Thursday, April 07, 2005

Louisiana Environmental Advocate Forced to Resign

There are two specters haunting environmental activism today: the growing power and control of polluting corporations, and the often irrational fears generated by 9/11. Together, these forces generate a force that threatens many of the gains made over the past 35 years. Willie Fontenot, who some call the "grandfather of Louisiana environmentalism," may have been a victim of both. Fontenot was forced to retire this week as "community liaison officer" for the state Attorney General’s office, a job he had held for the past 27 years.


Life in Louisiana’s cancer ally has never been easy. Living in the shadow of chemical plants spewing cancer-causing chemicals, citizens have a difficult time gathering information on what they’re exposed to and what they can do about it. Fontenot’s job for almost three decades was to help them find the information they needed, learn about Louisiana’s environmental laws, and to file complaints with public officials.

In addition, Fontenot helped found and support numerous Louisiana non-profit environmental organizations:
He assisted in the formation of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the state's largest environmental organization, which today represents more than 70 separate environmental groups, many assisted in their formation by Fontenot.

He also helped form RESTORE and the Calcasieu League for Environmental Action Now, two major environmental organizations in the Lake Charles area, and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation in New Orleans.
Part of his job is showing reporters and school groups around the area, explaining the problems and introducing them to activists and people affected by the chemical industry.

Which is where he seems to have gotten in trouble:
He believes his firing was precipitated by an incident that happened while he was accompanying one of those groups — 15 college students from New England — on a tour of a Baton Rouge neighborhood being bought out by the ExxonMobil refinery. The group was stopped and questioned by law enforcement concerned about homeland security after taking pictures of the plant.

The students from Antioch New England Graduate School in New Hampshire were touring the state to learn about environmental racism, and the photographs were required for their class, said Abigail Abrash Walton, a professor who led the trip.

Walton said the group met Mayor Kip Holden, then drove around looking at industrial plants in the area. When directly across from one facility, the students began taking photos.

"Two or three minutes later, two security vehicles showed up," Walton said, and off-duty Baton Rouge police and East Baton Rouge sheriff's deputies pulled the van over and demanded the licenses of those inside.

Fontenot was asked to collect the student's driver's licenses; he refused, saying he wasn't leading the trip.

The security officers then contacted the attorney general's office by phone, Fontenot said. He was told later that a complaint was filed by the Sheriff's Office with the attorney general's office about his refusal to cooperate.
Fontenot said he was given a choice of retiring or facing a disciplinary hearing that would end in his firing. Fontenot, 62, is not in good health. He’s legally blind, suffered a mild stroke last year, and is being treated fro prostate cancer. Facing the loss of his pension and health insurance if he was fired, he chose to retire.

The state says the Fontenot didn't let them know where he was going or what he was doing that day. Fontenot, a survivor of 27 years in hostile territory, says he followed all of the rules. The state says Fontenot had already decided to retire. Fontenot says that’s not true.

The fundamental underpinning of much of the environmental law passed over the past thirty years has been the involvement of the communities affected by environmental pollution. A number of federal and state environmental laws have forced companies to reveal the substances they use, what they release into the air and the potential consequences of catastrophic accidents for surrounding communities.

In the wake of 9/11, all of those rights – strenuously opposed by the chemical industry since their introduction -- are under attack. Federal and state governments, without much consultation with Congress or affected citizens, are erecting higher barriers to access to chemical exposure information.

As we’re seeing from Fontenot’s fate, it's not just our laws, but also citizens and government officials may fall victim to these attacks if they continue to insist on the right of the public to know what their exposed to. Of course, as we've seen from recent events in Texas City, Texas, and Graniteville, South Carolina, we probably have more to fear from ourselves than any outsiders who would deliberately do us harm. And our strongest weapons -- an informed citizenry and activists and government officials free to do their jobs -- are under attack.