In January, a group of state and local officials gathered at the Shintech chemical plant in the West Baton Rouge Parish town of Addis to announce what they see as good economic news. The Shintech company had chosen Louisiana over Texas for the construction of a $1 billion PVC plant, to be built in Iberville Parish.
For Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso, Shintech's decision means work for his constituents: The construction process promises to employ more than 2,000 workers. Plus, 150 permanent employees will settle in by the end of 2006, if all goes smoothly. For Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the announcement amounts to another fulfillment of her promise to woo businesses to the state. At the gathering, she repeated the catchphrase with which she has capped each victory, from her inauguration day to a previous announcement of a major investment by General Motors. The Shintech decision, said Blanco, is "another sign that Louisiana is open for business."
For some environmentalists, however, the announcement dredged up bad memories and stirred new fears. Les Ann Kirkland, co-director of the Iberville Parish environmental group AWARE, remembers the drives she took to St. James Parish in the late 1990s to protest Shintech's attempt to build a manufacturing facility there. That struggle became known nationwide, as residents insisted they wanted cleaner air rather than a new batch of smokestacks.
Now, Kirkland is facing the construction of a new Shintech facility less than five miles from her home. "The chemical industry endangers the way of life we have here," she says. "The burden is too great."
SHINTECH'S TANGLED HISTORY in Louisiana goes back to 1996, when the company, a subsidiary of Shin-etsu Chemical of Japan, announced plans to spend $700 million building a cluster of three factories in the predominantly African-American town of Convent. The state fast-tracked the project and quickly issued permits. But residents protested, saying that the area was already too heavily industrialized and that another plant would decrease air quality still further. They worried particularly about vinyl chloride, a gas that would be used in manufacturing PVC pipes at one of Shintech's factories.
According to the federal government's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, breathing vinyl chloride for long periods of time can cause permanent liver damage, immune reactions, nerve damage and liver cancer. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared it a known carcinogen after conducting studies in the 1970s of workers who had breathed vinyl chloride over many years, and finding increased rates of liver cancer, brain cancer, lung cancer and cancer of the blood. "This chemical causes everything you can think of," Kirkland says. "It's just one of the bad players."
The St. James citizens, with help from the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, petitioned the federal government to have Shintech's permits revoked, saying that the company's permit application did not comply with the Clean Air Act. The Environmental Protection Agency agreed, finding fault with Shintech's permits and sending the company and the state back to start the process again. After some further attempts by the company to produce a permit application that met federal regulations, Shintech withdrew its application and backed away from St. James Parish -- but built a smaller plant instead in West Baton Rouge Parish.
The struggle in St. James received nationwide attention, as environmentalists viewed it as a defining case of "environmental racism," the practice of constructing polluting facilities in low-income, minority communities. Groups such as Greenpeace applauded Shintech's exit from St. James Parish, calling the outcome a civil rights victory in an underdog fight that pitted local citizens, like community leaders Pat Melancon and Emelda West, against the allied strength of the governor's office, business groups, and state legislators and judges. The dramatic story was even adapted into a movie for the Lifetime network, Taking Back Our Town. But for the Louisiana activists who were closest to the struggle, the win was bittersweet.
"It was terribly painful for the community in St. James that we represented," says Marylee Orr, director of LEAN. "We kept [the Shintech plant] out of their neighborhood, but they built it somewhere else. The St. James people were relieved that they didn't build it in St. James, but I don't think they really felt it was a complete victory. It wasn't just a not in my back yard' issue, they wanted it not in anybody's backyard."
But state officials now call Shintech a model corporate citizen, based on its performance in West Baton Rouge Parish. "We haven't had any major issues with them since they've been operating in West Baton Rouge Parish," says Dr. Chuck Carr Brown, assistant secretary of Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality. "Their track record has been very good."
Both Maurice Brown, the mayor of White Castle, and Iberville Parish President Ourso say they were reassured by the record of Shintech's first Louisiana facility. "Shintech has proved that they will go above and beyond to have an environmentally safe plant here," says Ourso. "I don't question that. They are one of the world leaders in PVC production and technology, and the plant that they built in West Baton Rouge has proven that. They have lived up to their promises."
THE REAL LEGACY of the Shintech "brouhaha," as Orr calls it, was a lingering mistrust of the state government's intentions. "The tone was very confrontational," says Orr. "Governor (Mike) Foster actually went to New Orleans and told prominent businessmen not to give money to Tulane, because of the environmental law clinic's involvement in the Shintech case. He got so involved that it didn't seem appropriate."
In contrast, Blanco's administration has taken a more cautionary approach. At the press conference announcing Shintech's expansion in Louisiana, Blanco applauded the company's decision but stressed that the company would face a "complex and rigorous" process to obtain environmental permits.
