SASOL's proposed facility may spell the end for a 224-year-old community founded by freed slaves.
Tim MurphyMar. 27, 2014 6:00 AM
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.
According to North Carolina GOP Senate candidate Greg Brannon, Planned Parenthood has a secret plan to legalize the killing of newborn babies as old as three months. Brannon, a Rand Paul-backed obstetrician who is a front-runner for the GOP nomination, made the allegations at a November fundraiser for Hand of Hope, a chain of crisis pregnancy centers he operates in North Carolina.
Well how far will [it] go? Last year, February 29, 2012, the Journal of Ethics in Australia, they debated that. They said we already know abortion is fine, why stop in the womb? Why not three months after. Why should we end the responsibility at that point? It could happen in America. Florida's trying to do it right now and so is Georgia. Planned Parenthood. Because we allowed that slippery slope. Every human being deserves life, liberty, and property.
Brannon's statement appears to be based on testimony given last year by a lobbyist for the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. Asked how the organization's physicians would respond if a baby were born alive during an abortion, the lobbyist appeared confused and said she'd have to check. But in a follow-up statement, Barbara Zdravecky, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, unambiguously rejected the notion: "In the extremely unlikely event that the scenario presented by the legislators ever happened, of course Planned Parenthood would provide appropriate care to both the woman and the infant."
"These absurd and patently false claims by Greg Brannon demonstrate just how extreme and out of touch he is when it comes to women's health issues—and the rest of the Republican Senate candidates in North Carolina are just as dangerous," Planned Parenthood Action Fund Executive Vice President Dawn Laguens said in a statement. Brannon's campaign did not respond to request for clarification.
In the same speech, Brannon said women get abortions because of the same nihilistic worldview that causes them to believe in evolution. "We have people who believe they evolve from nothing, they came from nothing, they'll go to nothing, and today doesn't matter, so when they have a mistake, why not move on?" he said.
The most recent survey of the race, from Public Policy Polling, showed Brannon tied with Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, for the Republican nomination—and running even with Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) in a hypothetical November matchup.
Top social-conservative strategist Ralph Reed compared President Barack Obama to segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace on Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
"Fifty years ago George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door and said that African-Americans couldn't come in," said Reed, the founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, in response to the Department of Justice's attempt to block Louisiana's school voucher program. "Today, the Obama administration stands in that same door and says those children can't leave. It was wrong then and it was wrong now and we say to President Obama, 'Let those children go.'"
Remarkably, Reed wasn't the first speaker at CPAC to compare the Obama administration's policies to the Jim Crow South.
On Thursday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal made the same comparison in his address to the conference. "We've got Eric Holder and the Department of Justice trying to stand in the schoolhouse door," he said.
But as I reported in a new profile of Jindal, Louisiana isn't exactly a pillar of inclusiveness. Some schools that receive state funding under the voucher program promise to immediately expel any student who is found to be a homosexual—or to be promoting homosexuality in any form.