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Mossville crisis goes to International Court

22nd April 2013   ·   0 Comments

By J. Kojo Livingston
Contributing Writer

“We’ve got a huge problem in this state where people are not protected, we are not secure. Right now we’re just lucky.” These are the words of environmental lawyer Monique Harden, Co-Director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR).

Harden is working a case with residents of a small town in Louisiana that has brought the United States government before an international court. The case could impact stricken communities across the state of Louisiana and throughout the nation.

Mossville is located near Lake Charles in Southwest Louisiana. Residents are organized as Mossville Environmental Action Now and they’ve been working since 1996 for environmental justice. The small rural town is surrounded by 14 toxic industrial plants.

According to Harden, “From 1998 to about 2005 residents had doggedly worked to get the state Department of Health And Hospitals, which was then under Bobby Jindal, to investigate evidence that residents in Mossville had high levels of dioxin poisoning in their blood. At that time the DHH refused to do the investigation, while acknowledging that there was a problem. A group of advocates petitioned the environmental protection agency in October of 1998. The EPA brought in the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). With the help of MEAN, they were able to have 28 residents’ blood tested for dioxin in December of 1998. In April of 1999 they came back with the results that said that the dioxin levels they detected in the blood were at elevated concentrations above what they would expect to find in the general population of the United States.”

Harden told The Louisiana Weekly that dioxins are prevalent in any industrial society like the U.S. It is a group of chemicals compounds that are formed with chlorines are put in a heat-reactive environment. They are an unavoidable byproduct when sodium chlorine combines with heat.

“These are serious health-damaging toxins that can disrupt your whole hormone system,” says Harden. Dioxins can trick your hormones and can create major developmental problems for a baby, a child, an unborn or an adult. It can cause things like diabetes, reproductive damage, and cancers. It’s a really bad chemical that scientists have regarded as the most toxic of all chemicals.”

There are many kinds of industrial processing that create dioxin as a byproduct. “In Mossville the levels of Dioxin are higher than what scientists would expect you or me to have, because most dioxins we get are through food intake. They increase through a process called bio-accumulation up through the food chain. Vegetation, we eat the fish. Dioxin adhered to the fatty cells. You find it in breast milk. In Mossville they had two to three times the levels of dioxin and you or me,” she said.

According to Harden, the type of dioxin found in the Mossville residents virtually proves that the health problems are being caused by the industrial facilities in that area.

“Dioxin comprises about 75 compounds,” Harden said, “The dioxin in Mossville is different from most places in the U.S. That’s the smoking gun that says it must be coming from local sources, unique from everyone else in the U.S. What is unique about Mossville is that it a rural, historically African-American community that is surrounded by 14 toxic industrial facilities that all produce dioxin.”

With this evidence scientifically verified, says Harden, residents felt that with all that they could start talking about a remedy and a remedy that would work for them. They wanted health care, monitoring, relocation, start cleaning up environmental conditions, and a reduction in pollution at the facilities.

The reaction of the government shocked and outraged the residents. Harden described the response as a locked door.

“The feds came in and said ‘We’re here to save the day. We’re here to do the dioxin investigation that Jindal’s DHH refused to do.’ The federal agency agreed to meet in Mossville with the residents to talk about the results of the dioxin testing and then on the day of that meeting they would cancel without explanation. It happened over and over again. Residents took time out of their work day and then be told at the last minute, ‘We’re not showing up, and we can’t tell you why.’ Promises were made and broken by the federal government.

“Through inside sources we acquired a secret memo from then governor Mike Foster that said ‘We will not talk about environmental justice in the way we deal with this dioxin crisis in Mossville,’ Harden continued.

The memo also said that they would no longer deal with the doctor who was hired by ATSDR to do the testing. Based on the testing he said local sources must be responsible and we need to begin to identify with those local sources as deal with the health effects of dioxin focus on children and their health and make sure their schools and medical doctors get this information.

Bobby Jindal’s DHH wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the doctor, saying he’s alarming the public, he’s hysterical.”

With the state and federal doors shut, the community still wanted to do something. “We couldn’t go to court with this evidence,” says Harden, “because it would be easily challenged and dismissed. The courts require a level of proof that the science and medicine has not yet been developed to show.”

The group resolved that their only recourse was to challenge the entire system for environmental protection. They sued the United States in an international judicial venue called the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and they have jurisdiction over the United States Government as a member of the Organization of American States.

Harden explained, “On behalf of the Mossville residents we filed litigation saying that the U.S. government’s environmental permitting of these 14 toxic industrial facilities and failure to do anything when evidence shows that there is a problem violates residents rights to health, to life to freedom from racial discrimination; that there is a pattern of environmental racism across the United States and Mossville was a part of that pattern. This included the human right to privacy as it relates to the security of one’s home. The Human Rights definition of the right to racial equality is not just limited to intentional discrimination, which is how it is in U.S. courts. It includes discrimination that results from decisions that might appear to be intentional. Discrimination is discrimination when you put it in human rights terms. You don’t have to prove someone’s intent.”

Harden believe that AEHR and the people of Mossville have made history, “The Inter-American Commission on Human rights made a historic move by ruling to take jurisdiction over the case. So, for the first time, an international judicial authority has jurisdiction over an environmental racism case in the U.S.. It really puts the U.S. government and the environmental regulatory system on trial for environmental abuses not just in Mossville but around the country.”

But they are not selfish with this opportunity, she also announces, “One of the things we are offering to people who are dealing with environmental racism and injustice is that they can file a brief in support of the case to show that it’s a system-wide problem, that it’s not just happening in Mossville but in your community too, and it’s all legal under our system of environmental law which violates our basic human rights.”

Harden is encouraged by recent admissions on the part of government officials, “Part of the Commission’s ruling says that there is no remedy for environmental racism in the United States. The past administrator of EPA Lisa Jackson agreed with it in media interviews.”

This article originally published in the April 22, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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