Inter-American Spotlight on the United States: Louisiana Residents Take Pollution Case to International Court

Yee Huang

April 26, 2010

This is the April installment of CPRBlog’s series of posts highlighting legal developments in other countries and in international environmental law.

Last month the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted a hearing to the residents of Mossville, Louisiana, based on their petition asserting that the U.S. government has violated their rights to privacy and racial equity by failing to address toxic pollution in their community. Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, the legal advocacy organization that filed the petition on behalf of the Mossville residents, says this hearing represents the first time IACHR has granted a hearing on complaints of environmental racism by the United States.

Located in southwest Louisiana, Mossville is a small community of roughly 375 residents, the majority of whom are African American. Fourteen industrial facilities—ranging from an oil refinery and a vinyl manufacturer to petrochemical facilities—are sited within and around Mossville. Using data taken from EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, the petition declares that these fourteen facilities release annually more than four million pounds of toxic chemicals into the surrounding land, air, and water. Residents have complained for years about poor health from inflammatory diseases and early deaths from cancer (see CNN's report). In 1998, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that the blood from 28 Mossville residents had dioxin levels that were three times the national average.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has declared environmental justice to be a top priority. In the EPA’s words,

Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

A 2004 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community health concluded that “larger and more intensive facilities tend to be located in counties with larger African American populations and in counties with both higher median incomes and high levels of income inequality.” EPA is in the process of determining whether Mossville qualifies as a Superfund site, which would mean federal funding to clean up the contamination. In the meantime, the IACHR is scheduled to hear the Mossville case.

The IACHR was established in 1959 as the human rights monitoring body of the Organization of American States; it derives its scope of work from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The United States is a member of the OAS and signed -- but has not ratified -- the American Convention. The Commission has jurisdiction to investigate and report on human rights in any OAS country. The Commission typically attempts to negotiate a friendly settlement of the claim, but if no settlement can be reached it will hear the merits of the case. If the Commission determines that a human rights violation has indeed occurred, it issues a report that recommends how the state should address the violation and provides a deadline by which the state should respond with its progress.

Ultimately the Commission may make a finding of responsibility, but the finding is not legally binding. Instead these findings serve to steadily normalize certain state behavior and to give effect to recognized human rights. In addition, the work of the Commission shines a public spotlight on states, which itself is an effective policing tool.

The petition by the Mossville residents has not escaped the attention of the United States government, which has filed a response in opposition. Whatever the end result of the IACHR hearing, and whether it has any impact beyond symbolism in the United States, it is clear that residents of Mossville need a cleaner community.

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