In September 1998, the environmental justice movement in the US had a very important victory against a major corporation, Shintech, a subsidiary of Shin-etsu Chemical of Japan. Under intense pressure from local, national, and international groups, Shintech decided not to build a highly polluting plant in Convent, Louisiana. But, in a move that concerned citizens worldwide should heed, Shintech decided to locate its factory in a nearby community, close to Convent, the original proposed community. We cannot organize against TNC's such as Shin-etsu Chemical with a Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) principle, but rather a Not In Anybody's Back Yard principle.
In 1996, Shintech, a subsidiary of the Japanese firm, Shin-Etsu Chemical, announced plans to spend $700 million building 3 chemical factories and an incinerator next to homes and schools in Convent, Louisiana, a small community (population 2052) in southern Louisiana, USA.
Each year, the Shintech plant in Convent would produce 1.1 billion pounds of polyvinyl chloride (PVC, better known as vinyl). Shintech officials acknowledge that their "state of the art" plant would be permitted to emit 611,700 pounds of toxic air contaminants each year, adding tons of cancer-causing toxic chemicals (including dioxin) to an area that is already heavily polluted. That's almost 300 pounds of industrial poisons for each man, woman and child in Convent each year. This area is known locally as "Cancer Alley" because of the high rates of cancer among residents there.
The production of vinyl chloride and PVC at large facilities such as the one proposed by Shintech threatened the local environment with air pollution (including emissions from an on-site incinerator), groundwater contamination and the spread of dioxin, the most toxic chemical ever synthesized.
The people of Convent saw Shintech's plan as a continuation of years of race, class and environmental injustice --more disadvantaged people being dumped on by the chemical industry. The chemical industry sees it as a continuation of past triumphs.
The site where Shintech wanted to build is just hundreds of yards from the nearby African-American community of Romeville. Convent is 82% African American and 40% of the residents live at or below the poverty line. The area in Convent nearest to the proposed construction site is 95% African American. The facility would be located 1.5 miles from an elementary school whose student population is 98% African-American.
Environmental racism is racial discrimination in environmental policy making and the enforcement of environmental laws. When environmental racism occurs, people of color are excluded from participating in important environmental policy decisions impacting their lives and communities, and become victims of disproportionate exposure to environmental contamination. The mostly African American and poor community of Convent is a victim of policies of environmental racism. The attempt to add Shintech to the town's existing polluters in close proximity to the black community reflects a pattern of environmental racism practiced in the area and the entire Cancer Alley region.
Already, two communities that once lived along the Mississippi (and were established before the chemical industry arrived) have been destroyed by the vinyl chloride industry. People living in Reveilletown (which once sat next to the Georgia Gulf plant in Plaquemine) and Morrissonville (next to Dow in Plaquemine) were forced to sell their houses and relocate because of groundwater contamination and the dangerous proximity of the plants. The destruction of these communities is just one example of the blatant arrogance of the vinyl industry.
A Threat To Us All
Not only does the Shintech facility threaten the people and local environment in St. James Parish, but the massive chemical complex would produce PVC -- and threaten the health of people globally. PVC products and the chemicals used to create them are linked to cancers, reproductive disorders and impaired mental development. Key among these chemicals is dioxin.
Dioxin is a group of chemicals known to cause a range of effects at exquisitely small levels of exposure. There is no safe level of dioxin. Because we all already carry a dangerously high level of dioxin in our bodies, no new sources of dioxin should be acceptable.
No vinyl chloride manufacturer can run their process -- no matter how "state of the art" they claim it is -- without making dioxin. No vinyl chloride manufacturer can guarantee that their products won't cause more dioxin to form when their products are burned in accidental fires or incinerators. The only way to prevent the spread of more dioxin is thus to stop the spread of this poisonous plastic. This means putting a moratorium on dioxin factories like the proposed Shintech facility.
Other Hazards Posed by Shintech
There are other problems posed by Shintech and plants like it. These include:
Massive energy requirements. Most of these are met by burning fossil fuels, which contributes to the global burden of greenhouse gases which are tied to global warming.
Accidental spills, leaks and explosions Local people cannot be guaranteed protection from these events, which occur regularly at VCM plants.
High rates of worker-related illnesses, including liver and other types of cancer.
The production of huge quantities of other toxic chemicals, including PCBs, Hexachlorobenzene, Hexachlorobutadiene and a stew of other carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Many of these chemicals build up in the environment, threatening the local commercial fishing industry. Some, such
as PCBs, have been found in dolphins and fish that have washed ashore from the Gulf of Mexico in recent years.
Some of the chemicals released to the air are also ozone- depleting chemicals. Thus the PVC industry is also contributing to the growing destruction of the protective ozone layer.
Not only do VCM plants cause environmental and other kinds of damage, but they can also be disruptive to local and regional economies, because they employ few people while receiving huge tax and energy subsidies.
Shintech was expected to receive almost $130 million in subsidies, including:
A ten-year industrial property tax exemption valued at $94.5 million.
Enterprise zone status, which provides for the rebate of sales and use taxes during construction, valued at $35 million.
A corporate income tax credit of $2,500 for each new job created. Shintech would get a credit of $412,500 for the estimated 165 permanent jobs it says it will create.
All of this corporate welfare comes at the expense of Louisiana taxpayers, who must pick up the tab in order to keep their roads (which will bear increased traffic, some of it dangerous) and schools in shape. Very few of the jobs created by this plant will go to local residents, because of the technical training required.
Because Shintech's proposed PVC plant was viewed as a particularly hazardous facility, which will contribute to the already heavy toxic burden of the Convent area, and will be located within a poor and mostly African American community, string opposition has developed to the project.
In addition to mobilization of national opposition to Shintech by a variety of groups, including entertainers, elected officials, and civil rights organizations, the campaign to oppose Shintech used three laws to challenge Shintech's proposed facility.
Convent residents and 16 environmental and public interest organizations, filed a citizens' petition under Title V of the Clean Air Act that demanded an objection to air permits proposed for Shintech by the state of Louisiana.
They filed a petition with EPA that claimed that Convent is a community that has the protection of the President's Executive Order of 1994 on Environmental Justice.
Tulane University Law Clinic filed a Title VI complaint on behalf of African American residents under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars racial discrimination by entities receiving federal funds. The complaint says that a permit issued to Shintech would be racially discriminatory under Title VI.
While all these legal battles were taking place, in September, 1999, Shintech announced that it not continue with plans to build a vinyl factory in Convent, Louisiana, and would locate a slightly different plant in the nearby community of Plaquemine, Louisiana. The announcement was a major victory for environmental justice, and the efforts to mobilize public opposition to Shintech's PVC facility paid off. The battle, however, now moves to Plaquemine, because the manufacture of PVC is a highly dangerous process to humankind. The Shintech case became the most watched and important civil rights case ever involving charges of environmental racism.
Mrs. Imelda West, and Pat Melancon, leaders of St. James Citizens For Jobs and the Environment said, "This fight is far from over. We are being cautious about the details of this announcement and want to make clear that we will work with the people of Plaquemine to stop Shintech."
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