‘Freedom Buses’ Roll Along Cancer Alley
By Ellen Spears
Vol. 15, No. 1, 1993, pp. 1-11
On the weekend of December 4-6, 1992, more than 2,000 activists from around the South and the nation joined in an unprecedented gathering in New Orleans, drawn together in a common movement for environmental justice. With these unanticipated numbers and the diversity of participants, the meeting at the mouth of the Mississippi may come to be regarded—like the October 1991 People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., that inspired it—as a watershed in the U S. environmental movement.
The New Orleans conference was called together by the Southern Organizing Committee for Social and Economic Justice (SOC), whose legacy of anti-racist and pro-union work stretches from the 1930s, and was hosted by the Gulf Coast Tenants Organization.
It was significant that the meeting was held in the South, where the disparate impact of environmental degradation on communities of color—environmental racism—is strongly felt.
An understanding of what we as a movement are up against came from a special part of the conference: a bus tour of Cancer Alley, the seventy-seven-mile stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans poisoned by more than 120 petrochemical plants.
OUR TOUR of Cancer Alley takes off from the Bayou Plaza Hotel, where many attendees are staying, near Xavier University. Our tour guides, all environmental leaders in Louisiana, are dealing with a problem faced by the whole conference—the kind of problem organizers like—the unexpectedly huge turnout “It just snowballed under our feet,”
said Anne Braden, co-chair of SOC. “What it indicates is the tremendous breadth and depth of grassroots concern about this issue.”
Increasing interest in the tour had already forced planners to add another bus, and now we are waiting for a third. Folks pass the time pleasantly in the overcast but warming New Orleans weather, checking in with old friends and striking up conversations, making new ones. Already the diversity of cultures the conference has brought together is evident: African American residents of Homer, Louisiana, who are fighting a uranium enrichment plant; Native American activists from Oklahoma opposing General Atomic’s Sequoia Fuels nuclear facility; United Farmworkers from the Rio Grande area working to end overuse of pesticides; an Asian American staffer from one of the national environmental groups; whites from Appalachian mining towns; veteran organizers, young people, whole families.
While we are waiting, other buses, “Freedom Buses,” are carrying youth from Selina, Atlanta, Savannah and North Carolina, first stopping in Columbia, Mississippi. A youth speak-out has been organized to support demands by the African American community in Columbia, where the Reichold Chemical Company plant exploded and burned in March 1977.
The 775 residents of this Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region IV hot spot want compensation and relocation for illnesses they believe resulted from the toxic explosion. Busloads of students stop to march in solidarity on their way to New Orleans.
BACK ON TULANE Avenue in New Orleans, the humid clouds are lifting slightly and our tour begins. As the busloads wind through the Crescent City toward our first stop, Willie Fontenot shares, from his vantage point as coordinator of the Public Protection Division in the Louisiana Attorney General’s office, a perspective on the New Orleans environment.
New Orleans’s infrastructure is shaped by its unique ecosystem, with a water table above the streets in many places; some streets are below sea level. The city has the most extensive canal system in the country. And, explains Fontenot, the ground is still settling. Especially where development happened rapidly, with lots of fill, the materials used dry and shrink, and the sewer, water, and gas lines break away.
The city has one of the largest tonnage ports in the country, averaging 120 to 150 ocean-going ships every day, carrying mostly grain and oil and refined oil products.
Though shallow, with an average depth of twelve feet, Pontchartrain, covering 610 square miles, is one of the most productive fishing estuaries in the country. Yet it contains such high fecal coliform levels that signs are posted by the Orleans Levee Board and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals to prevent swimming.
A high percentage Of New Orleans residents drink bottled water, report our guides. “Even Louisiana-brewed Dixie Beer tasted funny,” Fontenot says, after Georgia-Pacific Chemical Company dumped forty-two tons of phenol in the river in 1981. The dumping raised the phenol threshold in the water to seven parts per billion (ppb). Phenol is not known to be hazardous to human health at that level, but it exceeded the standard of one to three ppbs. When it bonded with chlorine used to disinfect the water supply at a treatment plant, the resulting chemical could be tasted in the water. It made the water—and the beer brewed with it—taste like oil, he says.
