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When residents in Mossville, Louisiana felt the US Government wasn’t protecting their right to a healthy environment, they reached past the 14 petrochemical facilities surrounding the town. They also reached past the American regulators, legislators, courts who are supposed to protect them. The people of Mossville took their grievance to the highest human rights court in the western hemisphere. Now candid approval from the highest U.S. environmental regulator appears to have boosted their petition. Living on Earth and Planet Harmony’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Six years ago Christine Bennett made her first trip to her nation’s capital to file a human rights complaint against her government.

BENNETT: Being here in Washington DC, going to make a petition is one thing. But it’s whether or not we’re going to be heard is the most important thing. Will somebody do something about it or are we just wasting our time?

SRISKANDARAJAH: Bennett and her neighbors have been waiting a long time. The story of their rights not being protected goes back generations. Emancipated slaves settled the bayous of Mossville, Louisiana. They had land, but no voting rights to protect it. After World War 2, plastics companies found little resistance to building factories in these disenfranchised black neighborhoods. Fourteen of those petrochemical plants ring the town today.

BENNETT: I’m living where my grandparents lived and I am one of the fourth generations. But now the place that was once so beautiful and so clean is now a dump.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Each year the air is loaded with four million pounds of carcinogens, earning this place the nickname “Cancer Alley.” Government researchers have measured three times the national average of dioxin in the bodies of Mossville residents. They argue that there are no environmental justice laws on our books to protect America’s most vulnerable communities. So that’s the case they took to the Inter-American Commission, a last line of defense for human rights in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. Government fought this arguing that the U.S. has plenty of environmental laws that protect its citizens. But last year, in an interview with Living on Earth, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, seemed to agree with the people of Mossville.

JACKSON: I think the Mossville case is a really interesting one because what the petitioners argue as I understand it is in order to get heard is that they basically had to make the 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.

The Conoco Phillips oil refinery is one of several facilities that release pollution including dioxins in Mossville. (Courtesy of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights)

SRISKANDARAJAH: It was what the community of Mossville had been waiting to hear: A high-ranking Government official agreeing with the main argument in their case. Administrator Jackson is the first African American EPA head and she’s from Louisiana. Since she took the job, she has made environmental justice a priority of her agency. But even apparent support from Administrator Jackson didn’t put the human rights petition in the clear.

HARDEN: I think no one in Mossville operates under the assumption that everything will be great without struggle because that hasn’t been their experience.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s Monique Harden. She’s the lawyer for the people of Mossville and has been making the case that they have to go outside of the U.S. to resolve their human rights abuses. The State Department argues back that the citizens can still appeal within the American legal system. To Harden, Administrator Jackson’s comment seemed to bolster the Mossville case.

BENNETT: Her statement was just very positive and very affirming and so when we read a few months later the brief that was filed by the U.S. government countering that, we felt that, well, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing here because we’ve got the person in charge of environmental protection of the United States agreeing with the Mossville human rights petition and we’ve got others within the U.S. government saying, it isn’t so.

Many Mossville residents have left their homes due to the pollution. (Courtesy of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Harden included Jackson’s statement in briefs she filed to the Commission last March, but the government hasn’t responded. The EPA and the State Department both declined to talk to Living on Earth as well. So we asked someone who advises on environmental human rights cases what this means. Barbara Johnston is a Senior Research Fellow for the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, California. She says the government’s silence speaks volumes.

JOHNSTON: I think there’s a minor war occurring (laughs) with all sorts of skirmishes over where our priorities are, whether we are actually going to actually demonstrate that we are indeed a nation that has great and huge concern of environmental justice, especially in cases of demonstrated environmental racism versus our economic liability. Because if the U.S. comes out with a petition that acknowledges its liability in this particular case, there is a very, very, very, very long list of injured parties out there.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Which would make environmental justice a very, very, very expensive proposition. But environmental human rights lawyer Monique Harden says it may be expensive but that would be the cost of living in a society that values all citizens and neighborhoods equally.

HARDEN: What so often happens, in communities that are struggling for environmental justice, is that they’re in dialogue mode but there’s no remedy. And a favorable decision by the Commission would create a different paradigm for what governmental regulation of the environment should look like.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In the meantime, the Mossville case has already opened an avenue for Americans to resolve environmental human rights abuse. A Navajo group fighting a uranium mine in New Mexico, has just filed their own human rights petition to the Inter-American Commission. And they cite the Mossville case as supporting their claim. For Living on Earth and Planet Harmony, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.

