Oregon City, Oregon
For the past 30 years, the people living amid the chemical plants and oil refineries along the Mississippi River in the blighted area of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley have had one steadfast ally in the halls of a state government which has set the high bar for official corruption: Willie Fontenot.
Since 1978, Fontenot has served as the community liaison officer for the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, where he helped small towns, many of them black, poor and traditionally powerless, organize themselves to confront global oil and chemical giants that are using their backyards as dumping grounds for toxic waste.
Fontenot was appointed by former Louisiana Attorney General Billy Guste, Jr., a rare reformer-minded state official, who was bothreed by mounting reports of soaring cancers rates in black communities in the Delta region. “My job title was community liaison officer,” says Fontenot. “When I started, it was part of the citizen access unit. Attorney General Guste said, ‘The citizens need some help dealing with environmental problems, how to file a complaint, how to figure out what their problems are, how to work with public officials and the news media.”
Over a span of nearly three decades, Fontenot assisted in the creation and organization of more than 400 community and environmental groups in Louisiana and across the deep south, a region scarred by the nearly unfettered rampages of the petro-chemical cartel. Fontenot earned a reputation as one of the nation’s most courageous and effective voices for environmental justice.
Fontenot spent much of his time working in desolate small towns in the Mississippi Delta region, snaking the 80 river miles from Baton Rogue to New Orleans, where more than 53 chemical plants and oil refineries cluster along the river bank in grim groves of poison-spewing stacks.
Welcome to Cancer Alley.
Louisiana leads the nation in cancer deaths and cancer mortality among blacks in these Delta towns far outpaces that of whites in the state. Louisiana ranks fourth in heart disease and the Cancer Alley parishes score the highest rate of heart disease in the state. Both heart disease and stroke have been linked to air pollution. Louisiana is also at or near the top of the list in birth defects, respiratory diseases and learning disabilities. Only Texas, a state five times its size, generates more hazardous waste and toxic chemicals.
Down here in the Chemical Corridor America’s homegrown weapons of mass destruction, in the form of dioxin, mercury and chlorine, are going off day after day, sprinkling poison into the lungs of the living and bloodstreams of the unborn.
Down here in Cancer Alley, the weapons inspectors– environmentalists, lawyers, scientists, ministers– are regularly bullied, threatened and run out of town.
Down here, both parties do the bidding of the oil and chemical industry-witness Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu’s recent vote to open ANWR to drilling.
Down here, it’s the rare brave bureaucrat who comes along with the courage to stand up and help people fight the corruption corroding Louisiana’s political system from the inside out. Yet, that’s what Willie Fontenot has done his entire career.
“A lot of people here think Willie’s a hero,” says Adam Babich, director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic in New Orleans. Babich knows a hero when he sees one. His own outfit has done much vital work in Cancer Alley, work that so unnerved the state’s chemical industry that in 1998 they got Louisiana’s then governor, Mike Foster, to threaten the university with revocation of its tax exempt status unless it pulled the plug on the law clinic. The university held firm, although the state Supreme Court, under pressure from the oil lobby and governor, soon moved to restrict the clinic’s ability to represent poor communities in litigation against the big polluters.
But the people of Louisiana’s most ravaged communities can no longer turn to Willie Fontenot for help in battling their abusers. On April 5, 2005 he was abruptly dismissed from his post without warning by the state’s new Attorney General, Charles Foti, a darling of the oil industry. Fontenot said he was hauled into the AG’s office and told he had a choice: retire immediately or be fired and risk losing his pension and health insurance. Fontenot retired.
The ouster of Fontenot was a long-sought goal of the oil and chemical junta that controls Louisiana politics and has turned the Mississippi Delta into one of the most toxic and cancer-stricken areas in North America. These companies are used to having complete control of all branches of government in Louisiana. After all they had bought and paid for judges, governors, senators and Attorneys General. But Fontenot, in his unique position within the AG’s Office, had been a stubborn thorn in their side for many years and with his help small, impoverished communities with high unemployment and illiteracy rates had begun to stand up for themselves. Their struggle had briefly become a national story, until the Clinton administration suckered the press into believing that it had dealt sternly with the problem of environmental racism.
Then in mid-March the oil industry scented blood, when they discovered that Fontenot was serving as a kind of tour guide to Cancer Alley for a group of master’s students in environmental science from Antioch College in New Hampshire. Using the banner of Homeland Security as a pretext, Fontenot, the students and their two professors were detained by off duty sheriffs working as security guards for ExxonMobil for taking photographs of the company’s chemical plant, one of the most toxic in the nation. That sham arrest was then used as the basis to force Fontenot from his position.
Here’s how this bizarre story played out.
Antioch College’s Graduate School of Environmental Studies offers a field program called Environmental Justice in the Mississippi Delta, which focuses on environmental racism in Cancer Alley. From March 14 to 25, 13 master’s students and two professors were slated to tour the Delta region to interview community leaders, environmentalists, residents and industry executives.
