For the last 28 years, Carl Olson of Woodland Hills, California, has had a mission. "It's not a start-a-war thing, my gosh!," he says. Olson's raison d'être: He believes the United States has needlessly ceded eight Arctic islands to Russia, and he wants them back.
Olson thinks he's finally found a high-profile national ally in Alaska Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller. After speaking with Olson about the issue two years ago, Miller penned an op-ed on the subject for the conservative website WorldNetDaily, a frequent outlet for conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama's birth.
"Part of Obama's apparent war against U.S. energy independence includes a foreign-aid program that directly threatens my state's sovereign territory," Miller declared. "Obama's State Department is giving away seven strategic, resource-laden Alaskan islands to the Russians. Yes, to the Putin regime in the Kremlin."
As Miller put it, "We won the Cold War and should start acting like it."
Illustration: Thomas Nast/Library of Congress; Scott Brown: Seamas Culligan/ZUMA
Scott Brown has a carpetbagging problem. On Monday, the former Republican senator from Massachusetts—who is now running for Senate in New Hampshire—defended his Granite State bona fides by taking a page from Lisa Simpson: "Do I have the best credentials? Probably not. 'Cause, you know, whatever."
At this point, it's the rare Brown story that doesn't at least allude to the dreaded C-word. "Carpetbagger or Comeback Kid?" asked the Washington Examiner's Rebecca Berg. "Scott Brown's first hurdle in the Granite State will be addressing the carpetbagging charge," argued US News & World Report's David Catanese. Respondents to a March poll from Suffolk University, a plurality of whom disapproved of Brown, used words like "carpetbagger" and "interloper" to describe the ex-senator. His opponent in the Republican primary, former Sen. Bob Smith, has even offered to buy Brown a road map to the state—although Smith has run for Senate in Florida twice in the last decade.
If Brown wants to go back to Washington next winter, he should probably come up with a better response than "whatever." But his critics in Washington have it all wrong. For more than a century, carpetbaggers have gotten a bad rap for all the wrong reasons.
A Mossville resident protested ongoing contamination in 2007.
In 1790, a freed slave named Jim Moss found a place to settle down on a bend in the Houston River in the bayous of southwest Louisiana. Although never formally incorporated, the village of Mossville became one of the first settlements of free blacks in the South, predating the formal establishment of Calcasieu Parish by 50 years. But over the last half century, Mossville was surrounded. More than a dozen industrial plants now encircle the community of 500 residents, making it quite possibly the most polluted corner of the most polluted region in one of the most polluted states in the country. Now, a proposal to build the largest chemical plant of its kind in the Western Hemisphere would all but wipe Mossville off the map.
The project, spearheaded by the South African chemical giant SASOL, will cost as much as $21 billion, but stands to benefit from more than $2 billion in incentives (including $115 million in direct funding) from the cash-strapped state budget. It has the backing of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, considered a likely 2016 presidential candidate, who traveled to the outskirts of Lake Charles for the official announcement of the plan in 2012. The state thinks it's an economic slam dunk. One study from Louisiana State University projected that it would have a total economic impact of $46.2 billion. It is the largest industrial project in the history of Louisiana. And after a community meeting on Tuesday, it's one step closer to realization.
But that massive plant will come with a steep environmental price. It will produce more greenhouse gases than any other facility in the state. And the project will almost certainly spell the end for the 224-year-old settlement of Mossville, a poor enclave that has been forced to play host to industrial facilities no one else wanted in their backyard.
An analysis conducted by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in February determined that the new project "will result in significant net emissions increases" of greenhouse gases, promethium, sulfur oxide, nitric oxide, and carbon monoxide. By its calculations, the plant will spew out more than 10 million cubic tons of greenhouse gases per year. (By contrast, the Exxon-Mobil refinery outside Baton Rouge, a sprawling complex that's 250 times the size of the New Orleans Superdome, emits 6.6 million tons.)
"This is their ancestral home. These are descendants of slaves that moved here when they weren't wanted in any other parts of the community."
Nonetheless, the DEQ determined that the facility would have no impact on the soil or air quality, and wouldn't significantly affect the water supply, although "some change in existing water quality may occur." It cleared SASOL under the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and recommended moving forward with plans to build the facility on three square miles near Mossville, an unincorporated, predominantly African American community in the mostly-white Lake Charles suburb of Westlake.
There are 14 industrial facilities around Mossville, a community that's just five square miles in area. A 1998 EPA study found chemical toxins in the hamlet's air 100 times higher than the national standard. Another study found that 84 percent of residents had some sort of central nervous system disorder. Its residents at one point appealed to an international court, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, on the grounds that the continued pollution of the neighborhood constituted environmental racism. (That appeal is ongoing.) The community was also featured in a 2002 documentary, Blue Vinyl, on the toxic consequences of manufacturing building materials.
"These people are not interested in moving," says retired Lt. General Russel Honoré, a Louisiana native who managed the Army's response to Hurricane Katrina and has formed an organization, the Green Army, to push for environmental justice on the Gulf Coast. Honoré, who is considering a run for governor next year, became involved in the effort to block the plant from being built at the request of Mossville residents last fall. "This is their ancestral home. These are descendants of slaves that moved here when they weren't wanted in any other parts of the community."
But over the years their polluted surroundings have left Mossville citizens little option but to pick up stakes. Residents have for years petitioned the government to provide funding for relocation. In 1998, Condea Vista, a chemical company that has since been absorbed by SASOL, bought out 206 homeowners in Mossville after a class-action lawsuit alleging the company had allowed the carcinogen ethylene dichloride to seep into the town's soil.
