Bayou Bias

FOREST GROVE, LOUISIANA is a very small town--so small you don't even have to blink to miss it. There are no schools, churches, or businesses; perhaps 100 people live along its dirt roads, many without phones, some without running water. Most are black. All are poor.

If Northern States Power had had its way, Forest Grove and the neighboring town of Center Springs would have made history by hosting the first-ever privately owned uranium-enrichment plant in the United States. In partnership with two other power companies and a European nuclear conglomerate, the utility wanted to build an $800-million factory that would have made fuel for Prairie Island, Monticello, and other reactors around the country and the world. But the towns had their own ideas about history.

Two weeks ago, a Forest Grove/ Center Springs citizens group called Citizens Against Nuclear Trash (CANT) convinced the federal Atomic Safety Licensing Board--for what appears to be the first time ever--to deny a license to a nuclear facility. The decision, which has yet to register in Twin Cities media, also marks the first time a federal regulatory body has based a ruling on the concept of environmental racism. "This is going to affect every proposed nuclear facility from now to the end of time," says Michael Marriotte, who heads the Washington-based Nuclear Information Resource Service. "It could affect plans to site radioactive-waste dumps, reactors, all kinds of projects. And it will be used outside the nuclear area as well. Basically, it's going to be extraordinarily significant for the siting of any new facilities, period."

What CANT did was remarkably simple: Through pro-bono lawyers from the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, it asked the atomic-safety board to enforce an executive order President Clinton issued in 1994, demanding that federal agencies check whether the facilities they regulate disproportionately affect communities of color. Then, in a series of hearings, they walked the board through the process that led Louisiana Energy Services--the partnership proposing to build the facility--to Forest Grove and Center Springs. CANT's evidence showed that LES started out with a list of 78 potential sites whose total average black population was less than 30 percent. Through a series of steps the consortium winnowed the sites down to an ever-smaller number of places that were ever-more predominantly black; the final choice, Forest Grove/Center Springs, was 97 percent African American.

LES contended that race had nothing to do with the selection process, and government reviewers, after looking over documents submitted by LES, found no overt references to race. But that, the atomic-safety board found, was not good enough. "Racial discrimination in the facility site selection process," it ruled, "cannot be uncovered with only a cursory review of an applicant's environmental report. If it were so easily detected, racial discrimination would not be such a persistent and enduring problem in American society. [It] is often rationalized under some other seemingly racially neutral guise, making it difficult to ferret out." (The rest of the decision is available from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and on the Web at

While environmentalists cheered the decision, LES chairman and CEO Roland Jensen says the licensing board got the matter backwards. "We were going to go in there and triple the property-tax base," he says. "We would provide 180 jobs during operation, 75 percent of those from the local area. It was going to be a boon for that community. And then to get turned down like this is very disappointing, most of all for the people out there who are looking forward to have something to help them out of this poverty."

Jensen, a retired NSP vice president, says the atomic-safety board is biased against LES, against which it has ruled on several other key issues. Last December, the board said the plant would only add to a glut of uranium on the world market. It also found that the consortium couldn't prove it had money to build and operate the plant--an ironic result, it turns out, of the complicated corporate structure set up to insulate the parent companies from the venture. NSP, for example, has a 7 percent stake in the project through a subsidiary, NRG Energy Inc., which in turn has a subsidiary called Greystone Corp., which has a subsidiary called Le Paz Inc.; Greystone and Le Paz are general and limited partners in LES.

According to Jensen, LES plans to appeal the license denial to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But even if it wins there, it won't begin operation until after 2000, five years after it was planning to. "I never imagined a project this benign could take this long in the process," Jensen says.

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