header photo

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Exodus of the People of Mossville, Part 3: Who Is Sasol?

This is 3rd in a series of posts on the Exodus of the People of Mossville, Louisiana, an historically African-American community founded in the late 1800s by Jack Moss. Sasol, the South African synthetic oil company, is buying up property to build the first North American (fracked) gas to liquids plant.

The following facts are drawn from the Mossville Environmental Action Now website (see website for citations):

Who Is Sasol?

  • Founded in 1950 in South Africa, in response to international communities' fuel embargo due to the practice of apartheid. 
  • In 1954, Sasol created Sasolburg to supply housing and facilities for employees; it segregated the development into Sasolburg proper (exclusively for white employees) and Zamdela township (for non-whites).
  • Zamdela remains marginalized.
  •  Despite the presence of a major manufacturer in their backyard, unemployment in Zamdela remains high, 43% as of January 2013 (1). 
  • Sasol has been accused of pollution in Zamdela that’s caused sickness and hospitalization, including a chlorine gas leak in 2000, which led to over 200 hospitalized (2).
  • Over 42,000 tons of volatile organic compounds are reported to have been polluted into Zamdela (3). 
  • Residents of Zamdela began monitoring their air in 2001- finding quickly that the level of benzene in the air was over 8 times the US legal limit (4). 
  • Most of Zamdela’s residents earn less than R400 a month (about $40 USD a month); Sasol’s CEO David Constable received a 68% pay increase (5) this year, bringing his salary to R53.7 M for the year ended June 2013. 

What is Sasol North America? 

  • Condea Vista (now Sasol North America) was found guilty of "wanton and reckless disregard of public safety” in 1997 for its responsibility for one of the largest chemical spills in the nation’s history, which contaminated the groundwater underneath the surrounding community. The company was charged with dumping an estimated 19-47 million pounds of ethylene dichloride, a suspected human carcinogen, into the local estuary (6).  This local estuary is Mossville, Louisiana. 
  • Sasol North America has self-reported releasing dioxins, a cancer-causing highly-toxic group of chemicals in Mossville area (7).
  • Greenpeace is suing Sasol North America for spying: "allegedly trespassing, conducting unlawful surveillance and stealing confidential information related to Greenpeace's work in the Lake Charles region of Louisiana," (8) which includes work with the Mossville. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Exodus of the People of Mossville, Part 2: American Petro-State

View of Lake Charles Industrial Zone from Mossville
What was the point of the expansionist enterprise we know as the "Discovery of America"  -- that invasion by the nations of Europe into the Caribbean, North and South America? Extraction of resources.  We learn of the mythic search for gold by Spaniards, Columbus' misdirected search for a new route to the spices of south Asia, the interest of the Dutch in the same.  But once the northern Europeans got over their lust for shiny metals and geographic confusion they realized that the Americas were a gold mine of a different sort.  It had everything that was becoming in short supply in their home countries -- timber and good soil for growing cotton, and the quintessential cash crop, tobacco. Eventually coal would be found as well as other useful minerals.   Soon, Africans would be extracted from the Continent and brought to work the plantations, farms, timber stands and mines of the "new" land.  American colonists understood their role in the beginning.  They were employees of corporations, called variously, The Dutch West India Company, British East India Company, and eventually for Louisiana, the Company of the West or the Mississippi Company as it was also known, under imperial French charter.

What does any of this have to do with an American Petro-State?  
The Louisiana  settlement began in 1699 at what today is Biloxi Mississippi.  The poet, essayist and activist Alice Dunbar-Nelson, writing in 1916 to document the strange provenance of the Louisianan term "People of Color (gens de couleur)", suggests there were less than 300 people in the colony by the time the first African slaves arrived. France and Louisiana's economic viability were dependent on the machinations of the Mississippi Company and what became known as the "Mississippi Bubble."  I mention it here because the Mississippi Bubble introduces early to Louisiana one of the key elements necessary for its future as a haven for oil and gas drilling and petrochemical processing -- monopolistic corruption. A Scottish gambler, John Law, convinced the French government that if they gave him control of the Mississippi Company, and all the resources and people of what is now Mississippi and Louisiana, that he could increase the number of White people and slaves in the colony.  The plan went awry, Law had inflated the value of the Mississippi Company stock and when shares were not redeemable it almost bankrupted France and its colonies.  Louisiana would remain backward economically for generations.  But that doesn't mean companies weren't getting wealthy.  Eventually, after the French had given up on the vast territory it controlled in North America, the production of agricultural and other commodities - sugar, salt, cotton, sulphur, rice --would dominate the lives of most of the states residents, regardless of their color or legal status. At the turn of the 20th century the first oil would be discovered at Jennings Field near Lafayette.  This arguably marks the emergence of the American Petro-State

