Paying neighbors to move Mossville: Residents of this Louisiana town, like those in Wagner's Point here, faced a showdown with Condea Vista. Their experience is instructive.

December 06, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

MOSSVILLE, La. -- From her front porch, Robin Thibodeaux looks 100 yards east to a huge Condea Vista Co. chemical plant. She turns west to face a tiny Calcasieu Parish neighborhood of 593 people that is fast disappearing. It is the only neighborhood she has known.

Twelve of the 15 families on Second Avenue have taken a buyout and left. Most were Thibodeaux kin. Her brother, sister, two aunts, the neighbor who lost a young child to cancer -- all moved to other parts of Louisiana. Next door sit the pilings on which her father's house stood until, two days before, he accepted about $60,000 from Condea Vista, loaded his house on a flatbed truck and moved it to a lot 10 miles north.

"Mossville is getting to be a ghost town," says Thibodeaux, 37, packing boxes with pictures and keepsakes in preparation for her move, early next year, to nearby Sulphur, La. "It's like a family breaking up, and I'm ready to leave. That's what seems to happen these days if you live this close to a chemical plant."

In fact, Condea Vista's $13.88 million buyout of 206 homes in Mossville, the poor African-American community in the shadow of its 200-acre plant, offers a window on a little-noticed trend in '90s America. Small towns and neighborhoods -- and the petrochemical plants that have long sustained them -- are divorcing.

Since 1990, neighborhoods in East St. Louis, Ill., Ponca City, Okla., and Texarkana, Texas, have been moved by industry or the government because of their proximity to chemical and oil plants.

In Baltimore, Condea Vista is the only one of 10 companies with plants in Wagner's Point to offer the 270 residents money and a chance to join the ranks of the relocated.

In Louisiana, where a quarter of the world's chemicals are made, industry buyouts have become standard. As a result, residential areas in towns such as Morrisonville (purchased by Dow Chemical Co. in 1991 for about $7 million), Reveilletown (Georgia Gulf Corp. in 1991 for about $3 million) and Port Allen (Placid Refining Co., terms negotiated in 1993 were not disclosed) are no more.

Buyouts are becoming so common that Prudential's corporate executive-relocation service has developed a profitable side business in consulting for chemical companies that move their neighbors.

In Falls Church, Va., the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a nonprofit organization run by former Love Canal, N.Y., resident Lois Gibbs, advises communities seeking buyouts. The center has assisted Mossville and Wagner's Point residents.

"You're going to see more and more of these relocations," says Paul Rainwater, a Conoco Inc. public relations executive in Louisiana and a police juror -- the equivalent of a county commissioner -- in Mossville's parish.

"We've found it's much better to find a way to help people leave," Rainwater says.

That reasoning reflects the intractability, and expense, of environmental disputes. Rather than spend millions to fight local residents in court, companies can short-circuit lawsuits -- and earn favorable publicity -- by paying their neighbors to start over someplace else.

Communities frequently embrace relocation because they fear catastrophic accidents and suspect, but may not be able to prove, the companies' culpability in the ailments and deaths of loved ones. And politicians eagerly embrace such popular compromises.

As a result, buyouts have become a de facto public policy, without serious scrutiny from government or scientists. No organization or agency tracks relocations. And worries are growing about their drawbacks.

Companies worry that the prospect of a buyout may encourage some people to move nearby. Some environmentalists complain that relocations allow industry to evade responsibility for pollution; the companies, not the communities, should leave town.

Residents, often reluctantly, leave communities that cannot be replaced.

Diane Prince, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in January, expects to move, but she has put a giant sign in her front yard -- directly across the street from Vista's entrance -- to protest Mossville's breakup. Painted in red block letters are the names of residents who, she believes, died because of industrial pollution.

In most cases, including Mossville, buyouts take place without hard evidence linking industry's pollution to a community's ill health. "Getting Organized and Getting Out," a guide by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, advises residents to spend more time on politics and publicity than on finding proof of pollution.

"The true thrust of your efforts is best spent organizing a strong vocal community group rather than gathering more evidence of harm," it says. "If you expect to find all the facts before you begin to act, you will never begin to act."

Community leaders in Wagner's Point and Mossville have heeded that advice. In fact, a visit to Mossville offers both a preview of what may happen in Baltimore and a warning to the companies that have refused to help fund a Wagner's Point relocation.

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