MOSSVILLE, La. -- From her front porch, Robin Thibodeaux looks 100 yards east to a huge Condea Vista Co. chemical plant. She turns west to face a tiny Calcasieu Parish neighborhood of 593 people that is fast disappearing. It is the only neighborhood she has known.
Twelve of the 15 families on Second Avenue have taken a buyout and left. Most were Thibodeaux kin. Her brother, sister, two aunts, the neighbor who lost a young child to cancer -- all moved to other parts of Louisiana. Next door sit the pilings on which her father's house stood until, two days before, he accepted about $60,000 from Condea Vista, loaded his house on a flatbed truck and moved it to a lot 10 miles north.
"Mossville is getting to be a ghost town," says Thibodeaux, 37, packing boxes with pictures and keepsakes in preparation for her move, early next year, to nearby Sulphur, La. "It's like a family breaking up, and I'm ready to leave. That's what seems to happen these days if you live this close to a chemical plant."
In fact, Condea Vista's $13.88 million buyout of 206 homes in Mossville, the poor African-American community in the shadow of its 200-acre plant, offers a window on a little-noticed trend in '90s America. Small towns and neighborhoods -- and the petrochemical plants that have long sustained them -- are divorcing.
Since 1990, neighborhoods in East St. Louis, Ill., Ponca City, Okla., and Texarkana, Texas, have been moved by industry or the government because of their proximity to chemical and oil plants.
In Baltimore, Condea Vista is the only one of 10 companies with plants in Wagner's Point to offer the 270 residents money and a chance to join the ranks of the relocated.
In Louisiana, where a quarter of the world's chemicals are made, industry buyouts have become standard. As a result, residential areas in towns such as Morrisonville (purchased by Dow Chemical Co. in 1991 for about $7 million), Reveilletown (Georgia Gulf Corp. in 1991 for about $3 million) and Port Allen (Placid Refining Co., terms negotiated in 1993 were not disclosed) are no more.
Buyouts are becoming so common that Prudential's corporate executive-relocation service has developed a profitable side business in consulting for chemical companies that move their neighbors.
In Falls Church, Va., the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a nonprofit organization run by former Love Canal, N.Y., resident Lois Gibbs, advises communities seeking buyouts. The center has assisted Mossville and Wagner's Point residents.
"You're going to see more and more of these relocations," says Paul Rainwater, a Conoco Inc. public relations executive in Louisiana and a police juror -- the equivalent of a county commissioner -- in Mossville's parish.
"We've found it's much better to find a way to help people leave," Rainwater says.
That reasoning reflects the intractability, and expense, of environmental disputes. Rather than spend millions to fight local residents in court, companies can short-circuit lawsuits -- and earn favorable publicity -- by paying their neighbors to start over someplace else.
Communities frequently embrace relocation because they fear catastrophic accidents and suspect, but may not be able to prove, the companies' culpability in the ailments and deaths of loved ones. And politicians eagerly embrace such popular compromises.
As a result, buyouts have become a de facto public policy, without serious scrutiny from government or scientists. No organization or agency tracks relocations. And worries are growing about their drawbacks.
Companies worry that the prospect of a buyout may encourage some people to move nearby. Some environmentalists complain that relocations allow industry to evade responsibility for pollution; the companies, not the communities, should leave town.
Residents, often reluctantly, leave communities that cannot be replaced.
Diane Prince, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in January, expects to move, but she has put a giant sign in her front yard -- directly across the street from Vista's entrance -- to protest Mossville's breakup. Painted in red block letters are the names of residents who, she believes, died because of industrial pollution.
In most cases, including Mossville, buyouts take place without hard evidence linking industry's pollution to a community's ill health. "Getting Organized and Getting Out," a guide by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, advises residents to spend more time on politics and publicity than on finding proof of pollution.
"The true thrust of your efforts is best spent organizing a strong vocal community group rather than gathering more evidence of harm," it says. "If you expect to find all the facts before you begin to act, you will never begin to act."
