Sixty-nine years ago, Edgar Mouton Jr. was born into a small town in southwest Louisiana where the houses alternated with rice and potato fields and where patches of forest lined the dirt roads. The townspeople were poor, he says, but the bounty from the Bayou d'Inde turned many meals into feasts. "When I was coming up as a kid, you could eat any amount of fish, crawfish, shrimp, oysters that you wanted," he says.
Today, Mouton still lives in that town of Mossville, just west of Lake Charles, but says he hardly recognizes his boyhood home. Over the intervening years, 14 industrial facilities moved into the Mossville area, including chemical companies, an oil refinery and a coal-fired power plant. Initially, Mouton looked forward to the jobs brought by these facilities -- he worked for a chemical company for 28 years -- but eventually he and others began to wonder about the environmental and health effects of so many industries in one area. Then in 1992, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) warned residents that the seafood from the bayou was contaminated with chemicals and should be eaten no more than twice per month.
"People want to know why they're getting sick, why their children are getting sick, why their family members are dying," Mouton says. "It is not natural. It comes from the chemicals in our area."
Mouton, who is now president of the nonprofit group Mossville Environmental Action Now, enlisted the help of the New Orleans-based public interest law firm, Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. On March 7, the group presented a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a division of the Organization of American States (OAS). The petition alleges that the environmental situation in Mossville is a violation of the residents' basic human rights.
A spokesperson for the state DEQ says the department is aware of the petition, but declined further comment. If the petition is successful, Mouton says, he hopes to receive money to move away from Mossville, the only home he has ever known.
APPEALING TO AN INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION is an unusual tactic for a group of Louisiana residents, admits Monique Harden, who co-founded Advocates for Environmental Human Rights in September 2003. They went that route after exhausting all other avenues to relief, she says.
"It's completely legal and sanctioned under the so-called system of environmental protection to have 14 toxic facilities around your home," Harden says. Each individual facility is complying with state and federal regulations, meaning that there are no grounds to sue or file a complaint. However, the advocates argue that 14 industrial plants -- even when each is following the law -- add up to a dangerous place to live.
The Mossville residents say the current situation violates their right to good health and a clean environment, as well as their right to live free of discrimination. The placement of so many industries in the predominantly African American town constitutes environmental racism, they say.
The OAS is essentially a regional United Nations with 34 member countries in the Western Hemisphere, including the United States. The Commission on Human Rights offers a recourse to citizens who believe that their governments have allowed their human rights to be abridged. In the past, the bulk of petitions dealt with political abuses of human rights such as torture and wrongful imprisonment, says Brian Tittemore, a staff attorney at the commission.
"It's really only in the last 10 years that we've started to see more complaints that are less strictly political," he says. "There's a strong movement towards defining these economic, social and cultural rights." Activists are pushing governments to acknowledge such tenets as the rights to an education, decent housing and a clean environment, he says.
The commission has received petitions concerning environmental degradation before, says Tittemore, but usually from indigenous people in South American countries fighting development on their lands. The petition submitted by the Mossville residents cites two precedents -- in which the commission ruled in favor of indigenous groups in Ecuador and Brazil -- to bolster their case. In a 1997 Ecuador case, the commission found that the degradation of the rainforest environment by oil drilling constituted a human rights violation. The ruling stated that the lack of strong and enforced environmental regulations had led to pollution that posed a threat to the life and health of residents.
The Mossville residents are the first American group to submit a petition based solely on an environmental concern. But while they may be the first, they surely won't be the last, says Cynthia Soohoo, director of the Bringing Human Rights Home Project at Columbia University's law school, a program that encourages U.S. compliance with international human rights law. "I think it is part of a trend," says Soohoo, "we're a global community now."
Although President George W. Bush's administration has distanced itself from many international treaties and organizations, she says, "I don't think it's going to stop American activists from seeking out these international bodies."
By going to entities like the Commission on Human Rights, activists can start a dialogue on the merits of U.S. law that is not possible in state or federal courts, Soohoo says. "Just because something is legal under U.S. law doesn't mean that it complies with human rights norms," she says.
THE MEMBERS OF THE MOSSVILLE Environmental Action Now have been calling attention to the environmental condition of their town since the late 1990s, with mixed results. Their main concerns include a class of chemicals known as dioxins that are produced by the vinyl manufacturing plants in the Mossville area and are known carcinogens. The activists turned to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and, in 1999, the agency studied dioxin levels in the blood of Mossville residents who did not work at a chemical plant. Levels were found to be three times higher than the national average.
At the same time, the chemical company Condea Vista was negotiating with residents in a part of town where the well that supplied water for the residents was contaminated. Under a relocation agreement, about 70 families sold their property to the company and moved away. It was a painful process, says Dorothy Felix, vice-president of Mossville Environmental Action Now. "They split our community in half. They relocated some people from this contaminated area, but they left the other half of the town, saying it was safe."
It will now take several years for the commission to investigate the petition's allegations. Even if the commission ultimately rules that the Mossville residents' human rights have been violated, the decision would have little immediate impact. The United States maintains that the commission's rulings are not binding and often does not act on its recommendations. Tittemore says the commission more often sees its recommendations implemented indirectly. He cites the recent Supreme Court decision banning the death penalty for juveniles, which followed the commission's 2002 ruling that the practice was an abuse of human rights. That ruling was one of the documents considered by the Supreme Court.
An objective ruling from an authoritative international body can be used in a variety of ways, says Tittemore. "In a case like [the Mossville petition], where you're dealing with allegations of environmental violations, perhaps the commission's report could be used to support legislative initiatives to try to change regulations to deal with these issues," he says.
The petition requests medical care for sick Mossville residents, relocation for residents like Edgar Mouton Jr. who would like to leave, and a freeze on industrial expansion in the area. It also asks for sweeping reforms of environmental regulations to take into account the cumulative effect that a cluster of industries can have on the environment and human health.
Mossville residents have pleaded for these measures for years, says Nathalie Walker, the other co-founder of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, but to no avail. She says a ruling by the commission in favor of the Mossville residents would help in their negotiations with the state government and nearby industries.
"It's not unusual for us to find ourselves in a situation where we have to convince an agency to exercise its discretionary authority," she says. "There are ways to make people do things they ought to do but don't have to do."