Another result of frequent spills: major kills of fish, birds, and turtles. Runoff of the pesticide azinphosmethyl from the sugar cane fields is suspected in summer 1991 kills of more than 750,000 fish, including striped mullet largemouth bass, freshwater drum, and blue catfish in the bayous of south Louisiana.
By 1965, the state bird, the native brown pelican, once numbering 50,000, was wiped out after endrin spills in late 1950s and 1960s traced to the Velsicol plant in Memphis, Tennessee, killed fish and other wildlife. Now the brown pelicans in Louisiana have been re-established from Florida. Eighty percent of the re-established birds were killed in 1974, again by endrin, the year that EPA finally banned the substance.
Louisiana is number one among the fifty states in the discharge of toxic pollution into the waterways and number four in air pollution (based on 1988 EPA statistics). Capitol Lake, adjacent to the state capitol in Baton Rouge, is closed to fishing because of PCB pollution.
Cancer Alley takes its name from the high rates of cancer among the people in the parishes along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, among the highest in the nation. And the lung cancer rate for black men is among the highest in the world, explain our guides.
Although studies are scarce and much work remains to be done, few doubt the connection between cancer and pollution. Almost everyone we meet with Louisiana friends and kinfolk has a story to tell about a death from cancer.
Nick Spitzer, a public folklorist who used to work in Louisiana, shares one tale. “I had cancer myself. I can’t say that it was from Louisiana, but I was brought in for some chemotherapy. There was a guy there who had lung cancer, he had been an oil field worker. He was a classic, a lot of loyalty to the job and the work, and he was physically being destroyed. And the Ethyl Corporation had a plaque on the door. They donated the room, and he would say, ‘They may have contributed this room, but they also contributed a lot of patients.'”
CONCERNS OF CHEMICAL workers and others working in toxic environments are central to conference planners, who aim to unite labor and community in a common environmental movement. Conference speaker Tony Mazzocchi, of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union, argues the importance of confronting competing needs directly. Sometimes the demand for jobs does conflict with the health needs of the
community, he says. His proposal, a Superfund for Workers, would reduce the impact on workers displaced by shutdowns of toxic industries. The Superfund would function like the GI bill, which offered tuition support and family stipends for workers after World War II as they sought college educations or technical training.
To But Cut’s and Back
Crossing the Mississippi on the Huey P. Long Bridge, we are reminded that Louisiana’s shifting politics, as unique as the landscape, will shape the response to the environmental crisis in the state. The damage to the environment allowed during Gov. Edwin Edwards’s previous terms is well documented in Southern Exposure’s March/April 1984 article “The Poisoning of Louisiana.” But given the choice of David Duke, environmentalists “held their noses and voted for Edwards,” says tour guide Nathalie Walker. Under Edwards’s current tenure, the staff of the state Attorney General’s office environmental division has been reduced by about one-half.
Kai Midboe, Edwards’s appointee for Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) chief, is regarded by environmental leaders as more sympathetic to industry than his popular predecessor, Paul Templet. Though Midboe helped establish the state’s coastal zone program, protecting wildlife habitats, he more recently represented oil and gas industry clients in an effort to limit DEQ regulations on discharges from their facilities. Midboe’s strategy is to take a cooperative approach with industry rather than engage in litigation for enforcement.
“You can work out some things,” says Fontenot. “But you don’t stop bank robbing by saying ‘let’s sit down and talk about it,’ you need a strong enforcement program, you need incentives which include strong provisions for fines. And, says Fontenot, “We have not had a tradition of that under anybody.”
Activists like Audrey Evans of the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic expect “more frequent use of the device of the minor modification, circumventing the permitting process altogether by calling a big expansion only a minor modification.”
“We are ranked fiftieth in the state government’s commitment to protecting the environment,” explains Walker, who is the attorney for the Sierra Club Defense Fund in New Orleans. “For example, in New Jersey, they have a similar industrial base but much lower emission rates
than Louisiana. And, they have a much larger enforcement staff for air, land, and water pollution.”
Some new laws will help. The Louisiana Air Toxics Reduction Law, passed in 1990, aims to reduce air emissions of one hundred chemicals by 50 percent by 1994. The 1989 Solid Waste Reduction Act requires reducing landfills by 25 percent. And the Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Fund will receive forty million dollars annually to deal with wetlands problems.
