Revolt brews against EPA: Agency's civil rights policies squelch plant, threaten another; States plan lawsuits

By David Mastio, Detroit News Washington Bureau
Copyright 1998 Detroit News
September 18, 1998

WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency's policy linking pollution in minority communities with civil rights violations claimed its most visible national victim Thursday.

Plans for a $ 700-million plastics plant in poor, rural St. James, La., fell apart after a year of delays -- and even rallies attended by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, who vowed to campaign against the project so heavily that Louisiana voters "would think I was here running for Congress."

It's the same EPA policy that threatens a proposed $ 175-million steel mill north of Flint.

Richard Mason, controller for Shintech Inc., the company pushing to build the plastics plant, said it will try to develop another scaled-back project in nearby Iberville Parish. The new plan will cost a third of previous plans and provide only one-quarter as many jobs.

Fallout from the decision could be swift. A number of state environmental officials across the country, including Russ Harding, Michigan's chief environmental regulator, have been discussing a potential lawsuit against the EPA over its policy.

No lawsuit could be filed, Harding said, until after the states had a clear example of the policy's destructive impact on development.

Activists in Louisiana were joyous at the news. "It's a significant victory," said Pat Melancom, a local housewife and activist leader, "but we won't take our eye off Shintech until after they've formally withdrawn their permit application for St. James."

"If this is progress, leave Michigan alone," said U.S. Rep. Joseph Knollenberg, R-Bloomfield Hills, who is shepherding legislation to restrict the EPA policy through the final stages of the appropriations process in Congress.

"This is a signal that the jobs at the Flint steel mill may be the next to go," he said.

The battle over Shintech in Louisiana is by no means over.

"I know people near the new site who are very concerned," said Elizabeth Teel, a legal adviser for opponents of the plant from Tulane Law School's Environmental Law Clinic.

EPA staffers said Teel may be right. The first environmental justice complaint filed with the EPA was about a plant in Iberville only miles from the new proposed home of the Shintech plant.

Conyers visited the poverty-stricken community two weeks ago and vowed to use his resources to defeat plans for the plastics plant. After hearing of the decision, Conyers said, "The victory against Shintech is only a start."

"Across the nation, minority communities are still being victimized by opportunistic corporations whose focus on the bottom line leads them to target minority communities -- development does not have to cost people their lives or their health."

EPA Chief Carol Browner released a statement calling for the "principles" applied at Shintech to be used as a "blueprint for dealing with environmental justice issues across the nation" and called the decision proof that "environmental protection and economic growth can go hand in hand."

"It's doublespeak. Browner sounds like Bill Clinton when she makes evasive statements like that. What about the 140 jobs that vanished?" said Bill Kovacs, vice-president of environmental policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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