Erin Brockovich Doesn't Live Here: Environmental Politics and "Responsible Care" in Mobile County, Alabama

By Moberg, Mark | Human Organization, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Erin Brockovich Doesn't Live Here: Environmental Politics and "Responsible Care" in Mobile County, Alabama


Moberg, Mark, Human Organization


Since the 1950s, the small rural community of Axis, Alabama, has become one of the Southeast's largest sites of chemical production. Residents attribute numerous public health anomalies to emissions from its chemical plants. Cancer mortality r ites in Axis are far greater than state averages, yet organized or individual opposition to the manufacturers has been nearly nonexistent. This paper examines the apparent acquiescence of community residents to elevated rates of cancer and other diseases. Herald ed by the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) as an attempt to improve its relationship with hundreds of "host communities" worldwide, the CMA's "Responsible Care" initiative has enabled the manufacturers in Axis to preempt environmental and health complaints that might threaten their operations. Such strategies are representative of an emergent environmental para gm that privileges corporate interests over those of nearby residents.

Key words: environmental protest, cancer, chemical industry, Responsible Care, Southern U.S.

Community-based environmentalism encompasses a wide variety of constituencies and objectives, but wherever grassroots groups have opposed polluting industries, public health concerns have usually been the catalysts for their formation. Citizens' groups in Love Canal, Woburn, Massachusetts, and the "chemical corridor" near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have become archetypes for grassroots challenges to industries or landfills that have affected public health (Bullard and Wright 1990; Harr 1995; Colten and Skinner 1996). The few well-publicized success stories among such mobilizations may be responsible for several widespread but erroneous beliefs regarding environmental activism; notably, that chemical contamination is a localized phenomenon, that citizens respond to it through collective action, and that their efforts usually prevail in the long run. In their highly sympathetic portrayals of grassroots environmentalism, recent commercially successful films such as A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich have no doubt contributed to misconceptions about the efficacy of collective action against industrial polluters.

The extent of health hazards from pollution has been subject to considerable debate among industry representatives, environmentalists, and academics alike. So.-ial scientists concur that the perception of such hazards is mediated by sociocultural, psychological, and institutional factors that may be independent of the actual health effects of pollution. Some theorists (Douglas and Wildavsky 1982; Slavic, Flynn, and Layman 1991), following manufacturers themselves, claim that cultural conditioning leads members of the public to regularly exaggerate the dangers of environmental pollution relative to other hazards of contemporary life, such as driving and dietary choices. Citing epidemiologic, I evidence from the national and community levels, other! (Kaprow 1985; Nash and Kirsch 1988) respond that public apprehension about polluting industry is well-founded and that environmental hazards are generalized throughout society, Environmental justice activists add that such dangers are particularly acute in low-income and minority neighborhoods, which are more frequently the site of polluting industries and landfills than are more affluent communities (United Church of Christ 1987; Bullard 1990). One recent study based upon EPA data estimates that one in six Americans ives close enough to a chemical plant to be at risk for death or injury in the event of an industrial accident (Tickner and Cray 1995). Apart from the dangers of such potentially catastrophic events, 64,000 annual deaths are attributed to air pollution alone in the United States (Hardy 1996a). Despite improvements in diet and declining tobacco consumption in recent decades, the incidence of cancer of all types has also climbed sharply since the 1950s (Epstein 1998). Such increases are most dramatic in those U.S. counties that are major sites of heavy industry (Gould 1986:26; Epstein 1998:20 ff). …

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Erin Brockovich Doesn't Live Here: Environmental Politics and "Responsible Care" in Mobile County, Alabama
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