Day 15 – November 17
Mr. Fontenot (who is an amazing resource on many topics) told us of the history of Baton Rouge and some of its dirtier past. We took a long “scenic” tour of the streets surrounding the Exxon-Mobil refinery located on Scenic Highway in Baton Rouge. It was a perplexing sight to see such a city of pipes and steam; it seemed so foreign that I felt like I was looking at the underbelly of some diabolical machine. After a couple of minutes of driving we found out what type of machine of mass destruction it was, as Willie told us about an accident that the company had on Christmas day in 1990, after which the company bought up the surrounding houses quietly by purchasing them under different names. We drove by vacant lot after vacant lot, the green grass and live oaks in patterns still revealing the past neighborhood. At the end of the road through these giant vacant lots stood one house owned by an elderly woman who refused to sell — the last stand on the battlefield where community fought industry and industry dominated. The house was nothing special and bore no outward sign that it was the last fortress standing up against the giant.
The next thing Mr. Fontenot told us about was one of the many issues in which he helped a community get a voice. Shintech, a chemical plant which produces polyvinyl chloride (PVC) had applied for the appropriate permits to locate a large facility in Convent, LA in St. James Parish, a primarily low income African-American community. This chemical company was invited to move to Convent by the governor at the time, Mike Foster, and the Department of Commerce and Industry. The plant was told by the government that all the permitting would be done and they need not worry. Even though they had no permits, they boldly moved equipment onto the property. This outraged the citizens of Convent who had Willie help them write a letter to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Within three days of the letter being sent over 30 heavy machines were removed from the plot. Ultimately the PVC plant was not located there because of Willie and the community efforts, but was built at their current location in Addis, in Iberville Parish on a much smaller scale.
Willie joined us when we visited the Shintech plant later that day. Shintech sent two representatives to meet us: David Wise, Plant Manager and Dick Mason, Chief Finance Officer. David Wise was very straight-forward with us about the challenges Shintech had faced when trying to site its chemical plant in Convent, due to the community concerns about the carcinogenic effects of vinyl chloride monomer, which is a major component of the PVC that Shintech produces. Then Mr. Wise went on to discuss the company’s new approach to siting a plant. In the case of this plant, they made sure to contact the community, having open discussions where citizens could come and express their concerns and have questions answered. The major concerns of the community were the issues of air emissions and jobs, both of which Shintech addressed. They also committed to hiring local residents, and held training sessions so that they could learn the skills needed for the jobs available. And finally, some of the higher level management team, such as Mr. Wise, actually moved into the community, making community members feel confident that it was a safe place to live. They made sure they opened every route of communication possible before building the Addis Plant in Iberville and ultimately, the community welcomed them.
Shintech is proud to say that it emits less than its permitting amount and has provided jobs to many of the citizens near the Addis plant. After the presentation on Shintech’s unique approach to community involvement, we were taken on a tour of the plant. The plant appeared quite clean, although they do emit tons of vinyl chloride into the air each year. The main theme Shintech wanted us to leave with was that they lived in the community, gave jobs to people in the community, and wouldn’t live there if they didn’t honestly believe that it was safe. I was very impressed that they were as accommodating as they were; Mr. Wise was wonderful about answering all of our questions honestly. I felt we all walked away with an increased respect for the company and an understanding of some of the obstacles they face when looking for a place to locate their facilities.
Our next adventure was to St. Gabriel, a predominantly African-American community which recently incorporated to make sure that they could have more control of industry locating noxious facilities in their town. We met with two community members, Marcy Hardy and Leroy Alfred, who spoke with us about their successful campaign in 1996 to defeat a proposal by Supplemental Fuels, Inc. (SFI). SFI had hoped to build a hazardous waste facility that would blend hazardous waste with fuel to create an alternative fuel — practically right in Marcy’s back yard. She was already very close to a loud tank farm and vehemently opposed the creation of this new hazardous waste facility, which had dressed itself up to look like a green way to deal with hazardous waste. She, along with other community members showed that the ground was poor to build on and that if the waste site leaked there would be no way for the surrounding community to get out. Marcy only found out about the proposed facility 12 days before the permit was to be issued and pulled together news coverage, marches and information about how Supplemental Fuels had lied on their permit. She and the other community members managed to convince the DEQ not to allow the plant there and the plant backed out. A couple of months later people in the community incorporated and in their agreement made zoning laws prohibiting the building of another hazardous waste site in their community.
We were very lucky throughout our day to have Willie with us, who provided constant information on a wealth on topics and guided us through our first day in “Cancer Alley.” To read about environmental justice in class is very different from meeting with people who live with these issues day in and day out, like Mr. Alfred , who is now on a personal oxygen tank. He worked with asbestos for years but cannot make a clear connection between the exposure and his illness. It is people like Mr. Leroy and Mrs. Hardy that we thank for sharing their stories and for fighting for the simple right to clean air, clean water, and to say “not in my back yard, and not in anyone’s back yard.”