ConocoPhillips Cops Out on Aggrieved Refinery Neighbors
In early June, I traveled with members of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) through Louisiana’s heavily industrialized and highly polluted 85-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as “Cancer Alley,” then further west to the town of Mossville, a cancer alley unto its own. Our guides were leaders from local environmental justice, indigenous community, and coastal restoration groups, including the New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR), which fight to restore the state’s damaged coastline and obtain environmental justice for neglected communities.
Mossville was once rich in biodiversity and natural resources. The country town was thriving when Jim Moss, a former slave, arrived in the 1790s and opened a post office. Settlers fished the swamps, raised livestock and raised families free from racial hostility.
In the 1920s and 1930s, oil and chemical companies were lured south by cheap labor and tax exemptions that endured for decades. By the 1970s, Mossville was home to the largest concentration of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) facilities anywhere in the U.S. In all, 14 industrial facilities won permits to operate in and around Mossville.
The community’s health declined as it was gradually poisoned by industrial flares, groundwater contamination, PVC emissions and other potent chemical hazards. ConocoPhillips, PPG Industries and Georgia Gulf are among the companies responsible for the most toxic and flammable substances processed and stored in Mossville.*
By 1998, Mossville residents began exhibiting recurring illnesses – cancers, rashes, and chronic respiratory and reproductive diseases — compelling the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to test residents’ blood. Blood levels of dioxin were an alarming three times higher than the general population. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recorded vinyl chloride emissions at 120 times greater than the ambient air standard. University of Texas researchers found that 91 percent of the residents suffered from at least one disease related to toxic chemical exposure. Despite these findings, government agencies failed to respond to the community’s need for medical services, relocation assistance, and pollution reduction.
Faced with a dying community, residents mobilized to create Mossville Environmental Action Now (M.E.A.N.), and collaborate with AEHR and Wilma Subra, a chemist who received a MacArthur “genius” grant for her environmental health advocacy. Their analysis of government data found clear matches between the specific dioxins and dioxin compounds in emissions and waste transfers, and those found in residents’ blood, attic dust, yard soil and vegetables. A comparison of EPA and ATSDR data found an astounding 77 percent of the dioxin compounds emitted by one Georgia Gulf facility, for example, matching 77 percent of the dioxins detected in blood samples in 2001.*
In 2008, Mossville residents brought their story to ConocoPhillips’ (ticker symbol: COP) annual meeting. ConocoPhillips’ Lake Charles refinery sits on the edge of Mossville and has a history of ignoring community concerns. At the meeting, CEO Jim Mulva promised them a thorough and careful investigation of their concerns. A year passed. Residents returned to the 2009 annual meeting, and again heard promises – this time Mulva’s personal assurance he’d travel to Mossville within sixty days.
In support of the community, members of the ICCR (including Trillium Asset Management Corporation) wrote to Mulva, urging him to keep his promise.
Mulva agreed to meet in Mossville in July, stipulating that only three residents could attend. The community agreed to this unreasonable condition hoping that a first meeting could plant the seeds for future dialogues. One day before the scheduled meeting, local plant manager Willie Tempton emailed M.E.A.N. saying Mulva would not attend because “significant changes in the external environment” would make it difficult if not impossible to meet the objectives of the meeting. Tempton attributed Mulva’s no-show on outside interference “from the media and the investors”.
A respectful letter from investors and vague indications of media interest either frightened off the chief executive of one of the nation’s largest companies or merely brought to the surface the arrogance that allowed it to pollute Mossville. If ConocoPhillips intends to proceed from a place of respect and integrity, Jim Mulva should have nothing to fear from media interest or concerned shareholders. The invitation is still open to visit Mossville. It would be a wiser move to accept it than to underestimate the persistence and determination of Mossville residents and their allies.
*Wilma Subra.*Industrial Sources of Dioxin Poisoning in Mossville, Louisiana: A Report Based on the Government’s Own Data, M.E.A.N., Wilma Subra, The Subra Company, AEHR, July 2007