Vol. 14 No. 6 (June 2004), pp.402-405

UNEASY ALCHEMY: CITIZENS AND EXPERTS IN LOUISIANA’S CHEMICAL CORRIDOR DISPUTE, by Barbara L. Allen. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003. 224 pp.  $55.00/£35.95.  Cloth. ISBN 0-262-01203-0.  Paper $22.00/£14.95. ISBN: 0-262-51134-7.

Reviewed by Susan Gluck Mezey, Department of Political Science, Loyola University Chicago. Email: smezey@luc.edu . 

Barbara Allen’s book presents a model of inclusive policymaking in which policymakers listen and respond to the views of their constituencies. Although the focus of the book is on environmental policy, the model is applicable to a broader range of policy issues. Her “story” depicts the efforts of local communities that attempt, and sometimes succeed, in altering the physical environment of the state in which they live, a state with 16,000 pounds of hazardous waste for each citizen.  When asked to review this book, I had some trepidation about my ability to read and evaluate a book that focuses on disputes about the harmful effects of chemicals. But because the topic of environmental justice interested me, I agreed to do it and I am pleased that I did.

Barbara Allen is an architect turned science and technology scholar who believes that “social discourse” can produce “a changed environment.” She was born in a southern Louisiana oil town and writes about an area close to home—the eighty-five mile stretch of road along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. She begins with a grim picture of an area characterized by high rates of unemployment, illiteracy, poverty and sickness; not coincidentally, it is home to 130 chemical plants. The book is set in the context of the environmental justice movement, a social movement that evolved in the 1980s, drawing from the civil rights and environmental protection movements. Allen bases her research on the customary documentary materials in the policymaking arena, as well as extensive interviews with an assortment of, mostly local, stakeholders.  

At the outset Allen identifies three types of alliances that facilitate a successful outcome of environmental change: between local citizen-activists and experts, between local and national organizations, and among diverse racial and class groups. She borrows from Sandra Harding’s notion of “strong objectivity,” using it as a lens through which to explore alliances between citizens and experts and to show that so-called “objective” evidence put forward by industrial and government actors is replete with biases.  Allen argues, as did Harding, that objectivity is strengthened by incorporating the views of the residents—that is, the people affected by the science—into the scientific analysis. With the lens of “strong objectivity,” Allen demonstrates the bias in ostensibly neutral scientific evidence.

The scene is set with her discussion of environmental regulation, or the lack thereof, in Louisiana, comparing the [*403] regulation of the oil industry in Texas favorably to that of Louisiana.  She describes a long-held alliance between government and oil company elites that produced a chemical industry with ready access to government benefits and little or no government regulation.

Chapter 2 highlights the community narratives, the stories told by the residents of sickness, fear, powerlessness, and racism. These stories arise from their experiences with nonresponsive governments and corporate entities. The narratives portray an industry and a government uninterested in quality of life issues of the people living in the corridor.

In an effort to help the community narratives reach their intended ear, expert activists are recruited (recruit themselves). One of the first of these is a government official who plays the role of citizen-liaison to the environmental protection division of the state attorney general’s office. His goal was to educate people on the issues and show them how to change their environment. As she demonstrates throughout the book, there were few government officials with similar aims. With this assistance, the citizen-activists emerged and began to educate themselves. One of their first lessons was to learn about their rights. Turning to the courts, they sought to use the judiciary to impose reform on government agencies to make them more responsive to their needs. They soon learned, however, that rulings require enforcement, which was often not forthcoming.

Chapter 3 focuses on economics, comparing the corporate perspective to the citizens’ perspective and examining the clash between the two. Based on the two versions, Allen seeks to find the one that is “less biased, more inclusive, and just” (p.51).  She concludes by urging that the views of local residents be included as part of an economic analysis.

