Description and Details

Mossville, an enclave out­side Lake Charles, Louisiana was a thriv­ing African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty found­ed by for­mer slaves in 1790. How­ev­er, due to a South African chem­i­cal com­pa­ny called Sasol, homes are being lost, and Mossville is slow­ly becom­ing a ghost town. 

Before Sasol, Mossville was already a heav­i­ly pol­lut­ed area. It’s said to be “the most pol­lut­ed cor­ner of the most pol­lut­ed region in one of the most pol­lut­ed states in the coun­try”. The fed­er­al agency for tox­ic sub­stances and dis­ease reg­istry test­ed the blood of 28 Mossville res­i­dents in 1998 and found that the blood con­tained three times the stan­dard diox­ins lev­el. Sasol’s pro­pos­al of build­ing the largest chem­i­cal plant of its kind could wors­en the already poor health con­di­tions and lead to the total aban­don­ment of Mossville. 

In Decem­ber 2012, Sasol offi­cial­ly announced its plans to expand in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The project con­tains two parts: one is to build a new gas-to-liq­uid (GTL) facil­i­ty, mak­ing use of the sink­ing nat­ur­al gas price for prof­its, and the sec­ond facil­i­ty is an ethane crack­er. The ethane crack­er uses ethane from nat­ur­al gas to pro­duce eth­yl­ene for alco­hol and plas­tic prod­ucts. The expan­sion has gone through exten­sive nego­ti­a­tions between Sasol and Louisiana offi­cials and is to ben­e­fit both parties.

How­ev­er, Sasol and Louisiana offi­cials are not the only par­ties involved in this project. Mossville res­i­dents are also sig­nif­i­cant stake­hold­ers involved. Nev­er­the­less, their ben­e­fits are neglect­ed to some extent. Many res­i­dents said they were just told, with­out nego­ti­a­tion in advance, even though Sasol claims they care­ful­ly talked with the res­i­dents about the arrange­ment. Sasol offers a buy­out pro­gram to home­own­ers in Mossville and neigh­bor­ing com­mu­ni­ties with­in a cer­tain range for relo­ca­tion. The name of the buy­out pro­gram is Vol­un­tary Prop­er­ty Pur­chase Pro­gram (VPPP) and is called by Sasol the “most gen­er­al buy­out plan of its kind”, but it does­n’t allow any nego­ti­a­tion on its pur­chase price. The buy­out price of Mossville is 88% low­er than that of Brent­wood, anoth­er area eli­gi­ble for VPPP. In addi­tion to con­cerns about insuf­fi­cient com­pen­sa­tion to find new homes, many res­i­dents express ties to the community.

A fur­ther look into VPPP reveals that it may be a dis­ad­van­tage to Mossville res­i­dents. Brentwood’s com­mu­ni­ty is made of 90% white peo­ple, while Mossville is 90% black. When it comes to the buy­out pro­gram, they should have the same stan­dard, so the same unit price. Since res­i­dents can’t nego­ti­ate, they don’t have a sol­id admin­is­tra­tive force to speak out for them. Some res­i­dents are stay­ing with the heavy pol­lu­tion, while oth­ers move else­where, but feel pained to leave their fam­i­ly his­to­ry behind with the lit­tle mon­ey from VPPP. 

With the release of the film “Mossville: when great trees fall”, increased atten­tion has been giv­en to the events that occurred in Mossville. In Novem­ber 2021, the head of EPA vis­it­ed Mossville and lat­er announced that more mon­ey would be invest­ed in air pol­lu­tion mon­i­tor­ing. Using heli­copter fly­overs and mobile air mon­i­tor­ing tech­niques pro­vid­ed by the EPA, Sasol facil­i­ties will be assessed for poten­tial health risks. Fur­ther, Sasol is required by the EPA to address poten­tial risk man­age­ment plan vio­la­tions found dur­ing the inspec­tion. How­ev­er, com­pared to pol­lu­tion con­trol, buy­out inequal­i­ty remains unsolved. Until July 2020, the buy­out saw an 85% par­tic­i­pa­tion rate, and the orig­i­nal buy­out plan is unchanged. 

CEE sub­jects: Envi­ron­men­tal Engi­neer­ing, Geot­ech­ni­cal Engi­neer­ing, Hydraulics and Hydro­log­i­cal Engi­neer­ing, Envi­ron­men­tal Flu­id Dynam­ics, Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy and Sus­tain­able Infra­struc­ture, Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice, Air Quality

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think what occurred in Mossville is an envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice issue? What fac­tors con­tributed to the events that occurred here?
  • How can we pre­vent sim­i­lar prob­lems from hap­pen­ing in the future? What pro­tec­tions are in place to ensure res­i­dents have a voice in indus­tri­al deci­sions in their com­mu­ni­ties? What pro­tec­tions are in place to pro­tect home­own­ers against discrimination?
  • Dur­ing the process of nego­ti­a­tion and buy­out, what aspects do you think can be improved to bet­ter resolve the ten­sion between Sasol and the com­mu­ni­ty? Who are the oth­er stake­hold­ers involved? Who is respon­si­ble for the con­se­quences, such as the cleanup?
  • How do you think a civil/environmental/chemical engi­neer may play a role in Mossville’s pol­lu­tion? Do you think there is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to improve the area? What actions would you take as an engi­neer in the area to mit­i­gate the pol­lu­tion or raise aware­ness in the community?
  • For res­i­dents remain­ing in the com­mu­ni­ty, how could they be assist­ed with liv­ing around the sur­round­ing pol­lu­tion and health hazards?