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>> 29 2 Dangerous Stories If I’da moved here after they built those tanks, I wouldn’ta said a word about it, it would have been my fault. When I moved here, them tanks and all wasn’t there. They wasn’t there. And they infringed on my rights. —Harlon Rushing, New Sarpy resident, April 9, 2003 I really believe that this plant is vital to the national energy. . . . Do I think it’s more important than my health? No. But, you know, at this point in time . . . I chose to build my house here and live here, you know. So, you know, one day I’ll choose to move. —Harriet Isaac,* New Sarpy resident, May 20, 2003 As I have been telling you war stories, perhaps you have been trying to decide which side to choose. Is it the people of New Sarpy who deserve your sympathies for all they suffered at the hands of the refinery? Or is the refinery a victim of sensationalist charges, trumped up with the help of environmentalist rabble rousers? If you are not already a partisan, I suspect that there is something that you would like to know in order to help you choose sides: Who was there first, the refinery or the community? This is a question that I have been asked by nearly every audience to whom I have spoken about New Sarpy. At first I was puzzled by its ubiquity. Why should it matter so much? After months of head scratching, Diona,* a fellow worker at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), told me a story that helped me understand. A black resident of a community near Baton Rouge burdened by pollution from a variety of local sources, including an Exxon plastics plant, Diona had recently had a confrontation with a government official1 about a permitting decision. The official, according to Diona, had denied activists’ claims that industrial pollution was making them sick. 30 > 31 a result. Accordingly, the answers offered by New Sarpy residents and petrochemical industry officials referred in various ways to the figures of the responsible chooser and the enterprising individual in their attempts to establish or question the moral authority of residents and the legitimacy of their campaign. Precisely how these figures were mobilized, moreover, shaped industry scientists and engineers’ ability to claim expertise over contested issues of environmental health. During and after Concerned Citizens of New Sarpy’s (CCNS’s) campaign , residents told two kinds of stories about how they came to live in New Sarpy. In strategic stories, CCNS members and their allies asserted unequivocally the community’s prior claim to the area, emphasizing that residents chose to live in a peaceful, rural community relatively free of pollution . They had made responsible, informed decisions, only to see their choices taken away by the imposition of the refinery. In contrast, residents’ kitchen table stories, told to me away from the heat of the campaign, narrated the complexities and contingencies involved in their decisions to move to New Sarpy—before and after the neighboring refinery was built— and acknowledged all they did not, or could not, know about the potential health effects of petrochemical pollution. Kitchen table stories were not concerned with establishing residents’ moral authority, as were strategic stories, yet they offered a deeper critique of environmental injustices than simple “we were here first!” assertions by highlighting the structures that landed residents in what they came to believe was an unhealthy proximity to the refinery. Kitchen table stories drew attention in particular to the shifting, incomplete, and necessarily situated nature of the knowledge on which residential choices are supposed to be based—calling into question not just the specific claims about pollution and health made by experts (as strategic stories were wont to do) but the very notion that expert knowledge can guide responsible choices. Petrochemical industry experts, for their part, met residents’ stories and their implied critiques with stories in which the enterprising individual was central. Their enterprising stories refused to acknowledge any structural constraints on residents’ choices—in neoliberal ideology, the autonomy of the enterprising person belies structure—allowing them to claim residents’ continued presence in New Sarpy as proof that environmental quality did not stand in the way of the healthy, fulfilled life that they, as enterprising individuals, must necessarily be pursuing. Simultaneously, by asserting their own status as enterprising individuals, refinery officials were able to offer their decisions to work in (and in some cases live near) petrochemical facilities as evidence that...


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MARC Record
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