Trillium News

Justice Comes Slowly for Residents of Mossville, LA

By Susan Baker, Vice-President, Shareholder Advocacy and Corporate Engagement

“We finally got what we have been asking for!” exclaimed Dorothy Felix, President of Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN) when we spoke by phone in mid-July.

Dorothy had just returned from a meeting with Mike Hayes, who is the Corporate Affairs Manager for the multinational chemical company Sasol North America. At the meeting, Mr. Hayes shared the news, hours ahead of the company’s press release, that Sasol will be offering all Mossville, Louisiana residents relocation assistance in advance of a major plant expansion.

With a $21 billion price tag, Sasol is set to make the largest foreign investment in the state’s history. The company is building a facility, with a foot print extending into Mossville, which will convert natural gas to a variety of chemicals products and liquid fuels.

Mossville sits on the heel of the boot in Louisiana’s southwest corner. The community, founded in the 1790s by Jim Moss, a freed slave, grew as settlers arrived to raise livestock, fish the swamps and rich waterways, and raise families free from racial hostility.

By the 1970s oil and chemical companies, which were enticed to the south during the 1920s and 1930s by cheap labor and tax exemptions, had dramatically altered the local landscape. At its peak, the state was home to nearly a quarter of the nation’s polyvinyl chloride (PVC) manufacturers, four of them clustered near Mossville. In all, 14 industrial facilities operated in and around the predominantly African-American community.

Local residents began complaining of chronic health ailments and recurring cancers in the 1980s and 1990s. In the late 1990s, more than 200 homes were purchased by Georgia Gulf after a chemical spill from their vinyl chloride facility caused severe groundwater contamination. The community group MEAN was formed to organize community members to reach out to state and federal government agencies for help in identifying the origins of their illnesses. The work of these agencies is documented in Industrial Sources of Dioxin Poisoning published in 2007.[1]

Relocation assistance was one of MEAN’s primary goals during their long struggle for environmental justice. Sasol’s voluntary home purchase program represents relief from decades of dioxin and toxic pollutants.

Sasol’s recent announcement for relocation assistance marks a milestone for investors who have been urging companies to better manage and track their community engagement practices and community environmental accountability policies.

For the past four years Trillium, and investor partners including the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) and the Investor Environmental Health Network, have been actively engaging companies through shareholder proposal filings and dialogues to press them to mitigate the business risks associated with inadequate community engagement policies.

In 2009, when Conoco Phillips’ CEO Jim Mulva went back on his promise to meet with Mossville residents, Trillium and other investors sent him a letter and organized a follow up call with a company representative urging Mr. Mulva to keep his promise. Our actions, when added to pressures from a variety of other organizations, resulted in his traveling to Mossville to meet with MEAN. Subsequently, Conoco’s plant manager began regular dialogues with MEAN.

Trillium’s engagement with Sasol, which began in March of 2013, did not start on a promising note as the company had recently announced its expansion without disclosing a plan on addressing its impact on nearby communities. Our advocacy team drafted a letter to the company, which was signed by investors representing $11 billion in assets under management, which resulted in Sasol acknowledging that its community outreach programs were not sufficient.

The investor coalition provided Sasol with resources, including ICCR’s guide on multi-stakeholder collaboration[2] which provides case studies of companies with successful outreach practices. In a follow-up letter to investors, Sasol’s VP of US Operations, Mike Thomas wrote, “We are engaged in the process of identifying the activities necessary to support this project and our surrounding communities. Your guide will be useful complement to this effort.”

In late April of this year, Trillium led a productive in person meeting with Sasol management and Mercy Investments. Just 10 days after this meeting, Dorothy Felix of MEAN received more detailed information about the company’s expansion and notice that a community meeting was being organized.

Sasol made its decision to offer relocation assistance to approximately 450 Mossville homeowners in July 2013. When the company released a handbook with details of its voluntary purchase plan they included the coalition’s recommendations for effective community engagement – primarily focused on transparency and community consultation.

In our view, Sasol’s voluntary purchase plan provides several best practices indicators for companies developing community engagement practices.

Sasol approached several community members ahead of releasing its relocation assistance program and its dedicated website details key topics championed by NGO environmental justice advocates[3] helping communities with relocation. Those topics include securing access to cemeteries, addressing specific circumstances of renters, and including funds for moving, legal, and closing costs.

Sasol is also engaging with MEAN, its legal advisors and other community members. And is seeking out elderly, disabled and other less visible members of the community by partnering with members of the clergy to disseminate information about the voluntary purchase plan. Sasol representatives have committed to community, investor and shareholder engagement until the relocation is complete.

It is important to note that assistance to relocate away from a toxic threat does not reverse the damage to residents’ health that has already occurred. Nor does it erase the loss to families’ roots when they leave their community. Sasol is in discussions about how the historical significance of Mossville can be honored and preserved.

Trillium is gratified that after more than four years of shareholder advocacy work in Mossville, community members, corporate executives and investors are now working constructively to meet the needs of a community seeking a viable future.

[1] Industrial Sources of Dioxin Poisoning in Mossville, Louisiana, Wilma Subra, The Subra Company; July 2007

[2] ICCR’s Social Sustainability Resource Guide

[3] ‘Relocation: Getting organized & Getting Out (Go Go)’ Center for Health, Environment & Justice; January 2013