The chapter delves into the myth behind the dichotomy between environmental safety and economic prosperity. Corporations always stress the interests of residents when seeking to build or expand chemical plants in their backyard; they contend that pollution controls are bad for the local economy and cost jobs. Allen, however, convincingly demonstrates that the reverse is actually true—that is, that spending on pollution controls is associated with a greater number of jobs. Taxing policy plays an important role also, with industry given huge tax exemptions by the state. And because the tax breaks are granted by the state, local citizens have little or no say in approving or disapproving them. The result is that services, including public education, are sadly under-funded, producing an undereducated population. And because chemical plants require a highly skilled and educated workforce, the local citizenry very rarely benefit from any jobs generated by the plant in the area.

She paints a dismal picture of the government’s failure to curb pollution. Although fines are levied, they are too low to serve as a deterrent and the public is kept in the dark about them. The key, as she explains it, is that the state environmental protection agency largely perceives its role as assisting industry, rather than regulating it. The chapter ends with a case study of a single parish, Ascension, having one of the highest [*404] concentrations of petrochemical plants in the area and, in 1994, leading the state in toxic emissions. In her view, a compromise is needed: she urges greater pollution control accompanied by diversification of the economy. This would lead to more jobs and, although it would not eliminate pollution, at least the local residents would benefit from an improved economy.

Chapter 4 examines representation as played out in an epoch battle over siting a chemical plant in St. James Parish in 1996. The state expressed its approval by granting enormous tax breaks; the parish council voted in favor as well. A group of residents combined to form the St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment, which sought help from students from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (TELC). Not surprisingly, the proposed site for the plant was in the mostly African American and poor neighborhood.  However, as the action unfolds, the greatest concern revolves around the issue of how to secure legal representation. In an end run, Governor Mike Foster threatened the legal clinic’s funding and the elected Louisiana Supreme Court issued a ruling that effectively barred the clinic from representing residents in legal actions against the chemical industry.  Finally, after a prolonged fight, amid intraracial conflicts characterized in part by the local and state chapters of the NAACP at odds with each other, the company decided to move elsewhere.

The last substantive chapter assesses the health concerns of the people residing in the corridor, stressing the need for local residents to team up with health science experts to document the problems caused by the presence of these chemical plants. Again, echoing the theme present throughout the book, she notes the biases of corporate and government scientists and urges them to include the residents’ voices and perspectives to gain a more objective picture of the health problems rampant in the community.

Allen has written a highly accessible and interesting book about an important subject. Her attention to detail is wonderful and she does an admirable job of providing a voice for the people in the state. From the perspective of law and courts scholarship, however, I would have liked her to devote more attention to explaining the role of the courts in the environmental policymaking process. She asserts the importance of courts, saying they represent the best option for the environmental justice movement because judges apparently “listen” to citizens when other government officials do not. However, she barely touches on whether and how litigation was instrumental in effecting policy changes. She criticizes the elected state supreme court for undermining the ability of the Tulane University legal clinic to assist in the movement. But if the elected state judges did not play a positive role, which courts did? She does not distinguish between state and federal courts nor does she address differences between appointed and elected judges. In sum, it is not clear to me exactly why the courts were the preferred institution?

Finally, Allen demonstrates that, for the most part, the state government has failed its citizens, especially, its poorer minority citizens—which, of course, should hardly come as a surprise. While showing that the environmental justice movement has convinced some citizens that “business as usual” does not have to [*405] be the only way in which environmental policy is made in Louisiana, she has not shown how such policy changes will be realized. Although she ends with a “success” story of citizens against industry and the state, and at times her narratives offer some hope for reform, in the end I do not believe she has proved her case that the discourses can lead to (or have led to) social and political change. Clearly, these alliances have empowered residents to some extent, but it does not appear that they are yet a match for the determined and powerful combination of industry and government. In my view, Allen may be more optimistic than the evidence would warrant. But this may simply be a glass half-full, half-empty situation. After all, she witnessed the changes that resulted from efforts of the community activists and, therefore, perhaps she is justified in focusing on the positive outcomes.


Copyright 2004 by the author, Susan Gluck Mezey.