Environmental Justice and the Petrochemical Industry

  • Looking across the Mississippi River at Dow Chemical in Taft, La. Many of the chemical plants along the Mississippi were built in predominantly African-American communities. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

Environmental Justice is a movement to ensure that environmental risks and benefits, typically associated with industrial emissions, are spread fairly.  The movement arose out of concerns that industrial pollution was heavily concentrated in poor communities and communities of color. These populations have higher rates of diseases that can be exacerbated by airborne pollution--like asthma and heart disease.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order making Environmental Justice a priority for federal agencies, ordering them to craft strategies to lessen the effect of industrial pollution on these populations. One offshoot of this effort is that EPA requires large industrial facilities to evaluate whether new sources of emissions will have a disproportionate effect on poor and minority communities nearby. 

Advocates of Environmental Justice focus on mitigating what they view as the disproportionate burden of pollution placed on the poor and communities of color. Some of the first test cases for environmental justice were in Louisiana, where dozens of chemical facilities were built on former plantation land along the Mississippi River. 

Dubbed “Cancer Alley” by activists, the area included an African-American community in Convent, LA, just north of New Orleans. Convent is home to several chemical plants that emit millions of pounds of toxic chemicals a year. In 1996, the Japanese chemical company Shintech proposed building a large polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plant in Convent. Residents argued they were already burdened by toxic chemicals, and mounted a campaign to stop the plant. After an 18-month campaign, the company scrapped the original plan and located its plant in another town nearby.

-Jill Terner contributed to this report.