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>> 1 1 The Battlefront This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper. —T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men,” 1925 The campaign of Concerned Citizens of New Sarpy against Orion Refining ended with a show of hands in a crowded, windowless, cinder-block room on December 18, 2002. The campaign had been one of those environmental David-and-Goliath stories about which movies are made. New Sarpy, Louisiana, a working-class town of seventeen hundred people, borders the Orion refinery. The back yards of the modest homes on one side of St. Charles Street end at the refinery ’s fence; massive storage tanks squat just a few hundred feet away. With the refinery so close, residents were convinced that the toxic chemicals it released into the air were making them sick. So—as in Erin Brockovich or A Civil Action—the community took on the company, demanding that Orion buy their homes to make it possible for them to relocate to neighborhoods away from industrial pollution. In addition to the usual rallies, press releases, and lawsuits, New Sarpy residents had in their arsenal a novel weapon: the bucket. An inexpensive, homemade air-sampling device, the bucket produced measurements that proved that residents were breathing toxic 2 > 3 Importantly, it was the newly respectful, cooperative form of community -industry relations—not shows of force—through which petrochemical industry experts regained their status as authorities over technical matters. Far from being a story of the fragility of truth in the face of power, New Sarpy ’s story is one of the robustness of experts’ claims to speak for the truth through clever, fluid alliances with power. Winning Respect When the December meeting ended, Jason Carter,*2 a senior refinery official who had spoken about the settlement plan at the beginning of the meeting, looked pleased to hear of the vote’s outcome, which he had awaited in the hallway. A white man3 in his midforties trained as an engineer , Carter had been frustrated throughout CCNS’s campaign by residents ’ assertions that Orion’s unchecked emissions were making them ill.4 For him, it was indisputable that New Sarpy residents’ health complaints were not Orion’s fault. Having come to the refinery less than a year after Orion assumed ownership in 1999, Carter conceded that the facility had had a reputation for poor environmental performance and lax safety procedures under its prior owner. He even admitted that, in the start-up process under Orion, the refinery had had a series of flaring incidents that had made it a nuisance to the community. But by the height of residents’ campaign in mid-2002, Carter insisted, his refinery had no problems with its emissions. They had been unable to corroborate the results of residents’ bucket monitoring, and, moreover, they were working out a settlement with regulators at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to redress the earlier flaring problems and other issues that CCNS had raised in their lawsuit. Given that the refinery’s performance at the time offered no basis for CCNS’s continued opposition, Carter attributed the campaign to factors that had nothing to do with science. In particular, he felt that the campaign continued because Orion somehow had not convinced residents that it was “committed to running the place right.” He blamed the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB) for this: the involvement of the New Orleans–based environmental health and justice nonprofit, in his view, had turned an early, company-sponsored community meeting into an ambush by irate residents and had subsequently prevented Orion from establishing a relationship with its neighbors. The December 2002 settlement with CCNS indicated that the company had finally been successful in establishing the dialogue with community members that he had sought since arriving at the refinery. 4 > 5 harmed, providing New Sarpy residents with buckets and helping them conduct a community health study. But Rolfes also encouraged and assisted residents in using traditional organizing strategies, including demonstrations and press conferences, to try to pressure Orion into meeting their demand for relocation. From Rolfes’s perspective, the settlement was a defeat in that it left residents next door to Orion, breathing dangerous chemicals. Moreover, Orion had won the struggle by using blatantly underhanded tactics that ultimately overcame CCNS leaders’ resolve to continue their campaign. By offering residents money to drop their lawsuit and remain in New Sarpy, Orion manufactured a...


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MARC Record
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