Rebuilding on Poisoned Ground

Amidst unprecedented toxic contamination, cleanup and rebuilding plans could worsen environmental racism in the Gulf.

By Oskar Cole Mar 21, 2006

At Momma D’s home in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, a network of generators and car batteries powers several houses, a radio station, and—at night—a string of lights spanning the street between two live oaks. They’re the only lights for blocks in a pitch-dark, eerie cityscape, strung in effort to stop police harassment. A curfew restricts people to their homes after dark in unlighted areas; electricity has not been restored to the mostly Black and Black Creole Seventh Ward. Momma D—Diane Frenchcoat—has lived in her grandmother’s house on Dorgenois Street since the early 1950s. She’s worked for decades to protect her neighborhood from police brutality and redevelopment, and after 1965’s Hurricane Betsy, she organized her neighbors to survive and rebuild. Bringing  back her flooded neighborhood this time around will be complicated by new, unprecedented toxic contamination.

Most people here assume that Coastal Louisiana’s longstanding toxicity has worsened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Testing by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and independent scientists confirms their fears. Lead, a severe hazard to children’s development, was stirred up and moved around by the floodwaters. Arsenic, highly carcinogenic, leached from car batteries, pressure-treated wood and disturbed landfills. In St. Bernard Parish, a giant storage tank ruptured, and 800,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the town of Mereaux. The oil-slicked floodwaters released carcinogenic volatile gases, including benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the Deep South Environmental Center and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network  (LEAN) have demanded that the EPA and other federal agencies manage the toxic deluge’s aftermath and monitor and treat exposed residents scattered by the evacuation. The EPA’s inadequate and, some suspect, distorted sampling and public information has contributed to a situation where rebuilding continues without sufficient attention to toxicity or protection especially for poor people of color—a situation not that different from what it was before. Given the health risks of exposure to toxic substances, and the unknown danger of their combined burden in human bodies, frustrated advocates suspect the EPA is refraining from more extensive sampling to minimize its liability from any public health issues caused by quick reoccupation.

Compounded Damage

In New Orleans’s low-lying neighborhoods, vile floodwaters, so thick with sewage, chemicals and rotting flesh as barely to qualify as water, twisted through houses for weeks after the hurricane. Once the floodwaters were pumped out, houses stood empty for more weeks by official fiat. Closed up, the houses festered in the heat. A quick response could have prevented this compounded disaster, but by the time residents were permitted to return, near-irreparable damage was ensured.

Walking into a flooded house, you choke on the air and it takes your eyes some time to adjust. The windows—boarded-up, or obscured with residue—don’t let in much light. Anything water soaked into now crawls with mold. Spores have spread and fruited, crept up walls from the waterline to the ceiling.  Roaches, gnats and flies swarm over swollen cans and soaked dry goods. Reeking floodwater fills shoes, pots and pans, tubs and toilets. Particleboard has disintegrated and dresser drawers have swollen shut; papers and books are stinking gray pulp.

As the water rose, garages and kitchens hosted their own small toxic spill. Bleach, gasoline, rat poison—any toxins with compromised containers—now saturate or slick the rooms. Some of the mold the wet houses incubate is deadly, and all of it is irritating.

Information on how to enter this toxic and bewildering mess is hard to come by. The Red Cross hands out brooms and bleach, but no warnings about the dust clouds or poisonous fumes caused by their use. One flyer issued by the Centers for Disease Control warns of lead and asbestos present in residual dust, then suggests to “consider wearing a dust mask” while cleaning—when no mask could protect against those dusts. Respirators and chemical-proof gloves had sold out for miles around.

At Mary Queen of Vietnam church on Chef Menteur Highway, the congregation of first- and second-generation immigrants gathers in a wind-torn building. Like people in the Seventh Ward, they have no power, no water. Their doctors evacuated and can’t be reached. The creek that backs the suburb is strewn with fishnets, but people shake their heads in horror when asked whether they’d eat the fish now. They don’t know how to judge the danger, or how to lessen it, since they have not received any health advisories or toxicity information.

No Advice You Can Trust

Immediately after the storm, the EPA bypassed severely contaminated residential areas to focus sampling efforts on City Park and the shore of Lake Ponchartrain. A three-week delay surely allowed many volatile chemicals to evaporate, thus falsely minimizing the dangers of earlier exposure. As more residents returned, the EPA and CDC’s ongoing failure to provide clear and detailed risk advisories seemed a flagrant disregard for long-neglected communities’ livelihoods.

