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Are Plastics Inevitable?

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By Rebecca Johnson, Urban Ecology Blog

It was really late on a Friday night in New Orleans.  We had started our evening celebration with a Bring the Musicians Home concert featuring the brass funk band Bonearama.  I had heard a cut from their new CD, Hard Times.  It was a remake of Memphis Minnie’s “When The Levee Breaks” (hah, bet you thought Led Zeppelin wrote that! No, but that’s another story).  Anyway, Bonearama closed with “When the Levee Breaks” and then brought out the Mardi Gras icon Al Johnson to perform “Carnival Time” with the assembled musical luminaries.

We were community organizers celebrating successful environmental justice and health organizing and shaking our butts in relief that we hadn’t been arrested by a local Louisiana sheriff’s department.  We went looking for more music and cheap alcohol. We wanted to dance until some bar threw us out.   As we settled into a little R&B place, I saw the shoes.  A couple slow-dancing to something by Marvin Gaye.  She was wearing three-inch Lucite heels. She looked like she was floating three inches off the ground, with only a fine pedicure showing.  I can’t say I actually know what it feels like to walk in them, or even to wear high heels as I am a fashion-challenged, some would even say femininity-challenged middle-aged woman.  But I understood the attraction--the illusion of height and such dominance that one could levitate above the fray.  Lucite heels made from plastic polymers.

On this Earth Day I’m not going to ask you to not buy those Lucite party heels.  Even though they are made of plastic.  Even though plastics never really biodegrade, even though vast islands of plastic bags and bottles have been dumped and are floating in the Pacific Ocean, even though …

Because plastics, in the short term at least, are inevitable.  Did I tell you that when I was a kid I helped my sister fabricate a working model of the human heart?  I (well, really my dad) bought the chemicals.  I built a mold, shaped the four chambers to represent that living, beating muscle of life, mixed the chemicals.  I think I was given an honorable mention. I aspired to be a scientist back then. Chemistry was my fascination. I wanted to be like George Washington Carver, the shining star of Tuskegee Institute, the magician who turned soybeans into … plastic.

So this Earth Day I’m not going to ask you to not buy things made of plastics.  I’m not going to ask you to give up high (or low) fashion for Earth shoes and hemp blouses.  I am not disputing their usefulness in everyday life.  If I did that I would have to stop typing on my beloved laptop, give up the safety glass windshield on my car, never own a cell phone, and never ride on a jet, bus or airplane, and watch the local emergency room close down. But just because plastics have become indispensable to everyday life doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a hard look at them, especially how their manufacture in this country affects the lives and health of communities of color who are neighbors to these plants.

In spite of Prof. George Washington Carver’s innovations with peanuts, most plastics begin with petroleum.  Crude oil is turned into hydrocarbon molecules of different sizes resulting in substances of varying flexibility, malleability, hardness, and strength.  It’s an amazing process and a testament to human inventiveness.  But like much of 20 th century industrial innovation, there is a short-sightedness to it as well.

Consider, for example, the large oil and chemical refinery plantation in Calcaseiu Parish, Louisiana.  Did I say plantation?  I meant the large oil and chemical refinery district across the way from Lake Charles.  We’d been dancing to celebrate a trip to Mossville, a small unincorporated, historically African American town half a mile from 13 of the largest facilities in the parish.  Founded by escaped or freed slaves, the current residents of Mossville have been fighting for their health, the survival of their community, their very lives.  They formed the grassroots environmental justice organization Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN) to force the state of Louisiana and the Federal government to hold the polluters accountable.  They are want the government to mitigate the environmental damage caused by pollution of their air and water, to honestly and completely address the extreme and diverse health complications they experience, and to provide economically fair relocation assistance for those who wish to move out of the polluted community.

I love typing these words – historically African-American town.  Mossville is a historically African-American community more than 150 years old.  So, you can say I’m a nationalist, or a romantic, or just a misplaced country girl living in Boston, but in some fundamental way these are my people.  And as much as I love my iPhone, my computer, driving my Subaru wagon and watching women dance to r&b in sexy three-inch Lucite heels, we have to take an honest look at what is  killing the people of Mossville.