Louisiana’s economy has been affected by the boom and bust in oil and now the decline in natural gas production. The state ranks third in production of gas and oil, behind Texas and California. The failing economy is cited for underfunding of enforcement efforts, but it simply underscores a clear theme of the weekend conference: polluting industries must pay. It has been clear for some time, says Spitzer, that “the laissez le bon temps rouler attitude must go.”
Our first stop-off is a sewage treatment plant, which serves Marrero on the west bank of Jefferson Parish, at the LaPalco Boulevard Waste Drop-Off, built right next to the Marrero Housing Project, the first tenant-owned housing project in the country.
Tenant leader and president of our host group, the Gulf Coast Tenant Organization (GCTO), Rose Mary Smith explains, “we keep getting a foul smell just day after day. We have met with folks all up around Baton Rouge, and they tone the odor down, but that lasts for a few days and it flares back up.”
Tenants took over the management of the Marrero Project in November, 1984. The housing project had been built long before the sewage plant.
The GCTO embodies a strategy which SOC has pursued for many years: The principal victims of environmental racism are people of color, the poor, and working people. When these groups provide leadership, winning coalitions can be built.
GCTO has led a number of marches, from Huntsville, Alabama, to Cancer Alley and between New Orleans and Baton Rouge to dramatize the need for action. “We had been talking about this a long, long time and all of a sudden it exploded,” says Smith about the attention to toxic waste and race along Cancer Alley and elsewhere in the South evident at the conference.
WE WIND THROUGH Jefferson Parish. Two men on a bicycle careen in front of the bus. Peering out, we notice all-new windows on the small frame homes, windows which had to be replaced after the Shell Oil explosion at Norco in 1988. At Norco, the town which takes its name from the New Orleans Oil Refining Company, seven workers were killed when the cat cracker blew. The cat cracker, short for catalytic cracker, is a key part of the refining process, which separates raw oil into gas, oil, and kerosene. The blast blew out windows in downtown New Orleans twenty miles away.
Toxic spills, releases, and blasts keep residents of the towns along the river on edge. Fontenot explains that a decade ago people in the towns of Good Hope and New Sarpy frequently had to evacuate. At the time of the first buyout in 1981-82, people kept a suitcase packed. “Parents finally forced the school to keep busdrivers and buses on school grounds all the time to evacuate the kids,” he says.
We travel on to the Bonnet Carre spillway, where the levee opens to reroute Mississippi floodwaters to Lake Pontchartrain if the river rises more than seventeen feet. The wind has picked up and our eyes are stinging. We are smelling an acrid shoe polish odor. It’s nitrobenzene from a chemical plant across the river, explains guide Darryl Malek-Wiley, a New Orleans activist. Water pours past us from thirty-three states and two Canadian provinces. Way north along the Mississippi River, Native Americans are organizing to stop a proposal for storage of nuclear casks at the Prairie Island Nuclear Facility on the Lakota reservation in Minnesota. Farm pesticide runoff and untreated sewage has muddied the river on its way to the Gulf, even before it filters past the toxic gauntlet between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Even if the dumping is in compliance at each of the 120-200 toxic sites along this section of the river—which many doubt (state funding for monitoring is inadequate, private monitoring cost-prohibitive; present practice relies mostly on the companies themselves to regulate)—no one knows the damage done by the combined dumping. “Nobody looks at the cumulative impact on the Mississippi River,” says Malek-Wiley.
The Clean Water Act, up for renewal in Congress in 1993, provides for monitoring at each plant in isolation, controlling pollution from point sources. Little attention has been paid either to combined effects or to nonpoint sources—runoff from agricultural lands, urban areas, construction, mining and forestry—which Claudia Copeland, writing in Congressional Research Services (CRS) Review in December 1991, calls “the most pervasive remaining unsolved water quality problems in this country.”
Companies still argue that dilution is the solution to pollution. The activists gathered here are familiar with this and other tired industry lines: “We just need to keep this landfill open long enough to bring in enough revenue to pay for shutting it down.” While it may be difficult to measure diluted toxins, a three-year study conducted by the state of Louisiana shows that more than 80 percent of fish and shellfish from the Mississippi River contain mer-
cury and toxic chemicals. While the study stresses that the levels of toxins found were within the safety standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, residents are alarmed.
