The Magazine


Aug 3, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 45 • By HENRY PAYNE
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EPA critics contend that "environmental justice" regulations are a narrow reading of economic development. "The EPA is missing a fundamental concept," says Harding of Michigan. "A siting decision is always a series of tradeoffs. The EPA's rule does not acknowledge the economic benefits a facility brings."

In Louisiana, one company has come up against the EPA obstacle. The Shintech Corporation wants to build a $ 700 million polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics facility in Romeville, a poor community within a state-designated enterprise zone near Baton Rouge. The plant would provide the area with 2,000 jobs during construction and 255 permanent jobs. Shintech has promised job training and employment initiatives, the product of discussions with a local citizens' group and the state's Department of Environmental Quality. "Blacks are supposed to play their roles as victims," says Nanette Jolivette, a lawyer for the citizens' group. "But this community did not play that role."

Because 82 percent of residents within a four-mile radius of the plant are black, however, opponents have filed a complaint under the EPA's new Title VI policy, arguing that the plant's location is racist. Representing these opponents is Greenpeace, which has an ulterior motive -- it seeks an international ban on PVC production. Though the plant easily meets federal emissions requirements, it is unlikely to stand up under EPA Title VI scrutiny.

"What more do we have to do to get a plant approved?" sighs David Wise, project engineer for Shintech's plant, who says the company chose the Romeville site mainly for its access to raw materials and transportation. Wise notes that Shintech already has a big PVC plant in predominantly white Freeport, Texas -- which belongs to one of the wealthiest counties in the state. He echoes states' concerns that the EPA's policy ignores sound, peer-reviewed science.

In a comprehensive review of "environmental justice" studies, Stephen Huebner of Washington University finds no evidence that minorities suffer a disproportionate exposure to pollution. Where disparities do exist, Huebner writes, "the dynamics of the housing market provide a plausible explanation."

Even the EPA's own studies -- which the agency declines to make public -- reportedly find no link between pollution and race. In documents uncovered by Detroit News reporter David Mastio, two EPA studies of Superfund sites show that whites are more likely than blacks to live around polluted sites. The House Commerce Committee is investigating whether the EPA withheld these studies from Congress because their conclusions did not support agency policy.

If the EPA rules against Shintech, it will not be the first industry killed in Louisiana this year by the Clinton administration's "environmental justice." Last April, a consortium of utilities pulled the plug on an $ 855 million nuclear-fuel-enrichment facility in rural Claiborne Parish, near the state's Arkansas border. Like Shintech, the enrichment plant was sited in a state-designated enterprise zone, had broad public support, and had received all of its state safety and emissions permits.

But the plant's location, miles from population centers, did not shield it from charges of "environmental racism." A small group of local opponents -- backed by anti-nuclear activists from Greenpeace and Earth Justice -- cited the 250 homes, most of them occupied by black families, scattered near the plant as evidence that the plant's location was racially motivated. "The EPA has designed environmental justice for outside interest groups with their own agendas," says Janice Dickerson of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. "The EPA has locked communities out of the process."

The result is a growing feeling of disenfranchisement among local leaders, who fear that the Washington-imposed policy will negate their ability to address local problems. As Loy Weaver, a Claiborne Parish banker, says of "environmental justice" rules that have cost his community coveted manufacturing jobs, "Had we been able to bring this to a local vote, we would have gotten this plant. We were not given that opportunity because of the federal regulatory process."

Protests like that have been heard on Capitol Hill. The House will soon vote on an amendment to an appropriations bill prohibiting the EPA from funding its Title VI enforcement efforts (though 15 cases currently under review would not be affected).