By Garry O'Sullivan, Contributor
August / September 2000
The Julia Roberts hit Erin Brockovich has many similarities to an ongoing case in Louisiana, only this time it’s an lrish nun who is fighting for justice. Garry O’Sullivan reports.
The problems in Grand Bois, a small Louisiana community 70 miles from New Orleans, began in the late 1980s when oil giant Exxon started using the local Campbell Wells facility to dump millions of barrels of oil field waste. The pits resemble giant swimming pools, and the stench from them not only offends the sense of smell, but causes the locals to have difficulty breathing and children to have constant nosebleeds.
Clarice Friloux, one of the residents who tried to do something about the dump, says that with few resources, the small French-speaking Native American community’s protests fell on deaf ears. Friloux remembers that when she first heard of Sr. Miriam Mitchell she thought, “What can a nun do except what I’ve been doing already – pray?” It took her two weeks to call her, she remembers, adding, “I thought I was probably wasting her time.”
Sr. Miriam, a Holy Spirit nun from County Galway, was working for the Catholic Social Services in the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana when she heard of the problem in Grand Bois. “It became clear to me that they needed support beyond their own community. I brought the backing of the diocese,” she recalls.
Sr. Miriam began with candlelight vigils, and her letter-writing campaign and lobbying efforts were eventually enough to pressure the Louisiana governor into intervening. Exxon was stopped from bringing in additional waste. But the poisonous chemicals were still in the pits and in the air. The community brought a lawsuit against the oil company and the dumping facility. Exxon won the battle. Sr. Miriam sounds perplexed at the outcome. “Even though representatives of Exxon said they knew that what they had brought in was environmentally hazardous, and they knew it could be detrimental to human life, the bottom line was they didn’t break the law. So who cared what happened to the people?” The Campbell Wells facility decided to settle out of court, and the community, more concerned with the health of their children than financial gain, settled for Campbell Wells’ assurance that they would close the four pits closest to the community. However, this has not been done.
Two years on, the pits are still open.
“The people of Grand Bois need to go to court again or the facility will go ahead and fill the pits in before they get to court,” says Sr. Miriam. “They’re not going to clean out any of the contamination or deadly chemicals but fill in some of the large pits from what they call a re-use pile – dried-up mud from oil fields which is also highly contaminated.”
Three hundred people from the Grand Bois area have filed lawsuits charging that the chemicals from the dump have damaged their health, but this fight isn’t about money, Sr. Miriam stresses. “They just said they wanted the facility closed down and their children treated.”
She cites the report of a toxicologist at Louisiana State University who monitored the blood of the town’s children and adults for abnormalities caused by toxic chemicals. “The findings at this point,” says Sr. Miriam, “is they may be too damaged to ever live a healthy life.”
The people of Grand Bois have been living there for over 100 years but their homes are now worthless. “They can’t go to the bank and use their land or home as collateral, no one is going to buy their homes, and these people are mostly poor, so moving is not an option.”
From Exxon’s point of view, dumping in Louisiana was cost-effective. Disposing of toxic waste in Alabama would have cost them 100 dollars a barrel; transport and disposal of it in Louisiana cost as little as seven to nine dollars a barrel, but the environmental cost is immeasurable.
“It was a community that was incredibly beautiful in terms of environment,” Sr. Miriam recalls. “There’s over 100 families living in this community; they are of Native American descent from the Houma tribe. They had wonderful fishing and trapping – these people lived off the land. And as you know, the Native American people have tremendous respect for the land and for the whole of creation,” she points out. “I think the only way to get some kind of resolution is by the courts mandating that the place be closed down and cleaned. Or that the people get a settlement and move away.”
The fight continues, and Sr. Miriam was recently awarded the Harry Fagan Award for social action. The citation singled out the nun’s “dedication to social justice, particularly to people who are poor and denied respect for their human dignity.” ♦