Environmental Injustice

How green ideology denies poor blacks good jobs


The Claiborne Enrichment Center would appear to be a perfect presidential photo-op. Poised for construction in northern Louisiana's Claiborne Parish, one of the state's poorest counties, the $855 million, state-of-the-art nuclear fuel enrichment facility–50 times more energy efficient than existing plants–would bring jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue to this 50 percent black jurisdiction. It also would reduce American dependence on foreign enrichment suppliers. The plant showcases one solution to the nagging '90s questions of how to build environmentally sound industries, keep American industrial jobs, and return those jobs to blue-collar communities.

But since the project was announced, the plant's licensing has been fought every step of the way by the Clinton administration and its allies in the environmental and civil rights movements. In Claiborne Parish, the soaring rhetoric of environmentalism and civil rights has come to earth in the form of federal regulation–and fallen on the very ideals it promised to lift up.

In 1989, when Louisiana Energy Services, a consortium of five energy companies, announced the siting of its new facility outside Homer (population 4,600), the locals cheered. "We're elated," gushed Joe Michael, then mayor of Homer, the largest town in a county where 30 percent of the residents live below the poverty line. "It's going to raise the standard of living for all our people."

Upon breaking ground in 1992, Louisiana Energy Services would pay about $10 million to the county school board as a one-time parish "use tax" on equipment. After construction and a 10-year "enterprise zone" exemption, the plant would pay $8 million a year in taxes and double the county's tax base. The construction project would employ 400 people, and the completed plant would hire 180. Only 21 of those jobs would demand nuclear-related experience.

The facility's economic impact would also be felt beyond the county's borders. America's only existing enrichment facilities, which separate fissionable U-235 atoms from natural uranium to make nuclear fuel, are owned by the U.S. Department of Energy. While these plants still provide the bulk of America's enrichment needs, they are expensive, 50-year-old energy guzzlers. As these dinosaurs aged, modern European facilities gained U.S. and world market share by offering cheaper enrichment services. In the past 10 years, the foreign share of the U.S. market has increased from 10 percent to 25 percent. The Claiborne plant would reverse that tide and expand America's export market.

But to anti-industry environmental groups, the project was a call to arms. A local environmental group, Citizens Against Nuclear Trash (CANT)–with help from the Sierra Club–filed a series of safety complaints with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, seeking to block construction. In 1993, they got additional ammunition from President Clinton himself. A presidential directive on "environmental justice" required all federal agencies to protect minorities from disproportionate exposure to pollution. After an approval process that dragged on for seven years, in 1996 the NRC declared the plant safe.

Like all nuclear facilities, the Claiborne plant would produce depleted uranium. But the waste would be much less radioactive than spent nuclear fuel, which is about 1,000 times as potent. The facility would dispose of the waste in on-site, sealed containers that would be removed every 15 years. In truth, the danger from an enrichment facility is not radioactive but chemical–a leak of hydrofluoric acid, used in the enrichment process, could be harmful. To the millions of Americans whose communities depend on chemical/industrial plants, similar threats from chemical leaks are a remote risk they accept as a cost of industrialization.

The NRC staff found that the facility complied with all the relevant safety and environmental justice standards. The Environmental Protection Agency concurred, declaring that the plant's partners had demonstrated that "safety and environmental justice [have] been thoroughly considered and evaluated in the decision-making process." Most important, the technology had a proven safety record. Three identical plants–two of them located near large European cities–have been run flawlessly for 20 years by Urenco Ltd., a partner in the consortium behind the Louisiana project.

Undeterred, environmentalists pressed an environmental injustice claim with the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, a panel of judges that reviews all NRC staff decisions. Tony Johnson, a Homer real estate agent and CANT organizer, says proving environmental injustice was always the opposition's goal. "We wanted the Claiborne plant to be our Roe v. Wade," he says.

While safety authorities were lining up behind the plant, environmentalists, with support from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, were mobilizing local residents. Their targets were two black communities, Forest Grove and Center Springs, that border the plant's 440-acre site (the plant itself would occupy only 80 acres). Scattered across miles of wooded countryside, the 250 people in these spartan areas are connected by unpaved roads and two churches that share a minister. Some residents are hooked into the public water supply, but many still rely on wells. Activists won over these areas with a campaign of fear, warning that the plant would "blow up," sending an invisible killer, hydrofluoric acid, into their homes. Ground wells and soil would be poisoned by seeping radioactive waste. The people of Forest Grove and Center Springs were also told that this time bomb had been placed in their midst because they were black.

On May 3, 1997, the NRC licensing board gave activists the victory they had been seeking. In sending the plant's license back to the NRC staff for further study, the board agreed that minority populations would not be "disproportionately affected" by the project. But it said the "possibility that racial considerations played a part in site selection cannot be passed off as mere coincidence." To satisfy the tortured logic of Clinton's directive on environmental justice, the consortium would have to prove a negative–that it didn't locate the facility where it did because black people lived nearby. Environmentalists were ecstatic. Speaking to plant opponents, Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund lawyer Nathalie Walker declared: "You have all made history. This opinion says environmental justice is real."

At the time Clinton issued his directive, New York University Law School professor David Schoenbrod wrote that the "very existence of `environmental injustice' is far from clear." In the case of the Claiborne plant, it is simply nonexistent. Company documents show the consortium picked Homer for a number of reasons, none of them racial.