Community leaders in Wagner's Point and Mossville have heeded that advice. In fact, a visit to Mossville offers both a preview of what may happen in Baltimore and a warning to the companies that have refused to help fund a Wagner's Point relocation.
Mossville and Wagner's Point are both century-old neighborhoods small enough to have escaped the notice of mapmakers and telephone operators. Each saw the chemical industry establish itself three generations ago, and grow rapidly. When an explosion ripped through the Condea Vista plant in Baltimore in October, paraffins made in Mossville caught fire, sending a huge black cloud over Charm City.
While the plants on the west side of the Calcasieu River dwarf anything in South Baltimore, Wagner's Pointers live in slightly closer proximity -- and to more plants -- than residents here. "Mossville," says Robert Kuehn, director of Tulane University's environmental law clinic, "is the closest parallel in the country to Wagner's Point."
A once heavenly town
"Heaven on Earth!" says Doris Rigmaiden, 42, answering the phone at her Mossville restaurant, Heaven on Earth BBQ. These days, the name, like Rigmaiden's sauce, is thick -- with irony.
Heaven on Earth has a sign on the door: "Give Me Three Good Reasons to Stay in Mossville -- There Are None." Rigmaiden's mother has unexplained respiratory problems. "We're getting out Mossville," Doris Rigmaiden says.
Mossville was once heavenly. Founded by freed slaves such as Jim Moss, who opened the first post office there, Mossville was a country town, where people hunted in the woods, fished in the swamps and raised cows, horses, hogs, rice and sweet potatoes. Folks never missed Sunday services at Mount Zion Baptist Church. Founded in 1866, it too is seeking a new home.
In the 1930s, Louisiana began offering huge tax breaks to attract chemical and oil companies. On the west side of the Calcasieu, )) manufacturers built plants so large they have their own sewage, water and fire departments. At night, the plants resemble cities, their towers so bright, it is hard to see the stars.
Conoco opened a refinery bordering Mossville in 1941. In 1984, part of Conoco's land was taken over by Vista, which expanded west to within 100 yards of Prince's home. Explosions and spills became a part of life.
The ground underneath Vista's plant was no less murky. Ethylene dichloride (EDC), a suspected carcinogen used in the production of vinyl products, had seeped into the ground. By 1987, a residents' lawsuit suggests, EDC had migrated under the fence and, unknown to them, into Mossville.
What residents did know then was that they were sick. Robin Thibodeaux watched her mother die mysteriously and her teen-age daughter contract cancer. Lillie Mae Smith had breast cancer. In addition to her own cancer, Prince's daughter, Deneen, now 24, and a number of neighborhood women developed endometriosis, which is associated with infertility.
Jessie Thomas' teen-age boy had a mysterious benign tumor removed from his kidney. (A study completed this fall by Dr. Marvin Legator of the University of Texas concluded that Mossville residents suffer from higher-than-expected rates of respiratory ailments.)
To be safe, many residents switched to bottled water. But most swallowed their suspicions and heeded the advice on the Pasadena Baptist Church wall: "Long suffering is love's patience."
By 1990, some residents were pushing for a buyout of the neighborhood. According to lawyers, the Condea Vista plant consulted with Prudential Relocation. But Vista executives in Houston, at the company's U.S. headquarters, decided -- to their lasting regret -- not to relocate Mossville.
In 1995, Condea Vista publicly acknowledged that EDC had escaped into Mossville, though the company maintained that the pollution was the fault of the plant's previous owner, Conoco. Residents, wary of being turned down again for a buyout, hired lawyers. They certified about 2,000 current and former residents in a class-action suit against Conoco and Vista.
"We didn't want to sue. We just wanted out," says Sally Comeaux, the lead plaintiff, who lives across VCM Plant Road from Condea Vista. "But it took lawyers to get that company to listen."
In Wagner's Point, residents could show evidence of pollution and of high rates of some illnesses. But they could not prove a link between the two. In Mossville, lawyers avoided that problem by claiming that the EDC contamination, in addition to the accidents and spills associated with the plant, had lowered property values.
