Sasol fracks with freed slave history

Sasol's planned ­$21-billion gas-to-liquids plant in the United States will displace a community founded by freed slaves 224 years ago.

Sasol's investment is one of the largest in manufacturing in American history.

The ­petrochemical plant will be the largest of its kind in the western hemisphere. It will convert shale gas to liquid fuel, and create feedstock for things such as cooldrink cans. But in order to build the 8km² plant, Sasol has to get rid of one of the first communities founded by free slaves in the US.

Jim Moss – a slave freed after the 13 colonies had won their ­independence from Britain – ­settled on a bend in the Houston River of Louisiana in 1790. Other freed slaves joined him, making it one of the ­oldest free African-American ­communities in the US.

American Press, the local newspaper, said this would leave only 62 homes in Mossville.

Alex Anderson, Sasol's spokesperson, said the company had started a voluntary property purchase programme for residents. The community had requested this and it had been well-received, he said. "It is voluntary and there is no need for them to move."

Over 80% of the eligible homeowners had registered to participate. Sasol was now appraising their properties and offering up to 160% of the value, he said. The plant would also create 1 200 permanent jobs and use "environmentally responsible technology".

Fight back
For locals this struggle is the latest in a long line of intrusions on their 13km² community. In the past half-century 14 chemical plants have all but surrounded them, leading to their creating the Mossville Environmental Action Now group to fight back.

Their members have likened their opposition to Sasol to that of Nelson Mandela to apartheid: "These people are cut from the same cloth as Mandela," wrote one supporter, "while Sasol was cut from the power structure that imprisoned a nation and Mandela".

The current plants have been linked with serious health problems. An independent report for the state found that 46% of nonsmokers had respiratory problems, and 84% of residents reported symptoms related to damage to the nervous system (and cancer).

The Louisiana department of environmental quality granted Sasol the required permission this year to operate, saying the impact on ambient air and water quality would be negligible. But it did note that there would be "significant net emissions increases".

Dorothy Felix, a resident, said: "It's really scary to find that so many of my relatives and neighbours are suffering from cancers, endometriosis and asthma." In 2005 they filed an environmental lawsuit against the surrounding chemical plants, but this is still pending.

American Press reported on a community meeting last month where locals said the environment was getting more attention than they were. Sasol's plans include relocating a 1 900-acre wetland. Locals said more effort was going into nature than their relocation.

Ancestral home
Resident Jimmy Catlon said he would not move; this was his ancestral home. He berated local industry for its cumulative impact: "You're having an extremely negative impact on the entire community, which is basically destroyed at this point."

The project has support from local government, with governor Bobby Jindal saying it would be the "largest single manufacturing investment in the history of Louisiana". The $21-billion plant would receive $257-million in grants from the state.

Sasol is one of only two companies in the world with the technology to manufacture liquids from gas on a large scale.

It has similar plants at Secunda and Sasolburg, which currently get gas from Mozambique.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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