By Rebecca O. Johnson
Mossville, a small community in Southwest Louisiana, was settled over 220 years ago by 12 Black families led by the freedman Jim Moss. At its founding in 1790, the area was still controlled by France and while Blacks weren’t fully enfranchised as citizens, the French government did allow African Americans to own land. Mossville wasn’t allowed to incorporate as a village or town, but it was one of those African American places that governed itself, schooled its children, grew food, fished and built businesses. A century and a half later, Mossville has survived annexation by the United States, the Civil War and Jim Crow rule of the 20th century. But today, the town stands on the brink of disappearing, wiped away by multinational petrochemical companies.
“Sasol can’t pay for our suffering, our pain and everything, but we got to get out to save our lives,” said Christine Bennett of Mossville Environmental Action Now, at a town hall meeting to address the ongoing buyout of the town by the South African petroleum conglomerate.
Sasol (originally known as the South African Coal Oil and Gas Corporation Limited) is one of the 14 refineries and chemical processing facilities operating out of the industrial zone surrounding Mossville. It had been, since its arrival in 2001, largely opaque in its operations and seemed relatively benign—as producers of industrial toxins go—to the people of the community. But about five years ago, the oil giant cut a deal with the State of Louisiana to build a gigantic new facility that would completely overshadow the town. Sasol had been approved to commence construction of the first shale gas to liquid (GTL) processing facility in the country.
Sasol, with the support of the state government of Gov. Bobby Jindal, presented a so-called “Voluntary Property Purchase Program (VPPP)” to the residents of Mossville. The residents, working with Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN), had been organizing for over 30 years on multiple fronts: advocating for environmental justice; educating residents about the health and environmental impacts of toxic pollution; attempting to compel federal and state environmental agencies to enforce human rights laws; and advocating for health services, relocation and pollution reduction to improve the lives and health of residents.
MEAN has shown that their community has been disproportionately affected by the more than 1,000 tons of toxins collectively emitted each year into the air, water and soil by the industrial plants surrounding the community. They have lobbied for many years for a just and fair relocation of their community to a safe, healthy and toxin-free location. The offer made by Sasol raised hope that the community would finally find the relief they desired.
At an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) town hall held in October 2016, Dorothy Felix, president of MEAN, described the sad circumstances that have led many in the community to consider accepting the buyout:
“Mossville was to us... the life to have. We had our schools, churches, stores, cafes and families helping families; sharing with each other. Families had gardens, fished for food, raised cattle, chicken, hogs and other animals for meat. After all the energy and effort we exerted to make Mossville our lovely community, the government ignored, completely disregarded our hard work by permitting the plants to move in and surround us.... Now there are 14 large plants around us... we have pollution—chemicals, toxins, releases, upsets and health problems. They continue to poison Mossville.”
I began working with Felix back in 2010. Mossville was already beginning to suffer from depopulation. Since then, Felix and I had been looking into something that the Calcasieu Parish government administrators of the area made sure not to study, that is, just how many of Mossville’s homes were actually inhabited. Back then, we counted 375 structures. In June 2016, we found about 100, by mid-October that had dropped to 88.
Mossville was more than a thorn in the side of the industries and the police jury (what we might call a county commission or council in other, less authoritarian places); it was land, the resource needed for expansion of their already enormous industrial footprint, inconveniently occupied by disposable Black people. The state and local governments were acting with the same twisted glee they had displayed with the evacuation of poor Black folk after Hurricane Katrina. The Black-majority town of Mossville has been very nearly ethnically cleansed. But despite this depopulation, they continue to fight on, kicking off 2016 with a Martin Luther King day action at Sasol.
What is a Voluntary Property Purchase Program?
What does voluntary mean? In the case of the VPPP, it doesn’t refer to the residents freely offering their properties to Sasol in an open market that recognizes the value of their land to the company’s current and future expansion plans and profits. The voluntary purchase program offered to Mossville, as well as those described below, use funding provided by local or state governments as industries seek to avoid regulatory scrutiny, accountability and the cost of environmental remediation. For example, among the most egregious enticements the state of Louisiana granted Sasol in exchange for building their GTL facility was $115 million to buy out the people of Mossville, and dispossess them of their ancestral land.
This is a battle that has gone on for several generations.
The circumstances that would bring Mossville to this moment, its demise in sight, can be traced back to 1934, the moment the state approved the construction of a 35-mile shipping channel from Lake Charles to a bayou called Calcasieu Pass.
In 1936 Louisiana instituted a 10-year industrial tax exemption (Allen 2002) for all refineries and chemical processors that built, expanded or improved in Louisiana. This is equivalent to a permanent exemption from paying taxes, undermining efforts in the 1920s to provide healthcare and education to the residents of Louisiana.
Soon, oil refineries would open—Continental Oil in 1941, Cities Service in 1942, Cit-Con in 1947, Esso Standard Oil and Shell in 1949—and continue with ever greater encroachment on the land and legacy of Mossville.
Felix recounted to me the oral history she had learned from that time.“I heard stories that when they built the plant where Georgia Gulf sits, in the 1950s, that there was a cemetery there, a Mossville cemetery. I heard they tore up the bodies and threw them in the river.”