As it paves the way for its new gas-to-liquid plant, SASOL is currently offering to buy all properties in the area at 160 percent of their appraised value. Because there aren't any recent home sales in Mossville to go off of, the company's independent appraisers based their valuations on similar houses in "higher-value" communities in the parish.
"They think it's a very generous offer because they're living in shacks anyhow," Honoré says.
SASOL says the backlash—manifesting itself in the press and at contentious public meetings—is coming from a fraction of the community. According to the company, more than 80 percent of homeowners eligible for the buyout program have registered, of those that have been formally offered buyouts already,* more than 99 percent have accepted their offers. The company has already taken over Mossville's elementary school. A January report in the Lake Charles American Pressprojected that just 62 houses in Mossville would remain after the buyouts. Some residents who took deal have expressed relief at finally being given a way out. But the holdouts, in addition to not wanting to leave their ancestral home, fear they'll be unable to afford new houses in less-polluted areas.
There's reason for distrust. The community's efforts to rein in polluters have been met with underhanded tactics in the past. In 2010, SASOL was sued by the Lake Charles chapter of Greenpeace for infiltrating and spying on the group. That lawsuit was dismissed, but the facts held up. As Mother Jonesreported in 2008, prior to be being purchased by SASOL, Condea Vista had paid private security firm Beckett Brown International $200,000 to collect intelligence on Greenpeace and other activists who were attempting to hold the company accountable for polluting the region. BBI called the operation the "Lake Charles Project."
The twilight of Mossville is only the latest in a history of southern Louisiana communities being erased by the march of industry. In 2002, Shell bought out residents of the community of Diamond, on the Mississippi River south of New Orleans, after decades of health defects and industrial accidents. African American residents of Morrisonville, Sunrise, and Revilletown all met similar fates. More than 100 residents of Bayou Corne have taken buyouts from solution-mining company Texas Brine since Jindal issued a mandatory evacuation order in August 2012. Grand Bayou, next door to Bayou Corne, ceased to exist after a broken cylinder in an underground storage cavern filled the community with poisonous gases. It is now memorialized by concrete slabs and a solitary road sign.
"That's the thing that hurts," says Dorothy Felix, a seventh-generation Mossville resident and community activist. "I'm going to leave all of this behind, a place that I love so much, a place that I grew up, a place that I saw go from rags to riches. Now it's about to go to nothing but the plants."
*Correction: This article originally misstated the percentage of residents who had signed up for the buyout program.
Former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) has some competition in the race to take on New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in November. In late February, former Sen. Bob Smith—who represented the Granite State in the Senate from 1990 until 2003 before losing a primary, moving to Florida, and twice running for Senate unsuccessfully there—threw his hat into the ring. Smith has vowed to debate Brown "in 10 towns he's never heard of," and offered him a map in case he got lost.
Notwithstanding the fact that Smith himself moved to Florida to start a real estate company after losing his primary, or that he once gave a 45-minute floor speech on why circus elephants shouldn't be allowed on the Capitol grounds, there are plenty of reasons why Brown's opponent may not be palatable to swing voters in a state that went to President Obama in 2008 and 2012. As a senator in the 1990s, Smith spent much of his time pushing back against the "gay agenda" and supposed attempts by LGBT radicals to indoctrinate children into their ranks. The propaganda campaign, according to Smith, was being pushed into public schools in the form of AIDS education literature and sex ed materials. In 1994, he joined with arch-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to introduce an amendment that would strip federal funding from any school that promoted homosexuality as a "positive life style alternative"—or that directed students to organizations that did. Because when you're trying to raise awareness about sexually transmitted diseases, the point is to be as vague as possible.
In an impassioned floor speech, Smith warned colleagues that he was prohibited by decency standards from displaying most of the materials he was hoping to de facto ban. Then he read aloud from the children's book Heather Has Two Mommies:
When Smith was finished, he began reading from another book, Daddy's Roommate:
The kicker: In 2010, 14 years after Smith last won an election, New Hampshire made it legal for Heather's two mommies to get married. Sure, Smith can tell voters he represented New Hampshire in Washington before, but it was a Granite State he'd need a road map to navigate today.
According to a conservative PAC, Republican House candidate David Trott is one of the five people you meet in Hell. Trott, who is challenging first-term GOP Rep. Kerry Bentivolio in the GOP primary for Michigan's 11th district, runs a law firm that specializes in mortgage foreclosures. In a new ad, a Virginia-based group called Freedom's Defense Fund highlights a foreclosure Trott's firm processed in 2011 that left a 101-year-old homeowner, Texana Hollis, out on the street:
The eviction highlighted in the ad came about after the woman's son fell behind on his property tax payments and ignored repeated warnings. But there was a happy ending: Detroit Free-Press columnist and airport bookstore king Mitch Albom bought the house and transferred it back to Hollis.
As I reported in January, Trott has a hand in every step of the foreclosure process—he even owns the newspaper where foreclosure notices are required to be posted. But while the ad itself is brutal, it probably won't do much damage, because Freedom's Defense Fund is only spending $15,000 to run it on local cable channels. That's consistent with a group that spends much of the money it raises paying Washington-area direct-mail outfits. Of the $1.6 million FDF spent in 2013, just $120,000 went toward candidates or independent expenditures. As Think Progressnotes, $1.2 million went to fundraising services, which means the PAC is spending most of the money it raises on raising more money.