This community’s Black families lost their ancestral homes. Their white neighbors got richer

The company called it one of the most generous industrial buyouts in history.

But Sasol, the South African chemical firm, offered significantly less money to Black homeowners than white homeowners in an attempt to entice them to relocate away from an expanding chemical complex in southwest Louisiana, according to a new analysis, published for the first time by the Guardian.

Worse, the project was subsequently largely abandoned, resulting in the dismantling of Mossville, a community founded by formerly enslaved African Americans in the 1790s. Former residents say the full story of how Sasol paid them to move away still hasn’t been told.

“We lost our ancestral home. One of my daughters became really depressed. They were sad because I had to move,” said Nona Harris, a lifelong resident of Mossville, whose family participated in the buyout program. “It’s a loss.”

Harris, who was born in Mossville and moved out of her family home in 2017, remembers when it was a thriving community. “Most of us went to the same church,” she said. Neighbors looked out for one another, creating a safe haven from the hostility and racism they faced outside the community. “We could walk the streets without being bothered by other people,” Harris said. Then chemical companies began to encroach on the town, spewing toxic emissions and contaminating groundwater.

In 2012, Sasol announced plans to build a complex that would use natural gas to make liquid fuels and ethylene, a key ingredient in plastics, near Lake Charles.

Today, weeds grow in vacant lots where homes once stood in the historic Black community of Mossville. Some saw the buyout as an opportunity to escape years of pollution from other nearby fossil fuel plants. Sasol bought out nearly 600 properties, including some in the predominantly white communities next door to Mossville.

Sasol did not respond to requests for comments for this story. While the buyout program was touted as a way to improve the lives of a community plagued by environmental injustices, the result appears to have exacerbated existing inequalities.

The new study comes as Michael Regan, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pays a visit to Mossville on Thursday, as part of a tour of towns along the US Gulf coast suffering from environmental racism.

The price paid for property transactions in Mossville was, on average, about 40% lower than those paid in the white communities, according to the analysis by researchers with the University Network for Human Rights.

Ruhan Nagra, who led the study and is the director of the environmental justice initiative at the University Network for Human Rights, acknowledges that her team’s analysis does not take the square footage or the age of homes into account.

She maintains that such data should not have mattered if “ultimately the goal is to relocate people – if that’s the goal, [then] there really isn’t a justification for why some people received buyouts that enable them to relocate and others not getting that,” Nagra said.

When the company began buying out properties, it gave certain property owners the power to negotiate the value of their estates. Most of the houses bought under this type of arrangement were in Westlake, a nearly 80% white city nearby.

But Mossville residents weren’t offered the same deal. When Sasol approached homeowners in the predominantly Black community, they valued properties using a set formula and did not allow for negotiation.

“There was serious concern that other people in predominantly white areas were able to negotiate,” Nagra said.

Homes in the mostly white town of Brentwood were also purchased through the non-negotiable program. But Nagra and her team found that homes there sold for about as much as homes in the areas where residents were allowed to negotiate. Property sale prices in Brentwood – which is about 90% white, according to census data – were about 88% higher on average than sale prices in Mossville.

Edward Telles, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, reviewed the study for this story. He said the statistical analysis in the study was sound and noted a history of implicit bias and structural racism contributes to lower appraisals for Black homeowners. “It’s a very compelling case”, he said. “[Mossville residents] were impoverished further and [Sasol] broke up a community that existed for 300 years. Where could they buy after they sold?”

The buyout program seemed unfair to Harris from the start. She wasn’t planning to sell her home and was only given about three months to make the decision, Harris says: “It was a very difficult and trying time. I basically had to do all the footwork, besides having a full-time job. It almost wore me down.”

Homeowners were told they’d receive $100,000 and 60% of the average appraisal price. But the company deducted debts, liens and fees from the buyout amounts – meaning the final amount residents received was often much lower than what they were originally offered.

More than $20,000 was deducted from the buyout amount Harris received for a forgivable federal grant she had received years prior to help repair her home after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“If you needed a lawyer to do something, that was $500 that [Sasol] took out of the money that you were supposed to get,” Harris said. “If people had back child support, that came out of the money. All of that subtracted from the total amount of money that you thought you were going to get.”

Former Mossville resident Larry Payne also wasn’t surprised to hear that Mosville residents received significantly less for their houses than other communities. “It was hurtful knowing that we had to leave Mossville and then the money that we received wasn’t anything,” he said.

Both Harris and Payne lived in homes they inherited and had to split their buyout amounts with family members. Payne paid for a piece of property in Lake Charles and his house to be moved there. But the home was damaged in the process. The expenses incurred for mounting drained his savings account.

Some residents say they weren’t trusted with their own money and that Sasol insisted on directly paying for their new living arrangements. Many of the Mossville residents who took the buyout were older and had health issues. Payne and Harris are both in their 60s. They could have used the money from the buyouts to pay for medical care, especially considering their exposure to pollution.

A 1998 exposure investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that dioxin levels in Mossville residents’ blood was on average three times higher than the general US population. Dioxin can cause cancer and reproductive and developmental problems, according to the EPA. Several industries in the area emit dioxin compounds, including Sasol.

Many Mossville residents say the Sasol buyouts left them worse off and some former landowners reported resorting to renting, being unable to buy another property with the money they received. Others went from owning their homes outright to having a mortgage note.

The Sasol project was largely abandoned when the price of oil dropped, making the project uneconomical.

Some residents turned down the offer and today inhabit homes between the vacant lots where their neighbors once lived. Recently, the parish closed a road that some residents used to get in and out of the community. That worries Ronald Carrier, who stayed behind. “What happens if one of those people has a medical emergency? How are those people supposed to get out of there?”

Carrier didn’t take the buyout because the price was too low and it galls him that the money offered was, in some sense, his own because the project relied on taxpayer funds. Sasol received industrial property tax exemptions worth nearly $3bn and more than a $100m in grants from the state to develop the project.

“That’s the taxpayers money and I am a taxpayer,” he said. “So you come back and lowball me with my own money?”

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