Malek-Wiley and others are participating in a new initiative, the Mississippi River Basin Alliance, which is forming to build the kind of pressure necessary to look at the river as a whole and change environmental policy. The Great Lakes region is the only area of the country where the pollution is monitored not just chemical-by-chemical or industry-by-industry but in the region as a whole.
In the year since its first meeting, February 20,1992, in St. Louis, the Mississippi River Basin Alliance has grown to include the Garden Clubs of America, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the Indigenous Environmental Network, MACE (Mississippi Action for Community Education), Coalition for the Environment in St. Louis, the Minnesota Project the Tennessee Environmental Council, the Kentucky Resource Council, the American Indian Center in Milsteadt, Illinois, as well as American River, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, Isaac Walton League and Audubon Society. With an emphasis on community-based organizations, the Alliance will look at water and air quality among other health and safety issues, economic development, and cultural and historical issues, all from the point of view of how the people who live in the basin are affected.
The Alliance aims to wield considerable influence, notes convener Bill Reading of the Sierra Club, as the river flows through states represented by “two-thirds of the Senate and three-fourths of the House of Representatives.”
OUR ROUTE TAKES us along River Road. Not all tourism is beignets and bands and Mardi Gras in the French Quarter. Touring the River Road antebellum plantations is the second biggest attraction around New Orleans.
Petrochemical plants have destroyed whole communities along River Road. Companies buy up land for the site, forcing out residents. A few families hang on, but surrounded by toxic plants, the holdouts are forced away. “It’s a calculated process that disintegrates the culture,” explains Nathalie Walker.
“It’s really bizarre,” Nick Spitzer recalls, “an old plantation house that is now the company headquarters, once devoted to sugar, now is devoted to the petrochemical industry. The people affected most are not the big house, but the people in the surrounding slave and sharecropper quarters.”
Steve Duplantier, an assistant professor of communications at Xavier University, calls up the image of Ghosts Along the Mississippi (1948, 1961), a book of photographs by Clarence John Laughlin. The people who survived … are being haunted by these new toxics along the river. It has a nasty and weird continuity, plantation big houses, gorgeous but symbols of oppression and misery, the very sites of the manor houses are now the locations of the offices of these chemical and fertilizer companies spewing out a different kind of oppression and poison.”
Guides and news reports described towns we did not see, with uncanny names like Reveilletown, Cut Off, and Good Hope, a community where all the homes but one are boarded up. In Sunrise, everybody was bought out except two people.
“I wasn’t prepared for entire towns that had been bought out to quiet complaints, wasn’t pre-
pared for the poverty, for the concentration of the petrochemical industry that we found there. I live in New Jersey and I saw a lot of the petrochemical industry, and had never seen anything like this,” said Cathy Verhoff, director of operations for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“This is sacred land,” said one guide. It was a theme that would come up often throughout the weekend, in a powerful ceremony led by Native American leaders during the Friday night opening session as well as from Louisiana coastal residents.
The pollution of land and waterways has made impossible a way of life that depended heavily on fishing and agriculture to support a close-to-the-land existence.
We ate lunch along the River Road, at But Cut’s, named for the owner, who, following a tradition in these parts, carries his father’s nickname, earned for an injury he got sliding into home plate, explains GCTO leader Pat Bryant.
The meal of red beans and rice and fried catfish and shrimp stretches to feed us all. “I was impressed by them stopping for lunch and giving business to a people’s restaurant, rather than to one of the commercial chains.” said Jessie Deer in Water of Oklahoma. Only later does Bryant confess, “We didn’t know what the folks were going to eat.”
Crossing back across the Mississippi on the Luling-Destrehan Bridge, huge grain elevators line the banks of the river near the bridge. People living near the grain elevators have problems with particulate matter in the air, with increased incidence of respiratory problems and reports of asthma in children.
Continuing along the causeway through the LaBranche wetlands, we get a glimpse of the swamp, maintained only after great struggle by environmentalists. Much of the tupelo gum, willow, and cypress that house the herons, egrets, cranes, muskrats, and alligators has already been destroyed to make way for the petro giants.
