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Opinion

3 Oct 2022

Author:
Concerned Citizens of Mossville; University of Utah Environmental Justice Clinic; and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic on behalf of Carolyn Peters, Raphael Sias, Ronald Carrier, Larry Allison, Karl Prater, McKeever Edwards, Patricia Charles, Stafford Frank, and Peggy Anthony

A path forward: Residents seek remedy for decades of environmental injustice in Mossville, Louisiana

Concerned Citizens of Mossville, University of Utah Environmental Justice Clinic, and Tulane Environmental Law Clinic

The head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Michael Regan, visited Mossville and met with the Concerned Citizens of Mossville as part of his “Journey to Justice” tour in Nov 2021. Sasol’s sprawling chemical complex is visible in the background.

Once a thriving, self-sufficient enclave that residents described as a “safe haven for African Americans,” the community of Mossville, Louisiana is now a ghost town, decimated by decades of environmental racism. Founded over a century ago by formerly enslaved people, Mossville is one of the earliest settlements of free Black people in the U.S. South. Since the 1940s, over a dozen industrial facilities—including a chemical complex owned by South African fossil fuel company Sasol—have steadily encroached on the community’s historic boundaries. The story of the Sasol expansion exposes some of the grave harms that can result when companies fail to carry out human rights due diligence, one of their core responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

A massive industrial expansion

In 2012, Sasol announced plans to expand its existing complex by building two new facilities—an ethylene cracker and a gas-to-liquid plant—even closer to Mossville’s fence line. Mossville residents learned about Sasol’s massive expansion for the first time through news reporting: neither Sasol nor local government officials had consulted community members during the years-long planning phase of the project, which ultimately tripled Sasol’s geographic footprint.

Forced displacement and trauma

In 2013, Sasol launched a “Voluntary Property Purchase Program” for residents of two areas that bordered Sasol’s expanded footprint: a section of Mossville and the entire predominantly white neighborhood of Brentwood (Figure 1). Mossville and Brentwood residents were eligible to sell their properties to Sasol and relocate. In the ensuing years, as the vast majority of Mossville residents participated in the program and relocated, Sasol framed the buyout as a “blessing” for Mossville and declared it “the most generous program in history.”

Sasol’s narrative is false. Many Mossville residents experienced the buyout as forced displacement and suffered trauma from their dislocation. Community members were confronted with an impossible choice: move or face the deadly health consequences of an industrial expansion in their backyard. “I was going to stay and die or leave and hope to live,” said one.

Concerned Citizens of Mossville, University of Utah Environmental Justice Clinic, and Tulane Environmental Law Clinic

Areas eligible for participation in Sasol’s Voluntary Property Purchase Program (lower area is Mossville and upper area is Brentwood).

Residents who relocated describe profound feelings of uprootedness and loss: “A lot of us lost our joy. This is where we moved, but our freedom and joy is not here.” Community members recall that many elderly residents died shortly after moving. They attribute these deaths to the trauma of displacement: “It tore my mama apart,” one resident said. “That’s what killed her.” Residents are clear about why Sasol targeted Mossville for its expansion: “They came in on us because we’re Black.”

Financial devastation

Many Mossville residents who participated in the buyout program faced financial hardships as a result. Property transaction values in the predominantly white Brentwood area were nearly 90% higher than those in Mossville, strongly indicating the buyout was racially discriminatory (Figure 2). Far from “the most generous in history,” Sasol’s program did not adhere to basic international standards and best practices for industrial buyouts. Most notably, Sasol determined property values by using a fixed formula based on home appraisals rather than negotiating with residents individually and compensating them at full replacement cost. Multiple recent studies have found that racial bias is pervasive in the U.S. appraisal industry and that appraisers consistently undervalue Black-owned homes.

Concerned Citizens of Mossville, University of Utah Environmental Justice Clinic, and Tulane Environmental Law Clinic

A home in Mossville (right) and a home in the predominantly white neighborhood of Brentwood (left). Property transaction values in Brentwood were nearly 90% higher than those in Mossville, even though both areas were subject to the exact same buyout terms

Consistent with international best practices, a company seeking the resettlement of affected residents must also: meaningfully consult residents about every aspect of the proposed relocation program, including the financial basis for determining compensation; provide an option for community resettlement, which would enable community members to relocate collectively and thereby maintain their social ties; restore and improve livelihoods, which are often disrupted as a result of resettlement; and respect marginalized groups, such as the predominantly Black residents of many fence line communities in Louisiana.

From apartheid in South Africa to environmental racism in Louisiana

Residents frequently note that Sasol’s approach to Mossville is consistent with the company’s historical role in propping up South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime. Sasol was created in 1950—two years after the formal start of apartheid—by members of the ruling National Party, who sought to use technology pioneered by Nazi German scientists to convert coal to oil. As nations around the world imposed oil sanctions on South Africa, Sasol helped ensure South Africa’s oil supply and shield the government from the consequences of its apartheid regime.

Seventy years later, Sasol has wiped out one of Louisiana’s oldest historically Black communities and is now poisoning the residents of Mossville who remain. Mossville residents are breathing the top 1% most toxic air in Louisiana primarily because of emissions from Sasol, which was recently ranked the #2 super-polluter in the nation. The toxic chemicals released by Sasol are known to cause cancer, respiratory disease, immune system damage, and reproductive harm.

A path forward

This ongoing injustice is why the Concerned Citizens of Mossville—a group of residents who refused to sell their land to Sasol on the company’s grossly unjust terms—are seeking equitable buyouts for all remaining residents of the historic community (Figure 3).

As part of Sasol’s responsibility to remediate the harm it has caused, Sasol must engage with remaining community members and enable them to relocate on just and equitable terms. Fulfilling this responsibility means negotiating with residents individually, considering residents’ unique financial circumstances, and compensating residents sufficiently for relocation to a home of similar quality in a clean, healthy, and safe environment.

By Concerned Citizens of Mossville; University of Utah Environmental Justice Clinic; and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic on behalf of Carolyn Peters, Raphael Sias, Ronald Carrier, Larry Allison, Karl Prater, McKeever Edwards, Patricia Charles, Stafford Frank, and Peggy Anthony

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited Sasol to respond to allegations in this Blog, this is Sasol's response.

Concerned Citizens of Mossville et al. submitted a rejoinder to Sasol's response.

Sasol responded to Concerned Citizens of Mossville et al.'s rejoinder here.

Concerned Citizens of Mossville et al. submitted a second rejoinder to Sasol's response.

Sasol responded to Concerned Citizens of Mossville et al.'s second rejoinder here.

Concerned Citizens of Mossville et al. submitted a third rejoinder to Sasol's response.

Sasol responded to Concerned Citizens of Mossville et al.'s third rejoinder here.

Concerned Citizens of Mossville et al. submitted a final rejoinder to Sasol here.