Ideology wins, a county loses

Published June 1, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

The $855-million Claiborne Enrichment Center would appear to be a perfect presidential photo-op.

Poised for construction in northern Louisiana's Claiborne Parish, the state-of-the-art nuclear fuel enrichment facility _ 50 times more energy efficient than existing plants _ would bring jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue to this depressed region that is 50 percent black. It also would reduce American dependence on foreign enrichment suppliers.

The plant showcases one solution to the nagging questions of how to build environmentally sound industries, keep American industrial jobs and return those jobs to blue-collar communities.

But since its announcement, the plant's licensing has been fought every step of the way by the Clinton administration and its allies in the environmental and civil rights movements.

In Claiborne Parish, the soaring rhetoric of environmentalism and civil rights has come to earth in the form of federal regulation _ and fallen on the very ideals it promised to lift up.

When Louisiana Energy Services, a consortium of five energy companies, announced in 1989 the location of the facility near Homer (pop. 4,600), the locals cheered. "We're elated," gushed Mayor Joe Michael. "It's going to raise the standard of living for all our people."

For a county where 30 percent of residents live below the poverty line, the facility was a breakthrough. The plant would pay $8-million a year in taxes, provide $5-million to the local schools under a county "use tax," and double the tax base for the entire county. Of the facility's 180 jobs, 159 would employ unskilled labor.

The plant's economic impact would also be felt beyond county borders. As American enrichment facilities _ which separate fissionable U-235 atoms from natural uranium to make nuclear fuel _ have aged, modern European facilities have increased their share of the U.S. market to 25 percent.

The Claiborne plant would reverse that tide as well as expand America's export market.

But to anti-industry environmental groups, the facility was a call to arms. A local environmental group, Citizens Against Nuclear Trash, or CANT _ with help from the Sierra Club _ filed a series of safety complaints with the plant's federal oversight authority, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in order to block the plant's construction.

In 1993, they would get additional ammunition from President Clinton himself _ a presidential directive on "environmental injustice" requiring all federal agencies to protect minorities from a disproportionate share of pollution.

After lengthy review, the NRC declared the plant safe. The Environmental Protection Agency concurred, finding the plant has demonstrated that "safety and environmental justice has been thoroughly considered and evaluated in the decisionmaking process."

The technology has a proven safety record. Three identical plants _ two of them located near large European cities _ have been run flawlessly for 20 years by Urenco Ltd., a consortium partner.

Bent but not broken, environmentalists _ with support from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People _ mobilized a grass-roots campaign behind their claim of environmental injustice.

Their targets were the 250 mostly black residents of two rural communities, Forest Grove and Center Springs, that border the plant site.

Activists won over these areas with a campaign of fear, warning that the plant would "blow up," that ground wells would be poisoned by seeping radioactive waste, and that all this would be visited on them because they were black.

On May 3, 1997, the board gave activists the victory they had been fighting for. While agreeing with NRC staff that minority populations would not "be disproportionately affected by the (facility),' the board refused the plant's license because the "possibility that racial considerations played a part in site selection cannot be passed off as mere coincidence."

Environmentalists were ecstatic. Speaking to plant opponents, Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund lawyer Natalie Walker declared: "You have all made history. This opinion says environmental justice is real."

At the time Clinton's directive was issued, New York Law School professor David Schoenbrod wrote that the "very existence of "environmental injustice' is far from clear." In the case of the Claiborne plant, it is simply nonexistent.

Company documents show that the consortium settled on the Homer site for multiple reasons, none of them racial. The property satisfied requirements for geographical location, minimal seismic activity, access to a major interstate and affordable property costs.

And there was another reason: The Forest Grove area, like most of Claiborne Parish, had been declared an enterprise zone.

Enterprise zones are economic affirmative action programs, designed by states to attract industries to depressed areas. By locating in an enterprise zone, the Claiborne plant gets a 10-year exemption from county property taxes in return for hiring 35 percent of its work force from the local area.

Louisiana made the Forest Grove and Center Springs areas enterprise zones because it wanted industry to locate near poor blacks, thus providing them jobs and education opportunities.

Emma Hilliard, a black resident and former county representative for Forest Grove, explains why it is an enterprise zone. "There are no jobs here," she sighs. "Most people have to work out of the county. My daughter commutes 50 miles to Shreveport every day to work in a casino."

Enterprise zone aside, one need only listen to CANT activist Tony Johnson to understand the shallowness of the racism charge.

When asked if any white communities are affected by the plant, Johnson, who sells homes along Lake Claiborne just 5 miles south of the site, admits he is concerned "that my (white) lakefront estate clients would see their property values plummet." Why? Because, explains Johnson, "the plant's waste water would irradiate the lake."

Never mind the fiction that the plant's treated water is harmful. If CANT considers whites threatened, how is the plant's location discriminatory?

Activists are excited about the board's decision because it sets a precedent not only for the nuclear industry, but for the entire chemical industry. As the Sierra Club's Walker explains: "We see this legislation being used to block any toxic waste facility that requires federal approval."

Such plants will be discouraged from black areas, and therefore will be located far from blacks seeking employment. At worst, they will not be located in the United States at all.

Miss Hilliard, one of many parish residents who accepted the consortium's offer to visit European enrichment facilities in 1990, was impressed by what she saw. "I spoke to people near the plant (in Gronau-Epe, Germany)," she says. "They were suspicious at first, but now they've seen how many jobs the plant brought. They are so glad it came." Now she is concerned that the plant's troubles bode ill for her own county's economic future. "If the Claiborne plant goes down, what other company is going to try and locate here?" she asks.

As the Minden Press-Herald newspaper in neighboring Webster Parish puts it: "We await the Sierra Club's $855-million job development plan for Claiborne Parish."

Henry Payne is an editorial cartoonist and an occasional writer for Scripps Howard News Service.

Scripps Howard News Service