Medical Senior Producer
|Gather current and
Louisiana, residents in a room and you're likely to hear a litany of
health problems and a list of friends and relatives who died young.
"I got cancer. My dad had cancer. In fact, he died of cancer. It's a
lot of people in this area who died of cancer," says Herman Singleton
Jr., 51, who also lost two uncles and an aunt to cancer.
Singleton and many others in this predominantly African-American
community in southwest Louisiana suspect the 14 chemical plants nearby
have played a role in the cancer and other diseases they say have
ravaged the area.
For decades, Mossville residents have complained about their health
problems to industry, and to state and federal agencies. Now with a new
Environmental Protection Agency administrator outspoken about her
commitment to environmental
justice, expectations are growing.
"I'm pretty hopeful now," say Debra Ramirez, 55, who grew up in
Mossville and who lost a sister at 45 of sarcoidosis, an inflammatory
disease. "I do see her trying to do the right thing."
Lisa Jackson, a native of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the first
African-American administrator of the EPA, this year listed
environmental justice as one of her seven priorities.
And the EPA held a meeting in Mossville last month formally kicking off
a study designed to see if the community qualifies as a Superfund site,
reserved for the most polluted places in the United States. Superfund
site designation would bring federal funding for cleaning up Mossville.
Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN), the local environmental
group, has asked government and industry to relocate residents who want
to leave, offer a free health clinic and lower emissions from the
plants. Superfund relocates residents only as a last resort.
"There are people that are getting sick; there are people who are dying
because of what is happening in our community. These chemicals are
killing us. They will destroy Mossville if nothing happens," says
Dorothy Felix of MEAN.
Thousands of pounds of carcinogens such as benzene and vinyl chloride
are released from the facilities near Mossville each year, according to
the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory.
The industrial boom began in and around Mossville during World War II.
Vinyl chloride makers, refineries, a coal-fired energy plant and
chemical plants now operate in what was once rural country, rich in
agriculture, fishing and hunting.
Robert Bullard, author of "Dumping in Dixie," says it's no surprise
industry chose Mossvillle, an unincorporated community founded by
African Americans in the 1790s.
"What happens is zoning becomes very political, and what happens is
people with power, with lawyers and elected officials who can fight for
them and make decisions for them, oftentimes will get things placed
away from them and placed in locations where other people live" Bullard
Without the power, Bullard says, African-Americans have borne the brunt
of living near industry, landfills and hazardous facilities.
"African Americans are more than 79 percent more likely to live in
communities where there are dangerous facilities that pose health
threats," says Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource
Center at Clark Atlanta University.
Bullard says Jackson has breathed new life into environmental justice
since she took office last year. During the previous eight years, he
says, "environmental justice was non-existent or invisible."
Over time, Mossville residents became worried emissions from the plants
were affecting their health.
Those fears heightened in 1998 when the federal Agency for Toxic
Substances and Disease Registry tested the blood of 28 Mossville
residents and found dioxin levels three times the national average.
Dioxins are carcinogens. Volcanoes and forest fires create dioxins
naturally. They are also released during vinyl chloride production, at
waste incinerators and by wood processing facilities.
Residents were retested for dioxins in 2001, with similar results, but
in 2006 the agency concluded that residents did not face a health risk,
an assessment echoed by local industry.
"The emissions from the plants are within the standards set by the
various agencies, and they are of a level that they have no ill effects
on the local community," says Larry DeRoussel, executive director of
the Lake Area Industry Alliance.
DeRoussel speaks for local industry. CNN invited all 14 companies to
speak on camera. None of them accepted; some said interviewing
DeRoussel would suffice.
DeRoussel points to statistics showing the cancer rate in Calcasieu
Parish, the local county, is not significantly higher than the state
But Wilma Subra, a chemist from New Iberia, Louisiana, who has worked
with Mossville residents, says the statistics are misleading because
the parish covers such a large area, more than 1,000 square miles, and
more than 180,000 residents. Mossville is a tiny fraction of that, with
about 375 homes adjacent to the chemical plants.
"The people of Mossville are like an experiment. They know that they
have high levels of dioxin in their blood, and they're allowed to
continue to live there and be exposed," says Subra, recipient of the
MacArthur genius grant in 1999 for her environmental work with
After the EPA announced its Superfund investigation, Felix says she's
hopeful for the first time in years Mossville will be saved.
"This is the first time I've had a little hope in EPA," Felix says.
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