A Ten-Mile Question Mark
“It must have been depressing,” said one conference goer, who had yet to make the tour. For some, it was. One man reportedly took to his room in disgust and despair, declining to attend the conference, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mess. But, I didn’t find it so. We were in such great company, of so many strong people, several generations of activists, for once representative of our nation’s people, who are all doing something to stop environmental disaster. And, in some cases, we are win-
Further upriver, in Wallace, Louisiana, residents have just succeeded in blocking Formosa Plastics from installing a $700 million rayon plant that would have devastated the town and dumped more toxic waste in the river. Formosa Plastics, a multinational corporation based in Taiwan, bought the Whitney plantation, and expected to get $425 million in tax concessions from the state. But after community pressure and a lawsuit forced an environmental impact statement, the company cancelled plans to build the rayon plant
Coalitions are essential to winning victories against major corporate projects, which wield huge budgets and political influence. And, says conference organizer Anne Braden, “Fighting environmental racism is potentially a very unifying issue; not automatically but potentially.”
Wallace residents sought out environmentalists to help win against Formosa Plastics. Preservationists from Evergreen Plantation, one of the best-preserved antebellum homes on River Road, joined in. Wilfred Greene, a seventy-year-old African American school principal in Wallace, describes one controversy over the name of the group, already chosen by residents, River Area Planning Group, RAP.
“We can’t get involved with you, you are a rap group,” said a few. But the name stayed, and together, “unified with difficulties,” they succeeded.
Greene articulates one principle for united efforts, a view shared by conference organizers. “Join hands, [but] don’t let anybody decide for you what’s got to be done in that community,” he says. “You do it, ask for help, but always hold the reins.”
Mutual work on common concerns has brought mutual respect. “He’s the wisest person that I know,” said Gad Martin, a chlorine campaign activist working for Greenpeace in New Orleans, of Mr. Greene.
The win in Wallace buoyed residents, as it did those of us gathered at the conference. Formosa Plastics still owns the land it purchased for the plant so residents continue to be on guard. And, says Martin, “We have not won for two reasons, we cannot pass on our problems [to a likely site in a Third World country], and people in Wallace still won’t have jobs.” Martin suggests a new initiative, trying to make connections with the historically black colleges to discuss economic development solutions.
Residents of Homer, Louisiana, who have formed Citizens Against Nuclear Trash (CANT), inspired other attendees, too. While their battle is far from over, residents of Center Springs and Forest Grove in Claiborne Parish, on the Arkansas border, have taken the lead in a coalition to stop a consortium from placing a uranium enrichment plant in Homer.
“One of the major contentions there [in Homer] is environmental racism,” says Michael Mariotte, of Nuclear Information Research Services, a Washington, D.C.-based research group. Louisiana Energy Services (LES), a five-member consortium whose central partner is URENCO, itself a partnership of British Nuclear Fuels, the government of Holland, and a number of German companies, is seeking permits from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to enrich uranium from commercial nuclear power plants.
In the process of fighting the permits, residents have won a commitment for the first-ever environmental racism hearing before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) panel. An NRC panel will hold an adjudicatory hearing, which differs from a traditional courtroom in that participants submit affidavits and briefs but testify only if called upon, explains Mariotte.
Residents are glad for the hearing and the delay it provides, if skeptical about the outcome. “The judges are NRC employees,” explains Homer real estate agent Toney Johnson, who is white and a member of CANT. “And they have never ruled against a single application.”
CANT activists have also sought other avenues to win their battle, electing a black representative, Roy Martis, to the police jury, the Louisiana equivalent of a county
commission. “Most [residents] hadn’t been paying elections too much attention,” says Essie Youngblood, who lives near the proposed site. Redistricting helped, and residents organized to elect their own candidate.
And, notes Youngblood, the effort to stop the proposed plant “has improved the relationships. It may have divided some who want the plant, but the rest of us, black and white, we are much closer.”
What will the Clinton administration do about environmental racism in Homer? “We hope they will be a big help, we just don’t know. We put a ten-mile question mark behind that,” says Youngblood. “The coalition in New Orleans will be our greatest help.”
One reason Homer residents are waiting to see what the Clinton administration will do is Department of Energy appointee Hazel O’Leary. O’Leary is a top corporate affairs officer for Northern States Power Company, one U.S. member of the consortium seeking permits to open the uranium enrichment plant in Homer.