"We expect you to be good stewards of our environment," Blanco said. "The process will be tough, but I hope Shintech, as a world-class company, will exceed our toughest requirements." Other state officials amplify her message, stressing that a healthy environment is the governor's top priority.
WHILE BLANCO IS TAKING PAINS to distance herself from her predecessor, Shintech also seems to have learned a few lessons about public relations from its earlier experiences in Louisiana. Prior to the announcement about the new facility's location, a Shintech manager held three public meetings to explain what the company hoped to build. By most accounts, the community responded positively to the outreach. "It was a blowout at all three meetings," says Ourso. "The people wanted the economic development, the people wanted the jobs."
However, Kirkland says that there is a low murmur of dissent, and that several people have told her that they didn't speak up at the public meetings because they felt intimidated. Others who felt passionately about keeping the Shintech plant out of Louisiana in the late 1990s simply don't have the energy to go through another long ordeal, she says.
"The first time, hundreds of people came out, saying we have too many chemicals, we don't want another plant here," says Kirkland. "They did everything they were supposed to do -- they wrote letters, they went to meetings, they carried signs in parades, and that plant still came, the government let them come. This time around, they're not stupid. They think, I did all that last time to no avail, why should I do it again?' You have people who feel let down by the government and the process. So they're not getting involved."
Both Kirkland and Orr say they're not yet certain how strenuously their environmental groups will protest the construction of the new facility. But even if the community as a whole embraces the new plant, Orr says she'll still push for strict standards on the emission of toxins, including vinyl chloride, and vigilant monitoring by the state.
"If the parish is willing to accept the plant, you want it to be as protective of worker heath and public health as possible," says Orr. As the new facility goes through the permitting process, LEAN will examine the technological specifications spelled out in the permit, looking for areas where it sees room for improvement. "That kind of technical discussion is what we're looking forward to -- not just the rhetoric," says Orr.
SEVERAL FACTORS WILL COMBINE to make the new Shintech facility a clean one, says David Wise, the plant manager for Shintech's facility in Addis. He says the new plant will be subject to some of the most rigorous regulations in the country, as newly constructed plants are required to have low emission levels. In addition, the plant will be located within the Greater Baton Rouge area, which has been designated an "ozone non-attainment" area by the federal government, due to its already high pollution levels. This means that any plant within the area has to keep emissions that contribute to smog to a bare minimum.
And then, says Wise, there is the company's belief that running a clean plant makes good business sense. "Emissions are basically lost raw materials or product," he says. "If you're sending it out into the air, you're definitely not using it or selling it to the customer." To prove that the company means what it says, he points to the Addis facility, which he says has cut its emissions to one-third of the amount it is permitted to release.
This combination of new technology and dedication to efficiency should serve as a model for other new businesses in the state, says Michael Olivier, secretary of the state Department of Economic Development. "This is going to be Star Wars technology," he says, "where these people are going to be managing and utilizing technology that is not currently in play in most chemical plants." The plastics and the chemicals that Shintech make are the building blocks of our modern world, says Olivier. Rather than demonize the producers of such materials, he says, "we need to have new technology applied that will reduce the risk of that production." If Louisiana is going to continue to build up its chemical corridor, he says, such a technological upgrade is the first step.
Environmentalists, however, say that by continuing to focus on the petrochemical industry, Louisiana isn't building on its strengths -- it's refusing to examine new options. "All this economic development is going down the same path we went down before, with the same problems. We should learn from our mistakes," says Liz Avants, who co-directs the Iberville Parish environmental group AWARE. "God blessed us with rich natural resources; we could be the organic food capital of the world. Let's look in that direction."
Others say that adding another plant that emits the chemical vinyl chloride to those that already exist poses an unacceptable health risk. Even if Shintech proves to be an exemplary and clean plant, they say, these things add up. Shelly Licciardi has a personal reason for being concerned: in April of 2004, her fiance was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer. She says the doctors can't tell what caused it, but her first thought was that it might have something to do with the chemical plants near his home in Plaquemine, in Iberville Parish. "It's this little bitty town, and it's surrounded by three polyvinyl chloride plants," she says. "It's ridiculous that they're putting another plant there."
Some studies have linked incidences of glioblastoma with vinyl chloride exposure, but Shintech's David Wise says the chemical has only been found to be dangerous when workers were exposed to extremely high doses of it for long periods of time. That no longer happens, he says, because of strict safety regulations. Due to the company motto of "live locally, hire locally, buy locally," he says he can vouch for the Shintech plant's safety to the public health. "I live less than two miles from our existing Addis facility, so I guess I'm putting my money where my mouth is," he says.