Backlash On The Bayou

It’s not easy being green in an industry-friendly state like Louisiana—particularly when you have the audacity to face-off against the rich and powerful…and win. After an aggressive two-year battle by the Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic (TELC) on behalf of the residents of Convent, Louisiana, Japan-based Shintech announced last year that it was abandoning a $700 million PVC plant proposed for the tiny, mostly African-American town.

TELC had petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding the state’s issuance of environmental permits for Shintech. It also filed a complaint with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, charging Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) with illegally agreeing to site the Shintech plant in a predominantly black community already overburdened by toxic emissions.

The Murphy Oil Refinery in Meraux, Louisiana is just one of the hundreds of chemical complexes along the Mississippi River’s “cancer alley.”
Bev McDonald

But for law fellow Elizabeth Teel and her colleagues, it was a bittersweet victory. A frustrated Louisiana Governor Mike Foster, a major supporter of the state’s big oil and chemical interests, called upon the state’s most powerful business groups to petition the state Supreme Court to, in his words, “tighten up on that bunch of outlaws trying to shut everything down.”

As a result, the high court severely amended Rule XX, the statute that regulates student law clinics. Clinics are now reduced to representing the indigent, with annual incomes of less than $16,480. The amended rule also prohibits clinics from representing national organizations or community groups unless 51 percent of the group’s members meet these same income restrictions. “Since the rule went into effect, no one who sought the clinic’s help has been poor enough to qualify for our services,” says Teel.

TELC next filed a federal lawsuit against the state high court, claiming infringement of First Amendment rights. U.S. District Court Judge Eldon Fallon dismissed that lawsuit on July 20. He also proclaimed that, despite large pro-industry contributions to recent judiciary campaigns, “No one is alleging any payoffs.”

Louisiana is known for the rich package of tax incentives and “non-adversarial” permitting it offers to industry. The state’s DEQ has issued groundwater certifications without the benefit of public notification. In a memo to the DEQ, Department of Economic Development head Kevin Reilly wrote, “I want to be sure we do everything we can to prevent them [TELC and citizens’ groups] from tying up the permit application process.”

Louisiana’s chemical corridor, which follows the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, has been dubbed “Cancer Alley” for its unusually high tumor incidence. The average Convent resident breathes in 2,277 pounds of airborne toxins each year. The national average is seven pounds.

TELC has now taken its case to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.