The plant's Louisiana address satisfied a requirement that the site be in the service area of one of the consortium's electric utility partners: Louisiana Power & Light Co., Duke Power Co. (in North Carolina), and Northern States Power Co. (in Minnesota). The state had right-to-work laws and a supportive U.S. senator, Bennett Johnson, who could help shepherd the plant through Washington's regulatory maze. Northern Louisiana is one of the most stable seismic areas in the country, satisfying a need that the plant's high-speed centrifuges be located in "an area of minimal seismic activity" to ensure reliability. Northern Louisiana also is home to Interstate 20, which met the "transportation access" requirement. Because the plant needed hundreds of acres of buffer land, a rural location would keep property costs down.

And there was another reason: The Forest Grove area, like most of Claiborne Parish, had been declared an enterprise zone by the state of Louisiana. Enterprise zones are economic affirmative action programs, designed by states to attract industries to depressed areas. By locating in an enterprise zone, the Claiborne plant gets a 10-year exemption from county property taxes in return for hiring 35 percent of its work force locally. Louisiana made the Forest Grove and Center Springs areas enterprise zones because it wanted industry to locate near poor blacks, providing them with jobs and education opportunities.

"This is a poor area," explains Emma Hilliard, a black resident and former county representative for Forest Grove. "There are no jobs here. Most people have to work out of the county. My daughter, for example, commutes 50 miles every day to Shreveport to work in a casino." The Claiborne plant might give families like the Hilliards local industrial jobs. The federal government apparently prefers they staff distant gambling boats.

Enterprise zone aside, one need only listen to CANT activist Tony Johnson to understand the shallowness of the environmental racism charge. When asked if any white communities are affected by the plant, Johnson, who sells homes along Lake Claiborne just five miles south of the site, admits he is concerned "that my [white] lakefront estate clients would see their property values plummet." Why? Because, explains Johnson, "the plant's wastewater would irradiate the lake." This fear has no basis in fact: Treated after it's used as a cleaning agent, plant water contains 0.1 millirem a year of radioactivity, while the normal human dose of radioactivity from the earth alone is 360 millirems a year. More to the point, if CANT considers whites threatened, how is the plant's location discriminatory?

Activists are excited about the NRC board's decision because it sets a precedent not only for the nuclear industry but for the chemical industry as well. As the Sierra Club's Walker explains, "We see this [directive] being used to block any toxic waste facility that requires federal approval." She casts a wide net. In the United States, "toxic waste" industries are big employers. Fortune 500 behemoths like Monsanto and Union Carbide operate chemical plants that employ thousands of Americans, as do oil refineries, incinerators, and other facilities targeted by the environmentalists. The Claiborne plant precedent will discourage those industries from opening new plants. They will at least be located far from black neighborhoods, and therefore far from blacks seeking jobs. At worst, they will not be located in the United States at all.

In 1994, Prof. Schoenbrod worried that Clinton's order would "significantly delay many environmental decisions and increase the cost of agencies making them." The Claiborne case has proved him right. And it raises another concern expressed by the NRC board itself: Clinton's executive order demands that regulatory agencies such as the NRC pass civil rights judgments they are ill-equipped to make. "Because this agency's primary responsibilities historically have dealt with technical concerns, investigating whether racial discrimination played a part in a facility siting decision is far afield from the [NRC] staff's past activities," the board wrote. "Indeed…this is an area in which the staff has little experience or expertise."

It is fashionable to speak of racial unity these days, but in Claiborne Parish, the enrichment facility promised something real. Howard Gordon, a Presbyterian minister in Homer for many years, wrote the NRC in 1993: "Racial tension invades everything in the parish. It is a small parish with the traditional southern residential integration of big white homes, surrounded by small black homes….The presence of [the enrichment facility] is one of the best solutions to the hereditary racism of Claiborne Parish. The plant will increase the value of property around it and the parish as a whole [and] will allow the people to rise above the racist and provincial control of the past. Ecologically the plant is not a threat. Economically the plant is a tremendous asset. Societally the plant is a dramatic change for the better." Yet 200 miles away in Baton Rouge, NAACP State President Daniel Wilson organized a June 21 rally to celebrate the NRC board's decision. "We're glad at what happened in Homer," he crows.

In appealing the board's ruling on May 27 (the NRC staff has also appealed), Louisiana Energy Services President Roland Jensen said, "It is clear that the regulatory process is broken when seven years of `streamlined' licensing [is] not sufficient to license a facility employing an advanced technology that has been used safely in three European countries." Citing Louisiana's efforts to attract the plant, Jensen concluded, "[L]eft standing, the decision is tantamount not only to canceling a project for cost-competitive enrichment services but also to further distancing low-income minority families from the mainstream of American commerce."

Emma Hilliard, one of many parish residents who accepted the consortium's invitation to visit Europe's enrichment facilities in 1990, was impressed by what she saw. "I spoke to people near the plant [in Gronau-Epe, Germany]," she says. "They were suspicious at first, but now they've seen how many jobs the plant brought. They are so glad it came." She is concerned that the Claiborne plant's troubles bode ill for her own county's economic future. "If the Claiborne plant goes down, what other company is going to try and locate here?" she asks. As the Minden Press-Herald in neighboring Webster Parish puts it, "We await the Sierra Club's $855 million job development plan for Claiborne Parish."

REASON cartoonist Henry Payne (hpayne@cais.com) is an editorial cartoonist and writer for Scripps Howard News Service.