Thursday, April 14, 2005

The beatings will stop when morale improves

People who live downwind of chemical plant stacks in cancer alley along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans have fought hard to force chemical companies to inform them when toxic chemicals are released into the air. Shepherding their claims against chemical companies for over 27 years was Willie Fontenot.

For the crime of educating people about the dangers of toxic releases, and the struggle for the public's right to know, Willie Fontenot was forced to quit his job as the community liaison officer in the Louisiana Attorney General's office. He tendered his resignation on Monday, April 4th. 62-year-old Fontenot said he was told he'd be fired if he didn't resign.

A spokesperson for Attorney General Charles Foti denied that Fontenot was forced to retire.

Fontenot's troubles were triggered by an incident that occurred while he was hosting a group of environmental students from New England's Antioch Graduate School. The group stopped at the home of a woman who refused to be moved off of her land next to a major ExxonMobil chemical plant. Some students began taking photos, when, within two minutes, off-duty police, sheriff's department, and private security officers detained the group.

In the ensuing dispute, the officers claim that Fontenot was uncooperative in getting students to turn over their id's, and that students were trespassing on private property. The students and Antioch College deny those claims. When the student's instructor, Steve Chase, asked an officer to whom and for what he would be submitting a report, the officer threatened to call in the "homeland security" people to detain the group overnight for questioning.

Given the speedy response to the photo session, the officers must have been closely trailing the group. Just a day earlier, a private security guard for Shell's Norco chemical plant detained members of the group, claiming that taking photographs of the facility was a federal violation.

By the way, for those who don't know, the history of petrochemical companies in the Mississippi corridor is so pervasive that the name of the town Norco is actually an acronym for the long defunct New Orleans Refining Company. A friend of mine who grew up and lived in Norco until about a year ago has said she'd find a residue of funk on her car almost every morning from the previous night's "accidental" releases.

In the Orwellian Newspeak of the times, simply bearing witness to corporate environmental crimes against citizens is itself a crime punishable by the Department of Homeland Security.

Do we now live in a post 9-11 brave new world where love is hate, peace is war, freedom is slavery, toxic emissions are good for us, and having a view of smokestacks in cancer alley is "doubleplusgood"?

Four Key Pieces of Information About Longtime Environmental Advocate Willie Fontenot Being Forced Out Of His Job,

Antioch New England Study Trip Sparks Political Harassment In Louisiana,

Mark Schliefstein, "Activists' ally snared in security net," The Times-Picayune, 5 April 2005.

Carl Pope, "Mixed News in the Bayou," Sierra Club, 8 April 2005.

Amy Wold, "AG staffer retires rather than face hearing," The Advocate.

Amy Wold, "Former attorney general staffer gets support," The Advocate.


From Carolyn Brown: Are we Democrats ready to address real issues?

Subject: Antioch New England Statement on Political

Harassment of Environmental Justice Tour in LA

Below is a press release from the Antioch New England Graduate School concerning harassment of the school's faculty and students during their Environmental Justice tour in Louisiana. The tour was led by Attorney General's Office Community Liaison Officer Willie Fontenot. As a result of his defense of the participants' academic freedom and of their basic civil liberties he was forced out of his 27-year long position with the Attorney General's Office.

Willie Fontenot will speak at the conclusion of Loyola's Gaia Fest, which will be held on Earth Day, April 22 from 3:00 to 6:00 PM.

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For immediate release April 7, 2005

For more information, please contact: Eleanor Falcon, Director of Public Affairs 603.357.3122 ext 213

Antioch New England Study Trip Sparks Political Harassment In Louisiana Respected Environmental Advocate Forced Out of Job By Attorney General

Keene, NH - From March 14 to 25, two instructors and 13 master's students from Antioch New England Graduate School's Environmental Studies Program in Keene, NH visited Louisiana as part of a field studies course entitled Environmental Justice in the Mississippi Delta.

During their visit, the Antioch New England class met with a diverse array of stakeholders, including elected officials, petrochemical industry executives, union leaders, scientists, EPA officials, environmental activists, and members of polluted communities along the stretch of the Mississippi River that many state officials call "the Chemical Corridor" and local people often call "Cancer Alley." The Antioch New England study group also met some people they did not expect to, including off-duty police and sheriff's department officers and corporate security officials who detained them on two separate occasions because they took photos of industrial facilities from public roadways and sidewalks.

