The environmental justice movement and the Shintech case: The struggle for social justice and economic development in Louisiana's industrial corridor
Some scholars believe that the environmental justice movement can create lasting change only if it can reconcile conservative free-market ideology with a reform perspective that restructures community decision-making. The Shintech case of 1996-1998 in the Mississippi River industrial corridor of Louisiana is a widely-known and emblematic example of an environmental conflict that pitted the pursuit of economic development against the struggle for reform and social justice.
This study focused on the role of social location, social networks, and social capital in the ways that stakeholders on both sides of the conflict adopted either a conservative or reform perspective of the greater good of the community. Interviews in 2003-2004 with 19 respondents (n=19) in St. James Parish, Louisiana, revealed how their formative experiences with political, economic, and environmental issues had shaped their views on social justice and economic development. Supporters who had greater power on the local scene embraced a conservative identity and supported locating the proposed Shintech chemical plant in the community. Opponents, who were outside the power structure, identified with a reform perspective and opposed the plant. These existing power relationships in the community and milestones in the case were further corroborated by newspaper accounts and other secondary data sources.
The opponents group, (who were more heterogeneous in terms of race, class and income) developed network ties that led to the formation of horizontal as well as vertical alliances between those who designed or controlled the movement's rhetoric and those with less influence. This solidarity facilitated inclusion of a more diverse cross-section of citizens in the protest against the Shintech project. This reformist and community-oriented view of the common good, which integrated social equity and economic development, captured broad support in a way that influenced the courts and federal agency officials. In contrast, the more homogeneous supporters group focused solely on new industry as the best way to address community justice and economic issues--a conservative strategy that was ultimately unsuccessful. They had a more individualistic view that put their faith in the free market system as the best means to accomplish the common good. These members of the supporters' group had ties within their respective constituency, but no vertical social links that enabled them to understand or empathize with the working class and minority opponents who were concerned about bearing the disproportionate costs to their health from pollution.
Findings suggest that successful community plans for economic development must include the social equity concerns of citizens who will be affected by the plan. Conflict can potentially be minimized if the traditional top-down policy-making model is exchanged for a grassroots-up collaborative stewardship model in which all citizens have a role in creating and implementing a plan for community well-being.
0700: Social structure
0768: Environmental science