The resulting battle was as much political as legal. In 1995, state Sen. James Cox, a strong advocate for the residents, had survived a re-election challenge from Nancy Tower, a Condea Vista executive and plant spokeswoman. The residents' lawyer,
Hunter Lundy, ran for Congress in 1996 but lost to an opponent heavily funded by chemical companies.
Late last year, Conoco executives, angry at Vista for blaming them for the pollution, settled and paid $15 million in damages. This spring, Condea Vista executives met with Lundy in Houston and, expressing a desire to reduce their legal bills and be a "good neighbor," agreed to a $32 million settlement.
It includes $15 million in damages for current and former residents and $13.9 million for a voluntary buyout of current homeowners. Those who lived longer in Mossville, and closer to Condea Vista, received more. The company admitted no wrongdoing, and residents relinquished their right to sue.
The buyout began in the summer. Residents must sign up within a year and move within three years. Condea Vista has agreed to pay a "replacement cost" determined by experts hired by residents: about three times the assessed value or, on average, about $60,000 per home.
Condea Vista officials say they have no expansion plans for Mossville; the area is likely to become a buffer between the plant and the homes that sit on the other side of the Kansas City Southern railroad tracks, a mile away.
In a statement issued to The Sun, the company said the buyout shows "the community and parish that it wants to be a good corporate citizen and treat people fairly. It has always been Condea Vista's intent to work with our neighbors and come to a fair and equitable settlement."
According to court records and lawyers, however, if Condea Vista had bought out Mossville when first asked, the company might have saved more than $20 million.
Plenty of anger
Flavin Realty, hired by Condea Vista to implement the buyout, put up a trailer this summer behind a barbed-wire fence at Mossville's Michigan and Second avenues. A staff of three real estate agents and a notary public worked seven-day weeks for the first three months to sign up residents. Ninety percent of Mossville has decided to leave.
"I don't think anyone is ever ready to leave their home. It's been extremely hard," says Loran White, a Flavin agent. "But what I'll always remember is the people [who were] glad to go 'God blessing' us."
Leon Jennings was one of the first to sign up. He waited more than three months to move, looking for a new house, packing up his old one (a small, red three-bedroom) and saying goodbye to friends.
Many folks take their houses with them on trucks; ads for house-moving services blanket utility poles. Others left homes behind with signs on the walls: "Toxic Soup Sold Here" and "Contaminated House for Sale: Special Feature -- Plant View and EDC in Water."
There is plenty of anger. Some residents believe their lawyers took too high a fee, 26 percent. Others, such as Prince and Comeaux, are holding out for more of Condea Vista's money. "They are giving us the opportunity to go die somewhere else," says Prince's husband, David.
Jennings understands the anger. But he is befuddled by residents such as Tyrella Brown, 24. After selling her Mossville property to Vista, she bought a new place less than 100 yards from the other side of the Vista plant, in Westlake, where many Mossville children attend school.
In recent weeks, Condea Vista, having learned its lesson in TC Mossville, is striking pre-emptively in Westlake -- and Wagner's Point -- discussing buyouts with its neighbors, including Brown.
"I didn't really think about how close we were to the plant until we moved in -- I can't say why," says Brown. "Now we're talking with Vista about moving again."
Jennings says his new house is a double trailer three miles west, near Sulphur, that his wife, Alberta, made him buy. He spent $56,000 for the trailer, $10,000 for the land and $4,000 to move. With $116,000 from Vista, his retirement is ensured.
He has been in Mossville 45 years. On a recent afternoon, he packs his pickup with family pictures, furniture and his 3-year-old dog, which he calls Dog or whatever name occurs to him.
Preparing to leave his house for the last time, he looks at Condea Vista. As a workingman, he helped clear the land for the plant. He had colon cancer -- his own fault, he figures -- and his wife has respiratory problems, for which he blames the company. Jennings sighs, and he and Dog get into the truck.
"I don't know why I stayed here so close to that plant," he says, shutting the door. "As long as I live, I'll think about this place."
With that, another Mossville man drives away.
Pub Date: 12/06/98