NEW ORLEANS - A commission that investigates human rights abuses in the Americas has taken up its first case of alleged environmental racism in the United States by agreeing to look into the complaints of black residents of a southwestern Louisiana community surrounded by refineries and chemical plants.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a Washington, D.C.-based organ of the Organization of American States, said last week that it would probe the complaints of residents in Mossville, about 200 miles west of New Orleans. The United States is a member of the OAS.
The commission does most of its work in Central and South America. Its previous work in the United States has focused on the death penalty.
Mossville, a community of about 375 households that traces its roots to the 1790s, is surrounded by 14 industrial facilities and has become a poster child of alleged environmental injustice.
The petitioners are seeking medical help, relocation, pollution controls and more space between the community and the industries.
“Our human rights have been violated and will continue to be violated if nothing is done,” said Dorothy Felix, a 71-year-old Mossville resident and vice president of Mossville Environmental Action Now.
She said the plants -- with the consent of local, state and federal officials -- have turned her once-peaceful childhood home into a polluted and troubled community.
“These chemicals are living in the bodies of some of our Mossville residents, we have health problems, deaths, you name it,” Felix said.
The petition to the human rights commission alleges many of Felix’s relatives and neighbors “are suffering from cancers, endometriosis, and asthma” and that her 7-year-old great-granddaughter has trouble breathing and uses a breathing machine.
The petition was filed in 2005 by Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New Orleans-based environmental group. The commission will give the State Department and the petitioners three months to submit evidence before making a decision. The panel could call on the United States to remedy the alleged human rights violations.
Staff with the human rights commission did not return messages last week seeking comment.
The State Department was not familiar with the allegations, a spokesman said.
Larry DeRoussel, executive director of the Lake Area Industry Association, said the allegations of pollution were unfounded. He said government studies “concluded that there were no ill-effects on the Mossville community from the industry.”
However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began a study last year to determine if the community should be designated a toxic site eligible for Superfund help. The federal government could offer to relocate residents, order a cleanup and force companies to reduce pollution if it finds that it is heavily polluted.
Sam Coleman, an EPA superfund director in Dallas, said the agency would thoroughly test the community for pollution in the coming months. A decision would be based on those tests.
The petition to the human rights commission alleged that an oil refinery, a vinyl manufacturer and a petrochemical facility are located on the historic boundaries of Mossville and that 11 other facilities -- three vinyl manufacturers, one coal-fired power plant and eight petrochemical facilities -- are within a half mile of the community.
The petition charged that at least 4 million pounds of chemicals are released on average a year from the 14 facilities, causing health problems and pollution of groundwater and surface water.
It cited a 1999 report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that found Mossville residents have an average concentration of dioxins in their blood “three times higher” than normal.
The petitioners contend that studies have shown the dioxin compounds found in the blood of Mossville residents are “the same types of dioxins emitted by local industrial facilities.”
Dioxins are highly toxic compounds used in Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, the petition said.