What is a Petro-State?  Mostly we think of it in terms of Russia "oilgarchs", Persian Gulf Arab oil states and authoritarian regimes in Africa, South America and Asia.  But North America has regions that function like foreign Petro-States.  Instead of despot rulers there is a history of state government level corruption, lax environmental enforcement and corporate control of land and property rights.  
What characterizes a Petro-State? According to Michael Watts in his reflection on Louisiana and the BP oil disaster (2012):
"Petrocorruption and the shady politics of oil development  were there from the beginning, as the oil industry emerged on the backs of an extractive economy (timber, sulfur, rice, salt, furs). Local businessmen snapped up land and threw themselves into a chaotic land grab backed by Texas drillers and operators with little regard for the law. Wildcatting sprung up with no regulation; leases, especially along the coast wetlands, were allocated behind closed doors. Huey P. Long famously launched his career with an attack on Standard Oil and then proceeded to build his own subterranean oil empire. While senator, Long and his political cronies established the Win or Lose Corporation, which acquired cut-rate mineral leases through the government and resold them at a healthy profit." 

Essential to the profitability of the petrostate is its ability to operate in the shadows, to tamp down dissent and evade regulatory or criminal punishment. The fact that many readers of this post know nothing of these conditions, the economic, geo-spatial, health, environmental and cultural implications of its existence suggests these massive, obscenely wealthy corporations have been successful.

228,000 oil wells have been drilled in Louisiana since the discovery of the Jennings Field (Watts). The oil extracted from Louisiana and Texas, the drilling that has led to the destruction of the wetlands and the chemical processing that has created multiple Cancer Alleys and many Sacrificial Neighborhoods along the fence lines of chemical processors and oil refineries, provides us with our daily needs, from the fabrics we wear to the medical devices essential to our survival.  

And the cartography of the American Petro-State is no longer limited to Louisiana and Texas. See that big red scab up by  Ohio?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day 2015

Today is the 45th Anniversary of Earth Day
This week is the 5th Anniversary of the BP Oil Disaster 
This year is the 10th Anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina & Rita

The View from a Mossville Fenceline.  Photo by R Hudson
Right now, There is a great dislocation happening in southwest Louisiana, the exodus of the people of Mossville Louisiana from the village built by their ancestors over 150 years ago. The community of Mossville is disappearing under the greedy footprint of Sasol, the South African Oil and Gas company, abetted by a complicit state government, indifferent to the needs and wishes of its most vulnerable citizens, those in the fenceline communities, near to oil refineries and chemical processors.  These communities, like Mossville, bear the burden of toxic exposures, and their citizens organize to protect their health as well as the air, land and water where they live.  Organizations like Mossville Environmental Action Now seek to protect all of us from predatory extractive industries that realize obscene profits while leaving devastation in their wake.

In the coming weeks this blog will describe the situation in Mossville and suggest multiple approaches to thinking about the dispossession of one of this country's oldest African-American communities from its land by an apartheid- era South African based oil and chemical processing giant.

Many African-American, Indigenous and working poor communities have disappeared through Louisiana state policies that favor industrial expansion over the rights of its citizens. Mossville, because of the decades-long organizing by its residents, provides important lessons for how we, who believe in the possibility of creating a safe and prosperous environment for all beings, can confront the predation of industry and support the important work of local and grassroots organizing, such as that of Mossville Environmental Action Now.

This weekend watch for a post on The Emergence of an American Petro-State.