On their second day out in the field, the group went to a small town called Norco, which has borne the brunt of toxic emissions from a giant chemical plant owned by Shell Oil. Several of the students took photographs of the sprawling facility from public property along the road outside the grounds of the plant. The group was soon confronted by a corporate security guard, who briefly detained the student photographers. The guard lectured Steve Chase, the director of Antioch’s Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program, that photographing chemical plants and oil refineries was a violation of federal law. He warned Chase that if his group continued taking such photographs they could expect a raid from the FBI.
The next day Willie Fontenot accompanied the group to a neighborhood in East Baton Rogue near the big ExxonMobil chemical plant, one of the nation’s most poisonous. The emissions from the ExxonMobil facility are so foul and hazardous that the company was forced to buy out the properties of the entire neighborhood.
“We had just met with Baton Rogue mayor Kip Holden and went out to drive around and look at the industry in the area,” said Abigail Abrash Walton, the other Antioch professor leading the trip. “We came to a house directly across from facility and Willie Fontenot let us know that the woman who lived there had decided not to relocate. So we pulled over the van on a side street and the students got out and took photos.”
Once again they were confronted by security forces. This time it only took two minutes for the guards to come and this time the company cops were wearing official uniforms from the county sheriff’s office and the Baton Rogue police department. It turned out that the pair were off-duty cops moonlighting as security guards for ExxonMobil.
The guards detained the group and ordered Fontenot to collect driver’s licenses from the students and the two professors. Fontenot refused, saying that he wasn’t the leader of the group and that while the police had a right to question them they had no right to arrest them.
“I’ve researched this extensively over the years, because I often give tours for academics and journalists” said Fontenot. “It’s perfectly legal to stand on public property and photograph facilities.”
Needlesstosay, this bit of constitutionally-based impertinence didn’t sit well with the company goons.
One of the guards told Fontenot that he had seen three students trespass onto an ExxonMobil parking lot to take photos. This proved to be a lie. The entire stop had been videotaped by one of the students. The tape showed clearly that none of the students had strayed off public property.
When Abigail Walton asked whether a report on the incident was going to be written up and where it would be filed, she said one of the rent-a-cops “blew his top.” The guard refused to answer her question, but began ranting at the group as if they were a band of eco-terrorists. He threatened to turn them over to the “Homeland Security” people who would detain them well into the night.
A public relations officer for ExxonMobil later said that the Maritime Transportation Security Act required the company to file a “suspicious activity report” with the Department of Homeland Security’s National Response Center, which is then turned over for investigation by the US Coast Guard. But an official with the Coast Guard brushed this off, saying that it is not illegal to photograph industrial plants from public property.
After about an hour of cell phone calls and harassment, the corporate cops finally released the group.
The ordeal was over for the students from Antioch, but it was just beginning for Willie Fontenot. Shortly after the arrest, one of Exxon’s cops called the Attorney General’s office and griped about Fontenot being uncooperative with their security operation. Later that day, the sheriff’s office lodged a formal complaint with the Attorney General about Fontenot.
The next day Fontenot was read the riot act at the Attorney General’s office. After a short meeting, Fontenot was placed on administrative leave. A week later he was told to either resign or be terminated.
For the past 13 years, Fontenot, 62, has battled a degenerating eye disease. In fact, he is legally blind. In the past year, he has also suffered a mild stroke and is just finishing a course of radiation therapy for prostate cancer. The threat of being fired and possibly losing his health care was too high of a risk to take. Fontenot opted for retirement.
When news of Fontenot’s ouster leaked to the local press, the Attorney General’s office began a smear campaign against their former community liaison. Attorney General Foti’s press secretary, Kris Wartelle, suggested to some in the media that Fontenot was given the boot because he had not told his superiors of his plan to accompany the Antioch group. She also darkly suggested that Fontenot might be secretly in the employ of either Antioch or some fiendish environmental organization.
Neither slur holds up. Fontenot had joined similar outings hundreds of times. As was his usual habit, he prepared a detailed memo about the Antioch tour a month before the students arrived. On the morning he went to Baton Rogue, he told the office secretary precisely where he was going and with whom. Far from being in the employ of an environmental group, Fontenot paid his expenses out of his own pocket.
But that may change soon. The Antioch group and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network have set up fund to raise money so that Fontenot can continue his work protecting the poor of Cancer Alley from the depredations of the chemical and oil industries.
As for the students of Antioch, their harrowing experience was just a tiny taste of what environmentalists and community activists deal with every day in down in the Delta.
“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,'” says Abigail Walton. “We got a first-hand 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 homes in Louisiana.”
If you’re thinking of sending a donation to some fat green outfit like the Nature Conservancy or the National Audubon Society, why not donate it to Willie Fontenot, instead. He’ll do more with it. He already has.
Send a check for the WILLE FONTENOT SUPPORT FUND (made out to Antioch New England with “Fontenot Support” in the memo section) to:
Steve Chase, Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program, Antioch New England, 40 Avon Street, Keene, NH 03431.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature. This essay is excerpted from his forthcoming book Grand Theft Pentagon, to be published in July by Common Courage Press.