On March 16, Mr. Willie Fontenot was accompanying the group in his official capacity as Community Liaison Officer for the Louisiana Attorney General's Office. They were touring the neighborhood surrounding the major ExxonMobil chemical facility in the area. Mr.Fontenot took the group to the neighborhood because ExxonMobil has engaged in a program to buy out nearby homeowners who had long complained of toxic emissions from the plant. During a stop on a side street off Scenic Highway, some students got out of the group's vehicle and took photos of a remaining home and the ExxonMobil facility. Students are required to complete a visual presentation about the trip as a course assignment and took photos throughout their stay in Louisiana.

Course instructor Steve Chase, the Director of Antioch's Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program, said members of the group had been detained the day before by a corporate security guard near the Shell chemical plant in Norco who claimed that photographing industrial facilities was a violation of federal law and had threatened Chase and the students with images of FBI agents knocking on their doors in the middle of the night. Mr. Fontenot explained, however, that while the police had every right to stop and ask people who they were, standing on public property and photographing facilities was perfectly legal. "I've researched this extensively over the years because I often give tours to academics and journalists as part of my job with the Attorney General's Office," said Mr. Fontenot.

Within two minutes of the stop near the ExxonMobiil plant, a pair of off-duty officers from the Baton Rouge sheriff's and police departments, wearing their official public service uniforms, but in the employ of ExxonMobil, quickly detained the group. Fulltime ExxonMobil security officials soon joined the detention team. "We were less than impressed," said co-instructor Abigail Abrash Walton, "when one of the officers falsely stated that three of the students had gone on company property and then falsely claimed that we were refusing to turn over our IDs." When asked by the course instructor about what actions he would be taking in filing a report about the group, the off-duty sheriff's department officer refused to answer, and instead responded aggressively that he was going to call in "homeland security" people who would detain the group into the night.

The group was released after more than an hour, but later learned that the sheriff's department had filed a complaint with the Attorney General against Mr. Fontenot, the group's local guide for the day. Both The New Orleans Times-Picayune and The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that Mr. Fontenot was forced to retire at 10 am on Tuesday, April 5, or risk being fired over the incident. Said Mr. Fontenot, "I was advised that taking retirement was a better way to go."

"I am very disappointed," said Chase, "that our detention served as the catalyst for the Attorney General to force Mr. Fontenot out of the public service job he's held for 27 years. Given what we experienced, I suspect that this whole matter has just been used as an excuse to remove one of the state's most respected citizen participation advocates from the Attorney General's Office." Chase added, "I am particularly stunned that Mr. Fontenot lost his job when even the U.S. Coast Guard investigator who phoned me when we arrived back in New Hampshire assured me that there is absolutely no local, state, or federal law against photographing industrial facilities from public sidewalks."

Co-instructor Abigail Abrash Walton noted, "This incident showed our students a vivid example of how law enforcement and corporations can sometimes overstep their legitimate security duties in the guise of 'homeland security.' This experience was also a firsthand glimpse of the type of over-the-top repression that community members and their supporters told us they experience on the frontlines of trying to defend their communities' health and homes in Louisiana."

As a response to Mr. Fontenot being forced out of his job, the Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program at Antioch New England Graduate School is working with Marylee Orr, Executive Director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), to create a fund to help Mr. Fontenot make up his lost salary and continue to work for environmental justice in Louisiana through a nonprofit organization of his choice. The Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program, LEAN, and other Louisiana citizen groups and members of the academic community are considering further actions aimed at addressing the political harassment of academics, concerned community members, and advocates in Louisiana.

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At 4/14/2005 08:33:00 AM, Blogger Rob said...

That's disgusting. A friend of mine, Thom Scott, was the photographer for the TP series of stories on cancer alley and environmental justice. He never reported problems with law enforcement. Probably because he was taking the pictures before 9/11.

At 4/14/2005 12:31:00 PM, Blogger PRB said...

I remember driving down Cancer Alley late at night many years ago. The image in my head is of a perpetual twilight lit by the glow of the refineries; makes me think of "Invisible Sun" by the Police.

Spooky stuff.


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