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We launched Planet Harmony last April with a story on the community of Mossville, Louisiana. The residents there live in the shadow of 14 petrochemical refineries and suffer from some of the highest cancer rates in the country. Now the human rights lawyers representing the people of Mossville are using Planet Harmony's report in their historic appeal to the Inter America Commission on Human Rights.

Monique Harden, one of the lead lawyers in the case, filed this brief to the Commission:  "It will be interesting to see how the administration will deal with the fact that the arguments it presented in its first brief to the Commission are entirely contradicted by the statement made by EPA Administration Lisa Jackson in her interview with Ike Sriskandarajah."

The U.S. Government claims that the people of Mossville "have not exhausted domestic remedies" which is a requirement to be heard by the IACHR.  But EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told Planet Harmony: "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."

Harden said she was surprised by Administrator Jackson's statement in our report, "heck yeah I was surprised and joyful, greatful." She added about the admistrator, "this is a person who gets it."

The EPA was not immediately available to comment. Harden and her firm, Environmental Human Rights, say that this will be definitely be a "sticking point" for the Government's defense. 

We'll be following this story as it develops.  In the meantime here's the report in full:  

SRISKANDARAJAH: 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.

BENNETT: The place that was once so beautiful and so clean is now a dump.

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

BENNETT: What happened to that place that I was reared at—that I can go back and share with my children. This is where my ancestors are. But now part of it is gone, the rest that’s left there is a little ghost town people and starving for life.

SRISKANDARAJAH: We met up with Bennett on her way to file a petition in Washington D.C. 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.

FARRIOR: Well this case is important in a number of respects.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Stephanie Farrior teaches International Law at Vermont Law School.

FARRIOR: It is the first environmental case coming out of the United States to go to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

SRISKANDARAJAH: So this is the first? So nobody’s tried this before? FARRIOR: Not from the United States.

SRISKANDARAJAH: But other environmental cases have succeeded. In 1985 The Yanomamo Indians charged the Brazilian government with violating their human rights.

FARRIOR: So that was the first environmental case that came to the Inter-American Commission.

SRISKANDARAJAH: 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 U.S. to reach the Commission.

FARRIOR: And the commission found the petition actually did make out several potential claims regarding two important rights. 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.

SRISKANDARAJAH: 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 succeeded in buying up homes of residents closest to a petrochemical factory.

RINGO: Today the first mile from the plant, from the fence line of the plant to a mile into Mossville is abandoned and the property now is owned by the industry and that is contaminated property.

SRISKANDARAJAH: This 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.

RINGO: The EPA and the CDC does studies that really check the chemicals that are being discharged by a specific plant, 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?

SRISKANDARAJAH: 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 World War Two, 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.

RINGO: Well you know that’s the responsibility of government. We recognize that we have an EPA, who is now doing great job because of the leadership of Lisa Jackson.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Jackson is the first African American administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. And she cares about this area. JACKSON: That’s right. It’s where I grew up.

SRISKANDARAJAH: 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.

JACKSON: And I think the Mossville case is a really interesting one because what the petitioners argue, as I understand it, is not in order to get heard 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.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Since 1994 a U.S. 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. He’s the Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

CANDON: 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, 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.

SRISKANDARAJAH: 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.

FARRIOR: 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.

SRISKANDARAJAH: 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. For Living on Earth and Planet Harmony I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.

CURWOOD: Ike is the Senior Editor of Planet Harmony, and everyone is invited to participate in our new online network, and we especially encourage young people of color to share their stories of environmental concern.

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The oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico is now leaking 210,000 barrels of oil a day destroying not only marine life but also the livelihoods of Louisiana fisherman.  Once the oil slick contaminates shrimp beds, the shrimp season which is only beginning, will be over.  Clean up efforts may last years and it is uncertain when fishermen will be able to continue fishing.  Roger Halphen, a local teacher, told the Associated Press "There is a lot of bitterness.  Most of these people are second, third, fourth generation fisherman and now they are looking at the end of their industry."

Many of these fisherman are paying off boat loans costing up to tens of thousands of dollars.  In desperate need of work, hundreds of fisherman have signed up to be a part of the clean up effort. 
Read more about Louisiana fishermen.