1998 NCC News Archives

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as ecumenical ship, serving the world

African American Church Leaders Pledge Their Support
to the Struggle Against Environmental Racism

Urgent Action Alert:
EPA Decision on Shintech Case Due This Summer.

Please join these church leaders and the NCC in their plea to the Environmental Protection Agency to BLOCK the Shintech Corporation from building what would become the world's largest polyvinyl chloride factory in Convent, La., a predominantly African American community that already is overburdened with industries spewing toxic emissions.

This news release describes what the church leaders learned on their visit to Convent, where they met with a multi-racial group of residents struggling to keep Shintech from establishing operations in their community.  If you want more information, write to the NCC Eco-Justice Office: ecojustice@ncccusa.org.

Then please register your views by going to the website of  Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov, and following the link to the EPA's comments page.  You may also search the EPA site for the latest word on the Shintech case.

Toxic Tour Participants

Bishop P.A. Brooks of Detroit, Mich., Presidium Secretary of the Church of God in Christ who was representing Presiding Bishop Chandler D. Owens

Rev. John Hunter, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor in Kansas City, Mo., representing the AME’s Ecumenical Officer, Bishop McKinley Young

Revs. Wesley James of Mobile, Ala., and Ishmael Shaw of Washington, D.C., representing the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.

Rev. John Mendez, a Winston-Salem, N.C., pastor and Missions Board Chair, Progressive National Baptist Convention, who represented PNBC President Dr. Bennett W. Smith

Rev. Dr. Willie T. Snead, Sr., of Los Angeles, President of the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America

Rev. Dr. William Watley, of Newark, N.J., an African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor. He is Chair of the ecumenical Black Church Liaison Committee

Rev. An drew Whitted, Administrative Assistant to Bishop Cecil Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

Bishop Arthur B. Williams, Jr., of Cleveland, Ohio, Suffragan of the Diocese of Ohio and Vice President of the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church

Dr. Robert Bullard, Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, accompanied the group. Present in Washington, D.C., were the Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, Director, and Charles Lee, Research Director, of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice.

NEW ORLEANS, La., March 1998 -- "These people are in prison and there’s poison loose." The Rev. Dr. Willie T. Snead, Sr., was steaming mad. He had just visited an African American community built on top of a toxic waste dump in New Orleans.

The more than 1,000 residents of the now 30-year-old development were lured by the dream of affordable homes and the promise of a safe place to rear their children. Then people began to sicken and die, and "the dream turned into a nightmare for us," said Corletta Smothers, a community leader.

Residents organized, investigated and discovered a horrifying truth that had been withheld from them – 150 toxic chemicals are buried in the old Agriculture Street Landfill, which undergirds and surrounds their homes. The community wants to be relocated away from the site, now on the Superfund’s National Priority List. But so far, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is insisting on cleaning up the site – while residents remain in their homes.

Dr. Snead, of Los Angeles, President of the 2.5 million member National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, was one of a dozen or so leaders of historic African American and "mainline" denominations who toured toxic Louisiana communities in March under the auspices of the Black Church Environmental Justice Program. The program a joint project of the National Council of Churches’ Eco-Justice Working Group and of the ecumenical Black Church Liaison Committee of the NCC and U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches. The group also visited the predominantly African American communities of:

  • Convent, where a multi-racial residents group is seeking to block the Shintech Corporation from building a $700 million polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plant in their already heavily polluted community;
  • Oakville, where a 150-year-old community is fighting to close and clean a private toxic dump established 10 years ago, literally in their back yards; and
  • New Sarpy/Norco, where residents want a fair price for their homes so they can move away from the fumes, explosions and fires from the parish’s (county’s) 27 oil refineries.

Participants in the Louisiana tour pledged to promote the campaign in their denominations, and to support the specific demands of the communities they visited.


The Louisiana tour marked the latest in a series of ecumenical events designed to mobilize African American churches in the campaign against environmental racism and injustice. The Louisiana communities are among hundreds across the United States that are part of a consistent, well-documented pattern: African American and other communities of color, along with economically depressed communities, are abused disproportionately as the dumping grounds for toxic wastes.

"We need to get our hearts wrapped around this issue," said the Rev. Dr. William Watley, of Newark, N.J., an African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor. He is Chair of the ecumenical Black Church Liaison Committee, which co-sponsored the tour. The committee is a joint initiative of the NCC and the U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches.

On their site visits March 13 and 14 in Louisiana, the church leaders heard story after story of the effects of toxic exposure in the "Chemical Corridor" – called "Cancer Alley" by environmentalists – that stretches some 85 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River.

Residents living among the petrochemical companies all up and down the heavily industrialized "Alley" talked of "kill zones" and cancers, immune disorders, miscarriages and birth defects. "Preschoolers throw up their breakfasts because of the foul odors," said Rose Jackson of Oakville, La. Respiratory problems leave children and adults gasping for breath. Stress, depression and high blood pressure are rampant.

"Black, white, young, old are dying before their time," said Patricia Melancon of Convent, La. "There are other ways to develop economies than to ask people to give up the lives of their children."

The struggle against environmental racism is a significant element in today’s civil rights movement. A new generation of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jrs., are meeting in churches to pray and plan and then heading out to work for the health of their communities.


In Convent, La., just up river from New Orleans, the NCC group got a close-up look at the Shintech case, which has emerged as the most watched and significant civil rights case to date involving charges of environmental racism.

Convent residents have filed a formal suit asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to block the Shintech Corporation from building what would be the world’s largest polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plant. By-products in the manufacture of PVC include Dioxins, known carcinogens linked to a host of ills including birth defects, neurological and immune disorders, and sterility.

"These PVC industries just can’t hold onto their chemicals," a Convent community leader told the visiting African American clergy. Already, 22 million pounds of toxic emissions are discharged each year by petrochemical companies operating in Convent and an adjoining community. Shintech’s new plant would add up to 600,000 pounds of additional toxic emissions each year.

Allowing Shintech to build, the Convent group says, would violate the principles of President Clinton’s 1994 Environmental Justice Act. That act instructs government agencies to strive for environmental justice by ensuring that poor communities and communities of color are not disproportionately overburdened by toxic pollution. The EPA is expected to announce its preliminary findings on April 3.


Before going to Louisiana, the church leaders assembled March 11-12 for orientation in Washington, D.C., as they expected a meeting with Vice President Gore. He had addressed an NCC-sponsored Black Church Environmental Justice Summit, held in the Capital in December 1993, and the church leaders wanted to follow up.

The meeting fell through, but after visiting "Cancer Alley," the church leaders agreed to try to see Gore in April. "I’m glad we didn’t meet with the Vice President before we went to Louisiana," said the Rev. John Hunter, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor in Kansas City, Mo., representing the AME’s Ecumenical Officer, Bishop McKinley Young. "Now we can talk with him about the life and death struggles we have witnessed first hand."

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