London Sunday Times
May 11, 1997
Louisiana blacks win nuclear war
by Tony Allen-Mills
When the chiefs of the British nuclear industry launched a $750m bid to break into the American uranium market, they reckoned without Miss Essie.
Essie Youngblood, 77, the maiden granddaughter of a Georgian slave, and fellow residents of two of America's poorest villages have dealt a crushing blow to British Nuclear Fuels (BNF) and its international partners in the uranium-enrichment project in Claiborne parish, northern Louisiana.
In a historic ruling issued this month, a nuclear regulatory commission tribunal in Washington denied the consortium an operating licence on the unprecedented grounds that racism may have played a part in the decision to site a uranium processing plant on the doorsteps of two black villages.
"They wanted to put it here because they thought we wouldn't be able to afford a lawyer to fight them," said Youngblood. "They thought nobody here had an education, and that we wouldn't know what to do. Well, we banded together and we won."
After almost a decade of campaigning, a unique coalition of angry black families and white pensioners has achieved what no environmental group has managed before in America.
Known as Cant for Citizens Against Nuclear Trash this army from the backwoods hamlets of Forest Grove (population 150) and Center Springs (population 100) has persuaded a national tribunal to recognise one of the black community's sorest complaints: that whenever the time comes to build a new waste dump, sludge plant, incinerator, landfill, lead smelter, oil refinery, sewage farm or any other bilious facility, it always seems to end up in African-American neighbourhoods.
"This isn't a case of Nimby [not in my back yard]," said Toney Johnson, a local white estate agent. "It's a textbook case of Pibby place in black back yards."
It had all seemed so simple in the 1980s, when the American nuclear market was opening up to competition and European fuel producers were seeking a potentially lucrative opening. With its Dutch and German partners in Urenco, a state-owned uranium combine, BNF linked up with a group of American developers to propose a new enrichment plant.
Championing their cause was the most powerful pro-nuclear politician in Washington, Senator Bennett Johnston, chairman of the Senate committee on energy and natural resources. His patronage was duly rewarded. The consortium agreed to spend their millions in Louisiana Johnston's home state.
On a late winter morning in 1989, in the courthouse square of Homer, a placid rural town close to the border with Arkansas, Johnston brought his constituents joyous news: a "chemical" plant would be opening. Homer's economy would be transformed.
Even after details emerged of the plant's nuclear purpose, the Homer business establishment was thrilled. As for any noxious side effects, the plant would be hidden in the woods where few from Homer roamed.
On her porch in those woods five miles away, Youngblood looked out across the former cotton fields where her father had worked all his life. The Forest Grove community was founded by freed slaves after the civil war. Youngblood, a retired librarian, tried to envisage the uranium plant that would now be built at the bottom of her garden. "We thought we were being railroaded into something we didn't want," she said. "We felt what they were doing was wrong."
Scattered through the pine woods that have long since supplanted most of the former cotton plantations, dozens of angry black landowners were reaching a similar conclusion.
"They kept telling us this uranium plant was so good," said Willie Woods, a hefty former sawmill worker who later assumed the chairmanship of Cant. "Well, if it was really so good, why did they want to dump it out here?"
A few miles away, on the shores of Lake Claiborne, Norton Tompkins and his wife Jeri digested the news with horror. Like a handful of other retired white couples, they had settled by the beautiful lake for its unspoilt peace and charm.
"The last thing we wanted to see," said Tompkins, "was nuclear construction trucks tearing up our roads." Tompkins, 75, became treasurer of Cant, and operator of the group's prize asset an elderly photocopying machine.
In Homer, meanwhile, Toney Johnson smelt a rat. Although he belonged to one of Homer's oldest white families and was a pillar of the local business establishment, he did not share his colleagues' enthusiasm for the profit-making all were promised. Nobody, it seemed to him, was prepared to ask awkward questions about safety and pollution. It was Johnson who gave Cant its name. "That's Cant, as in 'you can't do this to us'," he said.
Homer was split down the middle as the prosperous business classes white and black dismissed their opponents as "scientific illiterates" incapable of understanding progress. In return, Cant attracted the attention of the national anti-nuclear movement. High-powered environmental lawyers flew in from New Orleans.
In the end, it was the stark accusation that yet another poor black community was being lumbered with a controversial plant that was to prove the project's undoing. Having studied 79 Louisiana sites, the consortium's American engineers had weeded out every location anywhere near a sizeable white community. All that was left was a supposedly ideal backwater where the locals just happened to be 97% black.
Citing President Bill Clinton's 1994 executive order that all federal agencies should act to protect black communities from so-called environmental racism, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board duly dealt a blow that sounded to many last week like a death knell. The board rejected the consortium's insistence that only scientific criteria had been applied in site selection. The commission concluded there was "more than sufficient" evidence to raise a "reasonable inference" that racial considerations had been involved.
A British spokesman for Urenco said that despite 10 years of delays and $33m of expenses to date, the consortium was determined to keep the project alive. Partners are meeting in Washington tomorrow and are likely to file an appeal. Pat Upson, Urenco's technical managing director, said: "We are confident there was no racial discrimination, and we believe we've got a very good case."
At Forest Grove's tiny Methodist church last week, they were already planning a victory picnic. Nathalie Walker, Cant's lawyer, told the group: "It's the first time in the nation that judges have recognised that blacks have a valid claim in a case of environmental racism."
Then, with tears in his eyes, Johnson said: "I've lived around black people all my life. Before this, I didn't know you all. Now I know you as my friends. We've stuck through all this together." Miss Essie just nodded and smiled.