Louisiana and Voluntary Property Purchase Programs
Oil and chemical industries are well schooled in the dispossession of communities. Across the United States, from Maryland to California, multinationals have used a voluntary purchase process to uproot working-class and people of color. No state has better facilitated this dispossession than Louisiana. Mossville is not the first, but it will be the largest. Five communities founded by formerly enslaved Black people have been wiped off the map since 1987.
“My Dad walked across the yard. My grandfather walked across the yard. This is a special spot. My people are in this place, and there are some things you can’t put a dollar value on. To relocate will be difficult.... They tell you that you have the choice of saying yes or no, but you really don’t. I see my shelter, my comfort being torn down around me. I don’t have a choice.” Morrisonville resident to Louisiana Advisory Committee to US Commission on Civil Rights, 1993.
Revilletown, Sunrise in West Baton Rouge, Wallace, Morrisonville and the Diamond residents of Norco were all faced with the choice, continue the struggle in the face of poisoned wells, toxic air and deteriorating health, or accept a buyout. Rather than the proudly self-sufficient communities they once were, these residents had become “refugees in place” (Nixon) with industry closing in all around them.
While these voluntary purchase programs are not uncommon, their fairness is not well documented. MEAN members have carefully tracked the interactions of Mossville residents in their negotiations with Sasol. Analysis of their experience can serve as a model for other communities resisting similar displacement efforts.
The Sasol VPPP promised a guaranteed minimum offer, real estate appraisals to determine value above the minimum, and fair treatment of those residents who chose to remain in Mossville. These assurances have been ignored in the actual negotiations with residents. MEAN’s review of over 600 deed conveyances finds wildly uneven offers for similar structures. Rather than appraising based on acreage and as-built structures, appraisers have made disparaging judgments about the aesthetic quality of the housing that the owner will be required to destroy and dump in order to complete the buyout.
Folks in Louisiana are very place- and family-oriented. Those with land try to keep their kin nearby, frequently building so children and grandchildren can live on the same land. Before the buyout, seven generations of the Felix clan lived within eyesight of each other. The Sasol land grab ignored this reality, leaving many young people homeless and elders living in precarious conditions.
In facing the inflated local housing market that has resulted from the VPPP, the Sasol offer has left many who accepted it with less community, more debt and poorer housing. And the company has not kept its promise to those who have refused the offer as inadequate or who are choosing to stay. Sasol successfully secured industrial zoning for all of Mossville, turned off street lights, blocked streets and imperils the day-to-day safety of residents who remain.
Polluting Industries Remain Unaccountable
Sasol buyout negotiations have let other toxin-emitting industries off the hook for the damage to residents’ water, land and health.
“The issue we were fighting was our health problems caused by the refineries in our area,” said Delma Bennett, treasurer and spokesperson for MEAN. “It has become just about Sasol, and that’s not fair. There are too many people who died, too many people got sick, and that’s not fair. We don’t even talk about the pollution anymore.”
A 2000 study showed that Mossville residents suffer from disproportionately high rates of dioxin exposure. The effects of dioxin and other exposures are long-lasting. There are no provisions for tracking Mossville residents’ health and well-being post relocation. The burden of industrial toxins on the human body does not just disappear when someone relocates. The people remaining are more, not less, at risk as state and local government have enabled not just Sasol but other facilities to jump the industrial fence line into Mossville, while approving the construction of three additional facilities. Sasol’s land grab brings the fence line to new communities. It will continue to grow as far as the industrial sector desires.
Slow Violence and Mossville
According to Rob Nixon, “Turbo-capitalism” is characterized by the elimination of what multinational extractive industries have found inconvenient to their profit-making aspirations.1 Louisiana has courted and kowtowed to their demands, conceding to everything industry wants, regardless of the needs of its citizens.
Concessions are what multinational companies call the legal agreements they make with governments in developing countries to access the environmental resources under the ground. These governments concede control of populations, workers and environmental protection in exchange for petro-dollars that rarely benefit the people consumed by Big Oil’s hungry maw. It is Louisiana’s state-wide concession of tax dollars, public health and its citizens’ land that has brought about the exodus of the people of Mossville and the scattering of the 12 founding families. But MEAN is steadfast in demanding accountability from state and federal officials. MEAN demands that Gov. John Bel Edwards withhold all allocated and promised state funds until Sasol engages in an accountability and restitution process with Mossville residents. Sasol must provide fair replacement value, address the housing market inflation caused by the VPPP, guarantee community control of the historical and cultural legacy of Mossville and address the harm they have caused through both monetary and non-monetary compensation. And the federal government must be held responsible as well. MEAN demands the EPA investigate the Voluntary Property Purchase Program scheme, abolish it and create greater accountability of toxin-emitting extractive industries to their fence line neighbors.
The people now in this struggle encourage all those in the environmental justice community to vigilance of and heightened resistance to the widespread peril of extractive industries to our environment, our health and a sustainable way of life.
Rebecca O. Johnson is a writer and activist living in Akron, Ohio. She works with environmental justice groups in the South and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
1 Nixon, Rob: Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011.