Environmental Justice Case Study: Shintech PVC Plant in Convent, Louisiana

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Above image taken from Mapquest, 1999.

The Problem

In 1996, Shintech, which is a Japanese subsidiary of Shin Etsu, proposed to build a $700 million polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plant in Convent, Louisiana. The plant would consist of three chemical factories and an incinerator. Convent is in St. James Parish (counties in Louisiana are called parishes). St. James Parish is located in the heart of what has become known as "Cancer Alley". It is an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Cancer Alley gets its name from the over 140 petrochemical and other industrial plants with which higher rates of cancer and other medical problems have been associated. St. James Parish is considered by the Environmental Defense Fund to be one of America's 25 most polluted counties. It is home to over eight chemical plants, which emitted 17 million pounds of toxic emissions in 1995. The people of St. James Parish are already overburdened with toxic emissions. The Shintech PVC plant would emit an additional 600,000 pounds of toxic chemicals and 6.8 million gallons of wastewater into the Mississippi River each year. Chemical discharges into the water would include benzene, methyl chloride, carbon tetrachloride and ethylene dichloride. The Mississippi River is the source of water for many Louisiana cities including New Orleans. The issue of Shintech's proposed PVC plant is controversial not only because the residents are already overburdened with toxic emissions, but because the population is predominately African-American.

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The Shintech case is a controversial issue because it is a test of whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will protect people of color and low-income communities in accordance with President Clinton's Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice. Executive Order 12898 states that federal agencies must identify and address the disproportionate effects of environmental hazards on minority and low-income communities. Four years before Shintech announced its plans to build a PVC plant in Convent; the Louisiana State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report on environmental racism in Louisiana. The report stated that, existing hazardous waste and chemical facilities disproportionately impacted many African-American communities along the industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

In 1996, Shintech announced its plans to build a PVC plant in Convent. A public hearing regarding the proposed air permit for Shintech was held on December 9, 1996. Three hundred citizens showed up to voice their opposition. In response to such strong opposition, the Region VI EPA recommended that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) address environmental justice concerns before making their final decision regarding the issuance of the air permit. Regardless of overwhelming public concern, on May 23, 1997, the Louisiana DEQ granted Shintech its Title V air permit. Previously, in February 1997, Shintech was issued its land use permit. The only remaining permit necessary for operation was the water permit. In the summer of 1998, the EPA was scheduled to issue a final decision on the Shintech case. However, in June of 1998, the EPA's final decision was delayed because it had asked its Science Advisory Board (SAB) to review its techniques in determining disproportionate "burden". The EPA assesses disproportionate burden using data from the 1990 census and estimates of industry-reported air emissions. The SAB decision was expected in October 1998. After more than two years of struggle, Shintech announced on September 17, 1998 that it would back out of its plans to build a PVC plant in Convent, Louisiana.

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Key Actors


The major proponent of the PVC plant in Convent is Shintech. Shintech is a subsidiary of the Japanese company Shin Etsu. One of Shin Etsu's products is polyvinyl chloride, which is used in making plastic pipes and other products. Shintech planned to spend $700 million on the PVC plant in Convent, Louisiana. Shintech has contributed millions of dollars to plant supporters including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the campaigns of Louisiana's governor, Mike Foster and the Louisiana Supreme Court justice races.

Citizens of Convent

Although some citizens of Convent would like Shintech to build their PVC plant for employment opportunities, a majority of Convent citizens are opposed to the PVC plant. Opponents have formed a group called St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment (SJCJE). SJCJE is very active in fighting Shintech. The group has about 100 members. One member, Emelda West, recently took a trip to Japan to talk to Shin Etsu representatives in person and ask that they not build a PVC plant in her town.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is very important in this case because it makes the final decision on whether Shintech will be allowed to build a PVC plant in Convent.

Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic (TUELC)

The TUELC has helped the citizens of Convent by providing them with legal services in their fight against Shintech. With the help of the TUELC, citizens have appealed to the EPA claiming that Shintech's PVC plant would violate the Clean Air Act of 1990 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As a result of their victory over Shintech, Louisiana's business lobby has persuaded the Louisiana Supreme Court to place tough restrictions on what the student legal clinics can and cannot do. Rules now say that the clinics are only allowed to help the poorest of the poor. This includes individuals with a yearly income of $10,056 or less, or $20,563 for a family of four. These rules severely limit whom the legal clinics are allowed to serve. This in turn is beneficial to industry because it makes it harder for citizens to obtain legal help to fight off industry.

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In general, communities with ethylene dichloride (EDC) and vinyl chloride monomers (VCM) facilities are disproportionately burdened. EDC and VCM are the basic building blocks of vinyl. Communities with EDC or VCM facilities:

  • Have a 55% higher percentage of people of color than the national average
  • Have a 48% higher percentage of people of color below the poverty line
  • Have a 9% lower household income than the national average
  • Have a 24% lower per capita income than the national average

    The population of Convent, LA is 2,676 people. According to an article in Life magazine, the population within a four mile radius of the plant site is 84% African-American. The per capita income in Convent is $7,635 and 40% of the population is below the poverty line. The toxic emissions from Shintech's proposed PVC plant would expose the African-American population in Convent to 71-242% more airborne pollutants than the white population.

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    Strategies Used

    The people of Convent have been very effective in preventing Shintech from building a PVC plant in their town. They have used several strategies to counter Shintech's plans. First of all, the citizens mobilized to form an organization called St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment (SJCJE). Citizens attended the public hearings that were held regarding the issuance of permits to Shintech. Citizens also filed complaints with the EPA under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. As of August 1998, 58 Title VI complaints had been filed with the EPA. SJCJE invited Carol Browner, chief of the EPA, to come to Convent so she can see for herself what the citizens have to deal with.

    Residents have also gained help from a variety of political and religious leaders. These include Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (NEJAC), and all the members of the Congressional Black Caucus. They have also received support from celebrities like Bonnie Raitt.

    The residents of Convent have also used very direct strategies to fight off Shintech. For example, before a hearing for Shintech's water permit, special bottles of "Lake Charles Spring Water" were presented to the DEQ. The water was taken from Lake Charles in Mossville where a vinyl chloride monomer manufacturer leaked hazardous waste into the groundwater. A similar situation is highly probable in Convent, and if the DEQ felt the Shintech plant would be operate safely, they could prove it by drinking the water.

    Emelda West, who has been a resident of Convent for almost 80 years, has made numerous trips to talk to officials about the dangers the PVC plant would produce. Her latest trip was to Tokyo, Japan to talk with Shin Etsu's president and CEO, Chihiro Kanagawa. She took with her a package of letters and petitions from 1,150 St. James Parish residents voicing their opposition to Shintech's plant.

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    The more than two years of hard work have paid off for Convent citizens. On September 17, 1998, Shintech announced that it would not build a PVC plant in Convent. Instead, Shintech plans to build a smaller, $250 million PVC plant in nearby Plaquemine. Shintech plans to withdraw permit applications for St. James Parish when the Plaquemine site is approved. The plant in Plaquemine will be cheaper because Shintech will pump in raw materials like chlorine and vinyl chloride from a nearby Dow Chemical plant, instead of producing the raw materials themselves.

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    To be honest, I do not think the residents of Convent need any further recommendations. The issue turned from a local issue to a national environmental justice issue. Such broad coverage enabled them to gain support from many political leaders. They received help from an environmental law clinic, but were not dependent on them. The battle was always fought by the citizens, not by outsiders. This way, the fate of their town was in their hands not someone who was removed from the situation who may not fully understand what it is like to live near chemical companies. Perhaps, if Shintech had not decided to withdraw its permit application, the residents could have practiced acts of non-violence and non-cooperation to prevent the plant from being built in their town. But after two long years of hard work, it finally paid off. Shintech will not be building a PVC plant in Convent, Louisiana.

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    Key Contacts

    For more information regarding Convent, or if you would like to remain updated, participate, or become involved in this environmental struggle, you can contact:

    Greenpeace U.S.A. (202)319-2436

    Emelda West (504)562-3582

    Paul Mohai (734)763-4598

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