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The Economic Cost of Toxic Chemicals to Environmental Justice Communities

Michele Roberts | April 18, 2014

Mossville, Louisiana, a historically African-American community founded in the late 1700s, may be about to disappear.

Surrounded by 14 toxic chemical facilities, the town is now faced with a proposal from SASOL, the South African multinational chemical company, for a massive new chemical plant – with the enthusiastic support of the Louisiana state government. The interesting news is that SASOL is offering to buy homes in Mossville at a bit above their market price. The population has been shrinking for years as health hazards associated with toxic pollution have been found to be responsible for many deaths or for driving many people out. If, as expected, most of the remaining population accepts the buyout offers, the community of Mossville will be no more.

Health studies have shown that 84% of Mossville residents reported central nervous system symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, tremors, and seizures. Even among the town's nonsmokers, 46% reported respiratory illnesses such as persistent bronchitis, shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing up blood. There were also high levels of reported cancers and heart, liver, and kidney disease.

"No person that has not been harmed"

In the words of longtime resident Edgar Mouton, former president of Mossville Environmental Action Now, "There is no place or person in Mossville that has not been harmed by the toxic chemicals spewed out by all of the industrial facilities. Instead of our government helping our community to become healthy, we see our government helping the industries to release more and more pollution." Before the chemical industry came to Mossville, Mouton remembered, no one worried about going hungry amid the natural wealth of the bayous and the land. Sadly, this was no longer the case when he passed away in 2012.

Mossville didn't have to die. It was sacrificed to the chemical industry's desire to hold down costs by not cleaning up toxic emissions or switching to safer technologies. Several of the facilities that have poisoned Mossville residents produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a ubiquitous but uniquely toxic type of plastic. Dioxins and other potent carcinogens are released by PVC plants at vastly higher levels than other types of plastics. Safer alternatives are available for all major uses of PVC; a 2003 study found that phasing out PVC nationwide would cost consumers only $25 per person per year, while avoiding countless cancers and other serious illnesses.

Industry pleads poverty

Again and again, wealthy industries plead poverty, claiming they cannot afford to protect health and the environment – especially in low-income and minority communities that lack the political clout to block corporate misdeeds. Manchester, another long-term minority community in a predominantly Latino area on the Houston, Texas ship channel, suffers from the impacts of car-crushing facilities that operate 24/7, around the clock, as well as from nearby refinery and toxic chemical facilities. Homes in Manchester have a growing number of cracks in their foundations and walls due to the continual car-crushing impacts; a school there that is less than one mile from a chemical plant has many children diagnosed with asthma, learning disabilities, and leukemia.

When companies are finally forced to clean up, it frequently turns out to be cheaper than expected. Cleanup costs often come down rapidly as companies get better at it – and in many cases, we find that they had exaggerated the cleanup costs in advance, or underestimated the costs of not cleaning up. Before the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP was aware of risks with older drilling rigs like the Deepwater Horizon, the one that failed; in fact, they were installing safer equipment in newer rigs. But they claimed it was too expensive to overhaul the old ones since they would lose $700 for every minute that a rig was out of service. The costs to BP of the Deepwater Horizon blowout are now estimated to be more than $40 billion. At $700 per minute, it would take more than 100 years to run up a $40 billion bill. If they had stopped to install new, safer equipment, assuming it took them less than 100 years to do it, they would have come out ahead.

Recent spills

And the hits just keep coming. Another state that goes to great lengths to welcome the chemical industry, West Virginia, had a recent spill that left 300,000 people, many of them low-income, without access to safe drinking water. As the state has gone more Republican, environmental regulations have been relaxed. In fact, the governor set the tone when he came into office and changed the state slogan to add the phrase: "Open for business." For those claiming the promise of jobs, as is often the case made about the coal industry, it is important to note that only 3% of jobs in West Virginia are associated with "King Coal."

Similarly, the coal ash spill by Duke Energy in North Carolina – where the governor, who worked for Duke for 28 years, has weakened state environmental protection – fouled 70 miles of another river, threatening drinking water and aquatic life for downstream communities.

Industry cannot be trusted to police itself. It is simply too profitable to pollute and skip the costs of cleaning up just to protect neighbors and the environment. And whose backyard do they find it easiest to pollute, you ask? The Mossvilles of the nation, communities of color, and low-income communities in general with little political weight, but who need the protection of state and federal regulation most. No one should be forced to breathe the air, drink the water, and raise children in a toxic environment. No community should be able to be obliterated for the sake of a profit margin.


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