Northern States is also involved in the effort to site nuclear storage casks on Prairie Island where the Lakota Reservation is located in the upper reaches of the Mississippi. But Northern States’ involvement in these controversial projects had little impact during confirmation hearings.
Waste and Gore
Still, there’s a wary optimism that a new administration in Washington not openly hostile to the environmental movement will pave the way for confronting disparate treatment of people-of-color communities. The appointment of former Gore staffer Carol Browner of Florida to head EPA is considered a good sign.
Concerns about environmental racism “have even trickled up to the federal government,” says sociologist Robert Bullard, author of Dumping in Dixie, citing his selection to serve on the Clinton transition team’s Natural Resource and Environment cluster.
Conferees attending from East Liverpool, Ohio, went home December 6 to the news from Vice President-elect Al Gore that the Clinton administration would seek to halt a proposed East Liverpool waste incinerator until Congress investigates the plant’s safety. Though the company countered with a full-page New York Times ad, and in late December, protestors were getting arrested at the site, there is the feeling that environmental concerns are more likely to be heard than at any time during the past twelve years.
A major legislative initiative will be the re-introduction of the Environmental Justice Act. Gore was the Senate sponsor of the Environmental Justice Act of 1992, a measure which would have established a mechanism for dealing with high-impact areas of environmental pollutants. “You can have an area that is meeting the major laws and still be very hazardous, more often than not low-income or minority,” says Commission on Racial Justice staff member Charles Lee.
The bill, crafted with the aid of United Church of Christ Commission on Racial Justice Executive Director Rev. Ben Chavis, a conference co-chair, and other advo-
cates, would require the Health and Human Services department to make a number of health assessments. Congressman John Lewis is planning to reintroduce the bill in 1993, once a new sponsor comes forward in the Senate.
Chavis was also appointed to the Clinton transition cluster on the environment. He and a few others from the conference touched base with the National Conference of Black State Legislators meeting at the Sheraton in downtown New Orleans. A natural for alliances, the NCBSL passed a resolution in support of SOC’s efforts. Legislator Bob Holmes of Georgia and former Alabama legislator Tony Harrison made their way over to the environmental justice gathering.
A National Guard for the Environment
It was just a decade ago that black residents of Warren County, North Carolina, became the first African-American citizens jailed for protesting environmental racism, describes Robert Bullard in his forthcoming book, Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. A young woman, Kim Burwell, now twenty, who was eleven at the time she lay down in front of the truck carrying PCB-contaminated soil into Warren County, was honored in a special youth awards ceremony at the conference.
Bullard, whose Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality has become the textbook on environmental racism, has led the way in research since 1979. “The whole grassroots movement in the environmental movement” says Bullard, is “influencing the way that the national environmental organizations are talking about the environment. Even the EPA is now talking about it.”
“The movement has been very effective,” he says, but “there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done. The alliance between grassroots groups of color, and national organizations … is breaking down mistrust and stereotypes on both sides.
The convergence of the whole social justice and the environmental movement [has meant] more staff of color. Even though we are not totally satisfied with the numbers, there has been some movement diversifying the staffs and the boards.”
So while this conference feels like a beginning in many ways, it is also the fruition of at least a decade of focused work to shift the agenda of the environmental movement. The stereotypes of “elite crunchy granola types” and the “Audubon Society in khaki shorts” (Spitzer’s terms, which he admits may never have been fair) have shifted, and the movement has become more populist.
The convergence of the civil rights movement and the environmental movement is a necessity, welcomed by many. Says Domingo Gonzalez, of The Border Campaign, a grassroots group in Brownsville, Texas, who told conveners, “The time is long overdue for Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans and progressive whites to unite throughout the Southern region. The environmental movement has reached the limits of its effectiveness; it will take the environmental justice movement to move things further.”
This gathering is informed by decades of experience, some of which was in support of the California farmworkers, echoed in familiar picketing at a Winn-Dixie grocery near the conference site during the event. Pesticide use which results in birth defects still plagues farmworkers’ families, and the grape boycott is still on.
We are rich in lessons learned from earlier struggles. When government officials say solving toxics problems is going to take time, conference organizer Pat Bryant recalls, “It’s the same thing they told us back in the sixties: we can get public accommodations and desegregate housing and schools, but we gotta go slow. We’ve been going slow, and that’s the problem. We’ve got to go fast.”
