

CRAWFORD: Well, that's the real problem, Laura. There aren't any particular factors that they are required to look to in citing these things. That is, although in citing, for example, a plastics plant, it's necessary to look at all potential sources of air pollution and water pollution and to do soil borings and testings and geological surveys to see what the potential environmental impact would be. And even to check and see if it's near a historic preservation site or a school. It's not necessary to say, well, is this going to have a disproportionate effect on an African-American or a Latino community, communities that are already carrying more than their share of this kind of activity in their midst? And that's really the problem. There's no legislative direction from Washington for EPA to do that.

KNOY: Does the EPA also consider the fact that some residents may want the plant because it could bring jobs to the area?

CRAWFORD: Well, you see, this is really one of the most interesting features of this and related cases. And I don't think it's glib to suggest that we're really seeing playing out the long-term consequences of slavery and Reconstruction and what that has done to these very poor, largely African- American communities in the South. And I say that because these are communities now that are completely run-down, that have very few opportunities for job development. The poverty rates in St. James Parish, I think, run upwards of 45%. You know, the prospect of if it's only even 5 or 10 jobs, really is a very powerful incentive. And so, it was really no surprise to me that the local NAACP in St. James Parish came out in favor of this project. That is the exact same thing that happened in Knoxubee County, Mississippi, when they were faced with getting one of the country's largest hazardous waste dumps.

KNOY: So what do people like you, who are making environmental justice claims in cases like St. James Parish, do about that? How do you say to someone, "No, I don't think you should have these jobs"?

CRAWFORD: Well, you know, I dignify those concerns for jobs, and I take them very seriously. And I think it's terribly important, then, to insist that politicians and economic interests in the states not only face these communities with prospects like chemical plants and petroleum processing facilities, but something more. Some sorts of job training programs, which will help alleviate the long-term consequences of the degradation and the absence of opportunity in these communities.

KNOY: Based on your experiences, what do you think might happen next in the St. James Parish case?

CRAWFORD: Although I applaud Administrator Browner for her recent decision to put these permits on hold, I think unfortunately recent experience has shown that EPA will now sit on the permits for a number of years. It was very interesting in Administrator Browner's letter, however, that she was clearly trying to pass the baton back to the state government and state regulators in Louisiana, to urge them to try and find some solutions. And if in fact that happened, if locally in Louisiana they started to draft some regulations, laws that would take some of these environmental justice concerns into account, that would be a very positive development.

KNOY: Well, Professor Crawford, thanks for your time.

CRAWFORD: Thank you very much.

KNOY: Colin Crawford is an environmental law professor and author of Uproar at Dancing Rabbit Creek: Battling Over Race, Class, and the Environment.



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