Living on Earth, National Public Radio: Environmental Human Rights

link to original audio recording, transcript below

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: A group of citizens from the small Louisiana bayou town of Mossville recently visited the nation’s capital—most of them for the first time. They did the kinds of things tourists do. They climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and marveled at the Capitol Rotunda. But they were also on business in Washington, as lifelong Mossville resident Christine Bennett was quick to point out. While she and her group were admiring the White House from Pennsylvania Avenue, she told us that they came to try and save their town from a decades-old deluge of industrial pollution.

BENNETT: We’re going to do a petition for our human rights, and we’re going to seek and pray for help that someone will come to the Mossville community and not just hear us but see what we’re going through. I would love for the president could have been here while I’m this close to him and ask him to come and visit Mossville, too, so he can get a chance to see that while he’s breathing fresh air and living well, we’re dying over here in Mossville.

CURWOOD: But this isn’t your typical “Mister Smith Goes to Washington” tale. The residents of Mossville are taking a new tack in their fight against the poisons in their air and water. They’re going past the EPA, past the president himself to seek help from the Organization of American States, the intergovernmental body that promotes peace, iustice and solidarity in the Western Hemisphere.

The folks of Mossville have filed a petition with OAS, claiming the United States government is violating their human rights by allowing 14 major industries in their neighborhood to harm public health and welfare. In the past 30 years the town’s largely African American population has drop from 2,000 to just over 300, cancer and other illness rates have soared. Residents have twice the body burden of dioxin as most Americans.

Joining me is Monique Harden is an attorney with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New Orleans-based legal group working with the Mossville residents. Hello.

HARDEN: Hello, thanks for having me on.

CURWOOD: Now, you’re approaching pollution in Mossville as a human rights issue. Why?

HARDEN: Because it is a human rights issue. We have a situation where, through the United States approval and authorizations, 14 toxic hazardous industrial facilities are operating inside and around the Mossville community where they have contaminated water, they’ve made the air unhealthy to breathe, and they have exposed residents to cancer-causing hormone-disrupting chemicals, some of which have been found in the blood of Mossville residents. As a result of this industrial development, all through government authorization, the Mossville community is a dying community, and their basic human rights to life and health and racial equality are all being denied.

CURWOOD: You say Mossville is a dying community. What do you mean?

HARDEN: What I mean by that is that historically Mossville has been a rural community where even the poorest residents were able to live well because of the rich ecological conditions and biodiversity. Today that is no longer the case because fish are poisoned with industrial toxins so they cannot be eaten. Waterways are very contaminated and people cannot even grow vegetable gardens and fruit trees like they used to.

CURWOOD: Now, you have asked the Organization of American States–there’s a task force there I guess, that considers questions of human rights–you’ve asked them to investigate the prevalence of dioxin and other contamination in the Mossville area. Requesting the help of an international organization to investigate a domestic pollution issue could be viewed, as well, an unusual, some would say, an extreme measure. Why do you think that you had to do this?

HARDEN: We had to do this because we’ve been working in the Mossville community for three or so years now to try to figure out how we can make this a community that is livable, and finding that our demands for a clean environment, a healthy environment have fallen on the deaf ears of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as other public health and environmental agencies. And the reason why it’s fallen on deaf ears with these officials is because the environmental regulatory system legalizes the hazardous development in residential areas, which are often communities of color. And so, we don’t have any recourse under U.S. system of laws to protect the environment and protect the health of Mossville residents and so being able to find the Organization of American States and their Commission on Human Rights and presenting our case to them, to say, we need your help in promoting and defending Mossville residents who, like so many other communities in the United States, are not equally protected. Their rights to health and life and racial equality are being denied by this environmental regulatory system that allows all these toxic facilities to locate in communities like Mossville.

CURWOOD: Now, you’ve petitioned the Organization of American States to look into this matter. What powers do they have?

HARDEN: The Organization of American States has an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And what the Commission on Human Rights does, one of the things that it does, is it investigates cases of human rights abuses in member countries. There are 34 member countries. The United States is one of them. And by virtue of its membership, the United States is bound to uphold basic human rights, and we’re talking in particular the human rights to life, health, and racial equality.

What the commission does after reviewing the petitions is asks the country where the complaints are lodged to respond. And once the United States responds to our petition, then the commission works through a way to trying to settle the problem. One of the things that we’ve asked the commission to do in terms of settling this human rights problem, is to recommend that the United States provide Mossville residents with health services. We’ve asked the commission to recommend that the United States provide relocation for residents who may choose to want to leave Mossville in order to find healthier environs. And we’ve also asked the commission to recommend that the United States to reform its environmental regulatory systems so that all the aggregate, cumulative, synergistic impacts of all these chemicals and all of these facilities are finally taken into account and safeguards are in place to protect people from being exposed to those dangers.

CURWOOD: Now, the pollution situation in Mossville, Louisiana has been well-documented you say, to the Environmental Protection Agency…

HARDEN: Absolutely.

CURWOOD: …to the state of Louisiana and others. What difference can the Organization of American States make if it reviews this and makes recommendations to the same agencies that have, in your view so far, refused to do anything about it?

HARDEN: Well, actually their recommendations would not be going to the agencies. Their recommendations would be going to the United States government. Which is a lot different because we have an EPA that does not have human rights as part of its mission and does not operate with a system of laws or policies that recognize human rights. However, we have a United States government that has signed on to international human rights treaties, has bounded itself to international human rights protocols and other mechanisms that the Organization of American States and the commission enforce and implement.

CURWOOD: Has the OAS heard other environmental cases involving human rights, not in the United States?

HARDEN: Yes, they have. Cases out of Brazil, cases out of Ecuador where those country governments allow very destructive developments in mining and oil drilling in particular, to a current situation (?) that it was creating severe hazards on indigenous tribes who lived in the areas where companies believed oil could be drilled or where precious minerals and other natural resources could be mined. And in those decisions the Organization of American States made a very strong ruling in favor of protecting the environment as a human right.

CURWOOD: To what extent is your venture here geared to get actual legal results versus the prospect of holding up to the world the United States as having a human rights problem, the shame factor?

HARDEN: Well, because this is a human rights petition that’s well-grounded in international human rights law, we feel that we’re making a case of first impression, but one that’s on solid ground before the Organization of American States. Around the world there have been international judicial bodies who, whose purpose is to uphold and defend human rights, who are beginning to realize that at a healthy environment is a human right. That you cannot have the right to life if you are surrounded by cancer-causing chemicals and chemicals that can kill you, if released in large amounts. You cannot have the right to health if those kinds of conditions exist. And so, there’s a solid body of law and judicial decisions from around the world that really make it very clear that what’s happening in the United States and, in particular, and in Mossville, is a human rights violation.

CURWOOD: Monique Harden is an attorney for Advocates for Environmental Human Rights in New Orleans. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

HARDEN: Thank you.