Janice Dickerson never imagined she could be accused of environmental racism. A black community activist who now heads the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality's Office of Environmental Justice, Dickerson thought she was doing right by both the environment and the impoverished, mostly black community of Romeville when, in 1997, she helped shepherd through a deal to build Shintech Corporation's state-of-the-art, $700 million polyvinyl chloride plant in St. James Parish. But today, she can't even talk to the people of Romeville.
Dickerson committed her sins while acting as liaison between her agency, Shintech officials, and Romeville residents--a role for which she seemed uniquely suited. As an activist, she had long been critical of the state's industries for ignoring the communities in which they operate. She says she was hired by the LDEQ "because business [in Louisiana] needs to change the way they do business. Environmental justice is about involving the community."
Her mission is part of a larger Louisiana "enterprise zone" initiative to attract industry to poor areas by trading tax incentives for guarantees that companies will hire 35 percent of their labor force locally. Until recently, those efforts appeared successful for both Shintech and Romeville. The company not only passed state and federal emissions tests with ease but also agreed to a $500,000 training program to help local residents land some of the plant's 255 high-paying jobs. Shintech even pledged to hire 50 percent of the 700 needed construction workers locally. Furthermore, the plant would plow $5.8 million into local schools under a parish construction tax. Beams Dickerson, "Shintech made a commitment to hire locals. This is a facility that wants blacks and wants to hire them."
But the Clinton administration and its radical allies in the environmental and civil rights movements have a different vision of environmental justice. Under an Environmental Protection Agency policy drafted this year, a state agency that approves an emissions-producing facility having a "disparate impact" on minorities--that is, a facility whose emissions affect predominantly nonwhite communities--is in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Greenpeace and the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic have filed a federal claim and a state lawsuit under this policy, accusing Dickerson and her colleagues at the LDEQ of discrimination. Janice Dickerson, on the advice of LDEQ lawyers, can no longer speak with Romeville's residents. And the EPA has blocked Shintech from building its plant in poor and black Romeville because Romeville is...poor and black.
The EPA's policy and its application in Louisiana have enraged and confused governors, mayors, and environmental officials across the nation. These officials see the administration's efforts not as environmental justice but as a policy of environmental redlining that effectively excludes minority areas from badly needed business investment.
Though the EPA's rule does not specify what constitutes a "disparate impact," in practice the agency has determined such impact by drawing one-, three-, and five-mile radii around an industrial site. If the minority population within any of these lines is roughly twice as great as that of the surrounding county or state, then the facility is vulnerable to a civil rights claim. In Shintech's case, 82 percent of the population within five miles of the facility is black--significantly larger than the 49 percent in St. James Parish and over twice the black population (31 percent) of the entire state.
Such a standard threatens not only facilities in rural, "greenfield" areas like St. James but also urban sites in major American cities where mayors are desperately trying to attract jobs, especially to abandoned industrial "brownfield" sites. "There is not a brownfield in New Orleans that is not in a minority community," sighs Fred Barrow, an African American who leads the LDEQ's efforts to develop brownfields and fears that the EPA's rule could redline the entire city. Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, an African American and a Democrat, says the EPA's environmental justice policy is "so vague and so broad that it nullifies everything that we have done to attract companies to our brownfield sites." This June, Archer drafted a resolution for the U.S. Conference of Mayors demanding that the administration suspend its Title VI rule. The resolution was adopted unanimously.
Russ Harding, commissioner of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality and an outspoken critic of the administration's policy, says the EPA's rule gives fringe activist groups a potential veto over any future or existing industrial facility that needs federal permitting. "All it takes is a postcard," says Harding, who predicts that rather than locate near minorities and face the threat of civil rights litigation, companies "will quietly decide to locate somewhere else, even overseas."
"Environmental justice" was originally conceived in the 1980s as a way to consider the economic and health needs of poor communities in the siting of industrial facilities near them. But as the idea matured into a national movement, its focus narrowed to race. Black activists such as Ben Chavis and Professor Robert Bullard of Clark Atlanta University contended that industries and the state agencies that oversee them were deliberately targeting minority communities for polluting facilities because residents lacked the political clout to stop them. To address this alleged injustice, activists pressed for the establishment of a "disparate impact" standard.
Unlike "discriminatory intent," which requires litigants to prove a facility was deliberately located in an area because of its racial composition, "disparate impact" requires only evidence that the facility has the "effect" of discriminating. For the past six years, the Clinton administration has not only embraced the national environmental justice movement but has aggressively pushed a disparate impact standard as well. "Nobody can question that, for far too long, communities across this country--low-income, minority communities--have been asked to bear a disproportionate share of our modern industrial life," said EPA Administrator Carol Browner at a 1994 White House briefing. Celebrating Earth Day on April 22, Vice President Al Gore directed all agencies to redouble their efforts to enforce the EPA's policy, saying "our efforts to date have not been sufficient."
The EPA's Title VI rule, issued this spring without consulting state or local governments, applies a disparate impact standard to all permits issued by state and local agencies that receive federal funding. Predictably, the policy has opened the flood-gates to suits brought by the very activists that lobbied for it. The effect, writes Stephen Huebner, a Washington University economist, has been to "deny communities like Romeville the right to decide what is in their own best interests, while opening the door to outsiders to play a larger role in local matters."
In the Shintech case, the EPA's environmental redlining rule gave Greenpeace--which has never concerned itself with civil rights issues--another weapon in its international campaign to ban polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a plastic widely used in everything from vinyl siding and door frames to computer keyboards and blood bags. Greenpeace opposes PVC because it claims plants that use chlorine create dioxin as a byproduct--never mind that an environmental impact study prepared for the LDEQ found that "dioxins were never detected...from these manufacturing facilities." The group also claims dioxin and chlorine are serious toxic threats, a concern endorsed by the EPA and Gore but dismissed by most scientific experts for lack of evidence.
It was Greenpeace, with legal help from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, that first claimed, in April 1997, that Shintech's siting was discriminatory under a 1994 Clinton executive order (a precursor to the 1998 Title VI rule) instructing all federal agencies to be on the lookout for environmental racism. In July of last year, Greenpeace filed a claim with the EPA, saying Shintech's siting violated federal civil rights law. "Greenpeace made the decision that we are going to stop dioxin pollution by trying to stop the expansion of the PVC industry," Greenpeace activist Damu Smith told National Journal last summer. Conceding that the group's goal is not environmental justice but PVC extinction, Smith added: "Shintech just can't be built."
Shintech's local supporters say the federal government has sold them out. "The EPA is empowering special interests to make decisions that are against community interests," protests Dickerson. "What this community wants is being ignored," adds Gladys Maddie, a Romeville resident for 30 years who, along with her mostly black neighbors, helped form the St. James Citizens Coalition to work with Shintech management.
David Wise, plant manager for the new Shintech site, says the company selected the rural, 3,700-acre site now occupied by sugar cane fields not because it was in a black area but because of its proximity to raw materials (a salt dome in particular), its deep water access, and the area's industrial infrastructure. Wise has spent countless hours in the poor neighborhoods near the plant listening to residents' concerns. Shintech has flown some residents to 97-percent-white Freeport, Texas, where the company operates another PVC plant. That facility gets 90 percent of its labor force locally and invests in numerous community social programs.