It was this sense of urgency that brought such large numbers to New Orleans. And while the meeting involved
many veterans, its clearest hopeful sign was the overwhelming turnout of youth: five hundred high school students. College students formed their own caucus. Tensions were felt around the role of youth in the weekend’s program. A special Saturday morning agenda change was made to allow greater youth participation. The gathering brought several generations together and spawned youth activities back home. Shortly after the conference, Jessie Deer in Water reports the formation of YEA (Youth Environmental Awareness) among Indian youth who attended from Oklahoma. YEA has already organized its first activity, recycling Christmas trees to farmers for fish cover in ponds.
And, in addition to the Louisiana Attorney General’s office, the conference attracted other official involvement as well: from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Air Control Board.
Caucuses provided opportunities for white activists to reflect on the need for struggle against racism within white communities to build successful coalitions. The Indigenous Environmental Network was strengthened by coming together again within the New Orleans gathering, says Deer in Water, who works at Cherokee Community Initiative in Oklahoma.
The fourteen-member Asian American caucus stood together with spokesperson Cathy Verhoff, as she delivered their moving statement Sunday morning, teaching many present about Asian American culture. “We are exploding the model minority myth that keeps us in our place and explaining the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., pointing out the diversity of our group—Indians, Filipinos, Laotians, Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans from different parts of China, all of the nations of Southeast Asia, various communities in the Pacific Islands. We are standing together united and also with the people in the audience. We are [sic] still people the sweatshops, we are the textile workers, the food processors, we work in Silicon Valley. In 1945 our people were the victims of the worst environmental disaster in world history, and we are still reeling from the testing of atomic bombs in the Marshall Islands.”
The conference is only part of a major recent push in the South to keep justice issues central in the environmental movement. A coalition of grassroots environmental groups in EPA Region IV (Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee) was formed after activists took over the EPA Environmental Equity gathering in Atlanta September 14-15, 1992. One project the coalition hopes to undertake is the Neighbors Keepers Strike Force. It will provide mutual aid, with individuals and organizations serving once a month to help others and in turn calling upon the Strike Force to aid in their environmental fight, kind of “a national guard for the environment,” says Connie Tucker, who staffs the SOC Environmental Justice Project office in Atlanta. “The conference was just one highlight of a massive organizing effort to build a Southwide coalition for environmental justice.”
Overwhelmed by the huge attendance, organizers found it was impossible to distill an action plan and strategies on the spot. The Southern Manifesto, proposed by GCTO leader Pat Bryant, is a broad program in keeping with the understanding of the environment as all the life conditions of a community—clean air and water, safe jobs for all at decent wages, health care, education, equity, and justice. The Manifesto, which should be available soon with caucus recommendations and other conference materials, synthesizes some of these demands.
A follow-up meeting will be held March 27-28 in Birmingham to outline strategies and come up with an action plan. Likely priorities include: action toward a moratorium on siting new waste and other toxic facilities and demanding stricter limits on existing facilities. A campaign might focus on limiting pollution by the federal government, focusing on unbleached paper, for example. Other tough organizational questions to be wrestled with: How will the coalition continue? Should there be a parallel youth arm, or should young people be a part of a larger group?
“No conference is truly successful unless the ideas get put into life,” says Damu Smith, an African-American organizer on the Greenpeace staff who visited dozens of Southern communities working with SOC to bring people together. Smith found a community in Texas fighting the same company, sometimes dealing with the same person, as a community in North Carolina. He helped them share notes and strategy. “People are really doing their best under very difficult circumstances. The most important thing, in addition to multiracial unity, is to develop a strategy for preventing pollution, and an alternative strategy for economic development.”
A SECOND TOUR is organized, at night, for those who missed the first. Flares from the smoke stacks leap and glow, forming an even larger image in the dark.
“Prior to European contact not many native groups lived directly on the river,” says Duplantier. “It was fertile, but treacherous … No one knew better than the Indians the hydraulic power of the river. Today the power of those toxics is multiplied by the river.”
At night the Mississippi River’s reflection further obscures the dangerous poisons within. But, back across the water, with state meetings underway and more caucuses being formed, a multiracial movement that will change the river’s course is in full swing.
Ellen Spears is managing editor of Southern Changes.