The Other Side of the Story: True Protection

by Antha Williams | 10/24/97 5:00am

In his column "EPA: Environmental Justice for the Affluent," in the Tuesday, October 21 issue of The Dartmouth, Adam Siegel '98 argued that environmental injustices were not occurring in Convent, Louisiana. In fact, he argued that "ivory tower" environmentalists from organizations like Greenpeace and the EPA were ignoring citizens' needs in order to satisfy their own political ends. This argument is disturbing for a number of reasons. Primarily, it bothers me that Siegel's article is so disparaging of the EPA for its decision to block Shintech, a Japanese plastics and chemical corporation, from its construction of a new plastics plant in Convent, based on nothing more than a single article that he came across in the Wall Street Journal. Talk about "ivory towers!" What could be more biased against environmental protection and public health than the Wall Street Journal, a corporate journal financially supported and subscribed to by business interests such as Shintech? Fortunately, I am not writing to defend the Clinton Administration and the EPA from the bitter attacks made by exploitative corporations; in fact, I think that both the EPA and the Clinton Administration have done surprisingly little work towards real environmental justice for citizens like those in Convent. Instead, I would like to try to shed some light on what's actually going on in Convent.

The Wall Street Journal article on which Siegel based his argument is fairly infamous among those currently crusading for environmental justice in their communities. The author, Henry Payne, disregards and deliberately distorts the public opinion in Convent for the purposes of his editorial. It was fairly easy for Payne, I suppose, to find and interview only three community members in Convent who actually wanted the Shintech plastics plant to be constructed in their community. In fact, I personally have talked with more members of this community about Shintech (at the recent Grassroots Convention on Environmental Justice in Washington, DC) than Payne has. The citizens that I talked with fought hard for years to keep Shintech out.

The health effects of a plastics plant like the one Shintech proposed are well known: Shintech planned to produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the ingredients of which are known carcinogens. Further, one of the most deadly of all toxic compounds, dioxin, is involved throughout the lifecycle of PVC, from its creation to its destruction. Convent is already located in an area informally known as "Cancer Alley," an area laden with toxic chemicals and the highest concentration of PVC production in the United States. In fact, well over half of all PVC produced in the U.S. comes from "Cancer Alley."

Furthermore, even Shintech admits that their proposed plant would produce 600,000 pounds of airborne pollutants annually. However, according to Payne (and Siegel) everyone in the community was in favor of the construction of the plant. Well, if there was no public outcry and concern over the health effects of the plant in Convent, why did the first community/company meeting regarding the construction last until well after 2 a.m.? I'll tell you why: the citizens had questions--serious ones--that Shintech was unable to answer. Nevertheless, according to Siegel, "black residents of Convent are furious with the EPA" for "stealing" the jobs and money that the plant could bring.

I don't think that's what black residents are furious about. Fourteen of the fifteen groups bringing suits against Shintech to stop the plant are citizens' groups. And if plastics and chemical companies offer the promise of jobs and a better local economy, why do 43% of people living in St. James Parish (the county in which Convent is located) live below the poverty line while there are twelve chemical plants located there?

Possibly one of the most convincing statistics that Payne and Siegel set forth in their arguments is that an NAACP poll showed 73% of black residents to be in favor of Shintech. Don't let this number fool you! When Jesse Jackson traveled to Convent and met with black leaders, his declaration was that the NAACP had been "bought off" by the governor of Louisiana and Shintech. In fact, at least one of the local leaders of the NAACP also occupied a governor-appointed position. Further, when citizens talked among themselves regarding their feelings about the plant, no one was able to actually determine who had been polled by the NAACP. But the NAACP wasn't the only organization that the pro-Shintech governor threatened; he spent the summer trying to publicly intimidate Tulane University for the legal assistance that it was providing to the poor Convent residents.

In light of these facts, it's no wonder that the Wall Street Journal refused to print a rebuttal to Payne's article written by Lois Gibbs. Maybe Henry Payne (a cartoonist by profession) knows more about environmental justice than Lois Gibbs, the leader of the citizens' struggle to be relocated from Love Canal, the Niagara Falls suburb that was, in her words, "stewing in 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals" dumped there by the chemical industry and the United States government. Gibbs now heads the Citizens' Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes in Washington, DC and works with citizens like those in Convent to fight for their health and safety. But what does her word matter against that of Henry Payne? Apparently not at all. Further, an additional rebuttal was written by Pat Melancon, a resident and community leader in Convent, LA, who took offense at the belittling of the citizens' efforts to protect the health of their children, and the careless misrepresentation of the situation in Convent. It seems to me that it's the Wall Street Journal, not the EPA, who is uninterested in what citizens have to say.

Finally, I'd like to comment on Siegel's criticism of the Clinton Administration and EPA's anti-CFC's stance. Apparently, for Siegel, prevention of the very chemicals that give many black inner-city children asthma in the first place is unimportant. Particulates spewing from chemical companies, overwhelmingly located in poor black communities, are known to cause and intensify the symptoms of asthma. However, the vital issue, according to Siegel, is not regulating or preventing these chemical companies from poisoning children in the first place, it's maintaining low-cost and environmentally unsound inhalers to later treat their symptoms.

The lesson to be learned here is that in order to avoid further confusion and misunderstanding of the environmental inequities that exist in this country, it is vital to look at all sides of the story and not believe every bit of false information that is tossed to the public by those riding the pro-industry bandwagon.