Is pollution in small town La. a case of environmental racism?

About three and a half hours west of New Orleans, there’s a town — Mossville, Louisiana. It’s a predominantly African-American town. It’s been that way since the 1790s.

The town is still tiny. There are only about 800 people at its core. But it’s no longer a farm town. Fields were replaced with houses and chemical plants. Fourteen plants now surround the small community.

Decades after the first chemical companies moved in, Mossville residents are convinced that these plants are making them sick.

“People are suffering from health problems directly associated with some of the chemicals that are released from these plants,” said Dorothy Felix.

Felix has lived in Mossville most of her life. Her hometown has long served as a refuge for blacks who weren’t welcome in other communities.

“We were here before these plants came and we were here because this was a Afro-American community and we didn’t have anywhere that we could go. We had to go somewhere were we felt safe and away from all the racial problems that were going on. This was the place for us. Now they’re forcing us to leave.”

Residents are forced to leave, some say, because staying would make them sick. Spend some time with Mossville residents and you’ll quickly find that everyone has a cousin, neighbor, sibling or parent with cancer or respiratory illness.

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Delma Bennett and his family have lived in Mossville for decades. He took theGrio on a tour of his neighborhood.

“We have three times the amount of dioxin in our bodies in comparison to the rest of the communities in America,” he said.

Dioxin is a carcinogen released by nearby plants that do everything from produce vinyl to refine chemicals. For many in the Mossville community, all this pollution is a case of environmental racism.

This month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights announced it would hear the complaints these residents raised against the federal government. The commission is part of the Organization of American States and aims to protect against human rights violations. After a hearing, they’ll decide whether or not to recommend sanctions against the United States.

“That you have this racial disparity of these people of color getting the short end of the stick, that’s a human rights violation and that’s racism,” said environmental lawyer Monique Harden. “The pollution in the air and in the environment and in the soil is having an effect on the health of the residents.”

This battle for the health of the community is something these residents have been fighting for decades, but after so many years, some see no other choice but to leave town.

All throughout Mossville there are remnants of empty driveways. They are plots of land where houses once stood. Now they’re taken over by brush because testing showed the land was toxic.

And then there’s Jasmine Dellafosse. She’s the niece of Delma Bennett. She’s 16 years old and is living with mesenchymal chondrosarcoma.

It’s a cancer of the jawbone and she says her battle with the disease has been horrible. Before she was diagnosed, Jasmine was a three-sport athlete — playing basketball, softball and volleyball. Now, she just wants to return to her normal routine. When she does, it will be in an entirely new place. Shortly after her diagnosis, her family, who has called Mossville home for generations, decided the best thing to do for Jasmine was to move out of the town.

Cancer experts say that when you find concentrations of cancer in one community, it’s hard to pinpoint the origin of the disease, but the large number of cancers in a town like Mossville may be the result of contamination that comes from a shared resource, like air or water.

Local plants deny any involvement in endangering the health of Mossville residents. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency has not found any of the companies guilty of regulatory violations.

One plant, Conoco-Phillips, released a statement saying, “Conoco-Phillips is committed to complying with all the regulations and permit requirements wherever we operate. We focus on safe, reliable and environmentally responsible operations.”

Representatives from the other chemical companies did not respond or declined to comment.

Today, the EPA is evaluating Mossville for Superfund status. It’s a label given to the most heavily polluted areas in the U.S.

Samuel Coleman of the EPA said, “They [Mossville residents] have a right to be concerned. They have a right to express those concerns. They have a right to have those concerns addressed by those of us in government.”

For the EPA, the question at hand is whether the toxins in the Mossville air, soil and water can be directly linked to the plants in the area. Superfund status would open up funding for residents that many hope will meet the needs of the town.

“They want relocation for residents that must leave because of health [concerns]. [They want] accessible heath care, reduction of pollution and a change in how the government permits industries in the area.” Harden said of the Mossville residents she has worked with for years.

These are goals Harden and others believe are within reach — and they are the goals that many will keep fighting for in Mossville, even if they are only realized for future generations.