Why was a mostly minority neighborhood located in an area already known as “Cancer Alley” in St. James Parish not advised that their community would be the site of a $1.85 billion methanol plant run by a company with a history of environmental infractions?
Yuhuang Chemical Inc., the Chinese company behind the plant, has a record of destroying drinking water supplies, polluting the air and contributing to rising cancer rates at the sites of its other plants in China, according to an investigative report by Al Jazeera America.
Ask state officials though, and it’s all about the economy and jobs. That’s why Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration has offered up a $9.5 million incentive package to make the project a reality. But here’s the problem, none of the residents who will be affected by the plant were even advised of the project until after it was already approved by the St. James Parish Council.
“We never had a town hall meeting pretending to get our opinion prior to them doing it,” Lawrence “Palo” Ambrose tells Al Jazeera. “They didn’t make us part of the discussion.”
Ambrose is a 74-year-old black Vietnam War vet who served on the St. James Parish Council back in the 1990s. While a town hall meeting was held to discuss the project back in July, it came after the council had already granted approval.
Why was the community not made part of the discussion? According to Ambrose, the answer is simple: “I think it’s because we’re black. But I can’t put my finger on that alone to say that was the only reason ... Blacks are still somewhat second-class citizens.”
A spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Quality, however, says community members were given notice of the project. But here’s the problem with how that notice was given: It was posted on the DEQ website, and finding it there requires knowing the number DEQ assigned to the project. So essentially, if you weren’t already keyed in on the project, there’s no way of finding out about it.
“You have to know to read the legal pages and superfine print,” Darryl Malek-Wiley of the New Orleans’ Sierra Club tells Al Jazeera. “We have talked about the need for the community to be noticed right at the beginning [of negotiations]. They don’t know about something until they get a press story saying it’s a done deal.”
This, however, is a historical problem for Louisiana, especially for the predominately black communities living near Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where over 150 petrol companies and 17 refineries have released lethal levels of toxins into the air and water for decades. Quoting from Robert D. Bullard’s book “Dumping in Dixie”:
Polluting industries were brought into poor communities with little input from local community leaders. When questions were raised by concerned citizens, the argument of jobs for local residents was used to quell dissent. Environmental risks were offered as unavoidable trade-offs for jobs and a broadened tax base in economically depressed communities. Jobs were real; environmental risks were unknown. This scenario proved to be the de facto industrial policy in “poverty pockets” and job-hungry communities around the world.
The company has already received approval by the St. James Parish council for its purchase of the 1,100-acre site, and DEQ is expected to give its final approval for the project on March 6.
Read the full article by Al Jazeera America here.