Science, Tech & Environment

Human rights in 'Cancer Alley'

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Mossville, Louisiana (Image: Advocates for Environmental Human Rights)

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Story by Ike Sriskandarajah, "Living on Earth"

Five years ago a group of residents from the rural community of Mossville in Louisiana came to Washington DC to file a human rights complaint against their own government. They alleged that the United States was not protecting their right to live in a healthy environment.

Now the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has agreed to hear their petition. This is the first environmental human rights complaint from United States citizens to be heard by the Organization of American States.

Mossville, Louisiana is old. The village was founded by freed slaves. They chose to settle land with deer to hunt, fish to catch and fertile soil to grow rice and sweet potatoes. Today the descendents of those settlers live in a very different place. Christine Bennett's family has been living here for four generations.

The petrochemical industry built 14 factories where Bennett lives. They make things like siding for houses, and each year release four million pounds of carcinogens such as benzene and vinyl chloride.

"This is where my ancestors are, but now part of it is gone," said Bennett. "The rest that's left there is just a little ghost town and people starving for life."

Bennett is on her way to file a petition in Washington DC on behalf of her community's human rights. Now, after five years of back and forth with the government, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will hear the case.

Stephanie Farrior, who teaches International Law at Vermont Law School, says the case is important for a number of reasons. "It is the first environmental case coming out of the United States to go to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights."

But environmental cases in other countries have succeeded. In 1985 The Yanomamo Indians charged the Brazilian government with violating their human rights. It was the first case that came before the Inter-American Commission.

For 50 years the Commission, made up of members from Canada to Argentina, has provided a last line of defense for human rights in the Americas. The United States has been before the Commission on complaints about the death penalty and Indian land claims. But this is the first environmental case from the US to reach the Commission.

"And the commission found the petition actually did make out several potential claims regarding two important rights," said Farrior. "One is the right to equality and freedom from racial discrimination, and the other, which they linked to the environment, the right to protection of the law against abusive attacks one's life, family life."

Racial discrimination and health impacts of polluted environments have been notoriously hard to win in American courts.

Jerome Ringo, former Chairman of the National Wildlife Federation, consulted on another Mossville case. That case succeeded in buying up homes of residents closest to a petrochemical factory.

"Today the first mile from the plant, from the fence line of the plant to a mile into Mossville, is abandoned," said Ringo. "The property now is owned by the industry. And that is contaminated property."

The suit compensated for property damage, but personal health damage, that's another story. Legal standards make it difficult to pinpoint which of the 14 plants, if any, is to blame for the high rates of cancer in the area.

"The EPA and the CDC does studies that really check the chemicals that are being discharged by a specific plant," said Ringo. "But I am not aware of any study that monitors the chemicals that once they meet into the atmosphere and they mix -- what do we have then?"

This toxic chemical mix is a hallmark of Louisiana's infamous cancer alley. The emancipated slaves who settled Mossville had land, but no voting rights to protect it.

With the boom in the chemical and plastics industries after WWII, companies found little resistance to building factories in these disenfranchised, black neighborhoods. Today, government researchers find three times the national average of dioxin levels in Mossville residents.

Lisa Jackson, the first African American administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, cares about this area. It's where she grew up.

The administrator has made environmental justice a centerpiece of the EPA, but she says that the laws of the United States still don't provide adequate protection to its poor and minority populations.

"And I think the Mossville case is a really interesting one because ... they had to basically make a case that the laws of this country do not provide them an opportunity for redress. And it is true that at this point there are no environmental justice laws; there's nothing on the books that gives us the ability to do it."

Since 1994, a US presidential order has mandated equal protection for minority and low-income populations, but implementation is weak. This isn't only a problem in North America says Santiago Canton, the Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

"We hear that over and over again from people that come to the Commission, saying that they try to exhaust local remedies in their own countries," said Canton. "They tried to find justice in their own countries, and they couldn't find it, so that's why they come to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights."

In the coming year the Commission will determine the merits of the Mossville case. This could be a lengthy process as 1,500 petitions are filed every year. But, international lawyer Stephanie Farrior says just getting the case heard is a victory.

"The Commission's decision to let the case go forward really goes to the very foundation of human rights law. Conditions of severe environmental pollution are inconsistent with the right be respected as a human being. And I think that's what this case is about."

And depending on the outcome, this case could open a new channel to protect and defend the human right to a clean and safe environment for all American citizens.

Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth."