The Environmental Protection Agency should celebrate its latest triumph over "environmental racism"–the alleged siting of smokestack industries and waste dumps near minority populations. It may well prove the agency's last such victory for some time to come. That's good news for the people the EPA says it's protecting.
In September, the Shintech Corp. canceled plans to locate a $700 million polyvinyl plastics facility near the poor, largely black community of Romeville, Louisiana. (See "Green Redlining," October.) Though the plant, which would have added 255 jobs to the local economy, had passed state and federal emissions requirements, the EPA delayed final approval after Greenpeace and other activist groups claimed that the plant's proposed location constituted environmental racism. Shintech will build instead in the mostly white community of Plaquemine, some 30 miles away. (Greenpeace, which opposes all polyvinyl plastics production, is expected to challenge the new site, though not on racial grounds.)
The environmental racism charges were "clearly a factor" in the company's decision to relocate, says Shintech Controller Richard Mason, who adds that the Clinton administration's policy "will inhibit companies from looking to develop near minority areas." Over 50 environmental racism cases have been filed with the federal government.
In a burst of doublespeak, EPA head Carol Browner praised Shintech's relocation decision as "a community- based, constructive approach for insuring industrial growth while protecting the rights of communities." Such rhetoric, however, is undercut by the sentiments of Romeville residents and their elected representatives.
"It's a shame. It's a great loss for economic development," says Gladys Maddie, an African-American member of the St. James Citizens Coalition, a local group that negotiated an agreement with Shintech that would have provided $500,000 in job training for the area. Polls showed a solid majority of area residents supported the plant, as did six of seven parish councilmen–including all three black members.
The plant cancellation has greatly intensified attacks on the EPA's policy from Congress and may well lead to its undoing. Concerned that the agency has unilaterally acted to expand federal civil rights law by applying it to industrial pollution, Congress passed a resolution temporarily cutting off funds for further EPA enforcement of its environmental justice policy.
The agency is also facing a court challenge. In November, the Washington Legal Foundation, a market-oriented public interest group, filed a petition against the EPA, claiming that its policy is "legally and procedurally flawed, standardless, and unconstitutional; and …stifles economic development in low-income and minority communities, thereby harming the very persons Title VI and EPA's Environmental Justice policy were designed to protect."