Yes, Mossville residents work in the refineries and chemical plants as well as live in the midst of the refineries’ pollution.  And white residents of the towns of Sulphur and Westlake also live and work in the pollution but it was the Black community that documented how much dioxin and other toxic particulates blew through their community, learned about the health implications of the pollution they endured, and sought accountability. They have met with resistance all along the way.  State and Federal environmental protection officials and the refineries obfuscated and ignored what was happening, until a toxic plume spread from the plants into the wells of residents immediately adjacent to the Conoco Phillips refinery.  After a concerted organizing effort, the Mossville neighborhood of Bel Air was evacuated and the residents were offered an inadequate relocation package.  And then the standoff began.

Who is charged with protecting the public’s health?  We all know about the EPA but there is another government organization, created in the Clinton administration, which is charged with investigating diseases caused by pollution.  The Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry (ATSDR) is affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  ATSDR is one of those through the looking-glass kind of bureaucracies.  For example, MEAN, through its participation in citizen air monitoring activities, shows that their air contains three times the dioxin of other US communities.  Read what scientists’ reported in Industrial Sources of Dioxin Poisoning in Mossville, Louisiana :

Notwithstanding the severe health effects of dioxins and the elevated dioxin levels among Mossville residents, ATSDR outrageously concluded in its report that “the health significance of the blood dioxin concentrations measured in this investigation is unclear.” (p.4)

At a recent community health forum in Sulphur, LA, an ATSDR represented stated “Your air is safe.  There’s nothing wrong with the air,” and followed up with this gem, when asked about the safety of growing food in the area: “The soil is contaminated but the water is safe…dioxin doesn’t get into the water because it isn’t water soluble and plants can’t absorb it.”  Umm… high school chemistry?  How do Mossville residents end up with such high concentrations in their blood? Maybe they shoot it up from the dirt.

So between the Bush-era EPA, the chronically inept ATSDR and the fundamentally venal Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality “monitoring” the activities of the refineries, it’s no wonder that in 2005, and then again in 2008 on appeal, MEAN, through Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR), chose to petition the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights  (IAHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) to hear their claim that the United States government had not protected their human rights.

“The Mossville residents say the current situation violates their right to good health and a clean environment, as well as their right to live free of discrimination. The placement of so many industries in the predominantly African American town constitutes environmental racism,” asserted their petition. The United States is a member of OAS and a signatory to the IAHR. On April 2, the international court agreed to hear Mossville’s claim.

This is the situation we are in.  Throughout its history, Louisiana has shown itself to be more interested in corporate and capitalist interests then the protection of its citizens (levees break, people drown, refineries have explosions, people die). Until recently the Federal government has not seemed willing to hold the state or the refineries accountable.  So US citizens must appeal to an international body for relief from what is apparent to anyone willing to see.

What to do?  Send letters of support for the MEAN petition to AEHR.  Send Gov. Jindal a letter reminding him that residents living in the refinery fenceline communities in his state are citizens who deserve protection. Encourage new EPA administrator and New Orleans native Lisa Jackson to take on the refineries.  This is an important moment in the movement for environmental justice.  This is our moment to save lives.  Don’t let it pass you by.

Links:

Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry (ATSDR) -- http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/about/testimony.html

Mossville Environmental Action Now -- http://meannow.net/index.html

OAS submission -- http://enewsusa.blogspot.com/2008/07/mossville-la-group-submits.html

OAS takes case -- http://www.grist.org/article/louisiana-environmental-racism-case-gets-hearing-from-inter-american-commis/

Industrial Sources of Dioxin Pollution -- www.corporatecrimereporter.com/documents/mossville.pdf

“The Mossville residents say the current situation violates their right to good health and a clean environment, as well as their right to live free of discrimination. The placement of so many industries in the predominantly African American town constitutes environmental racism.” http://www.ehumanrights.org/media_coverage_mar22-05.htmlRebecca Johnson is a member of the Health Advocacy faculty at Sarah Lawrence College.  She earned her BA at Southern New Hampshire University. MS (Community Economic Development), Southern New Hampshire University. MFA (Nonfiction), Sarah Lawrence College. Founder and Executive Director of Cooperative Economics for Women, Boston, MA. Expertise in community organizing, participatory action research, oral history, and other forms of community history research; published works include, including most recently, Lonesome Refugees, (Callaloo, 2007); We Want To Be At The Table: Helping Environmental Groups Rebuild After Katrina (Environmental Support Center, 2006); The History of Charity (Grassroots Fundraising Journal Conference 2006); New Moon Over Roxbury, Ecofeminism and the Sacred, Carol Adams, ed. (Continuum, 1993). SLC, 2007-