In late October, a month after people started coming home to New Orleans, the EPA at last released initial results. They analyzed 300 sites; 77 toxic substances were found. But it’s hard to glean an understanding of the complex scatterings of lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium and petroleum by-products from the cryptic databases. The agency’s own interpretations have earned accusations from environmental watchdogs of data manipulation and risk distortion. In one instance, the EPA declared benzene levels “slightly elevated” and no dire threat to human health. The standard they’d used was a 24-hour exposure risk calculated for short-term, emergency workers. The reported benzene levels were forty-five times the residential standard for two-week exposure, according to environmental advocates.

In November, the Dallas Daily News published the first comprehensive layperson’s analysis of EPA data, including interactive maps showing the scope and degree of the eight probable or known carcinogens. Like LEAN and the Bucket Brigade, the Daily News emphasized the need for more extensive sampling.

In early December, the EPA still had no neighborhood-specific health advisories and says it will take months to determine the contamination’s scope and risks. The federal agencies insist that they can only advise elected officials, not tell people whether to return. But if they won’t do that, who can? “There are some times when a situation is so serious that it calls for the federal government, and this is one of those times,” said Anne Rolfes, organizer with the Bucket Brigade. “We need to have a definitive recommendation as to whether this is or is not safe.”

Scrambling to Fill the Vacuum

In FEMA’s absence, rural and small-town Cajuns organized the only relief efforts they would encounter. Houma tribal members, likewise, looked out over stagnant floodwaters for a month but saw no emergency federal aid. As the EPA dithered, returning renters, uninsured homeowners and contracted migrant workers did the work of haz-mat teams without training, safety equipment or adequate pay.

Independent scientists with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Common Ground Relief tested sites the EPA had overlooked, hoping to call national attention to the federal response’s inadequacies. They found that parts of Ninth and Lower Ninth Wards, and St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes were contaminated with cancer-causing compounds. Other areas appeared to contain similar levels of contaminants as before the flood—still hazardous, sometimes deadly, but nothing new.

Breached levees and a botched evacuation leave New Orleans’ Black, Black Creole, and recent immigrant communities with a torturous choice: rebuild hurricane-vulnerable neighborhoods amidst unknown poisons, or watch from distant cities while developers swarm in and reshape the city to exclude them. Common Ground founder Malik Rahim, of Algiers, is one of many local activists who believe that health worries are scaring Black residents from returning.

Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, summed up the most pressing concern of longtime New Orleans community activists when he addressed the International Commission of Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity. “Environmental racism can not only affect health,” he said, “it can affect political strength and political power…The way you can kill a community easily is to not clean it up.”

A Century of Corporate Toxicity

Coastal Louisiana was a disaster zone before Katrina hit and had been for generations. Depletion of the rich wetlands with their wildlife and decimation of Gulf fisheries by commercial vessels are common conversation topics. The region’s ambient toxicity is generally taken for granted. At the heart of this disaster, people’s bodies and livelihoods are chained to the Gulf Coast’s economic reliance on oil and chemical manufacturing.

Regulatory agencies have been notoriously complicit in the poisoning of Coastal Louisiana. Environmental justice advocates’ criticisms of government response to the hurricane’s toxic aftermath are no surprise; they echo long-time challenges to the racism entrenched in regulatory process. Senate Bill 1711 proposes to expand the EPA’s power to suspend state and federal regulations. Introduced last September by Senators James Inhofe and David Vitter, it would allow the EPA’s appointed director to waive civil rights, labor, tax, wage and public health laws for the crucial eighteen months after a disaster. Other bills before Congress aim to roll back drinking water standards; environmental discrimination laws; and air, water and landfill regulations.

Thus far, the relief, cleanup and rebuilding efforts have maintained preexisting structures of oppression, and Bullard fears that environmentalists’ plans for “greenbuilding”—which involves the use of sustainable materials, energy efficiency and green technology—will also exclude Blacks and other communities of color. “What is most pernicious is that greenbuilding, as it currently stands, has the potential to continue the history of racial discrimination that makes homeownership, business ownership and community development out of reach for many African Americans,” Bullard said. “Gulf Coast greening that fails to address racial justice opens the floodgate for permanent displacement of African Americans.”

Dumping Grounds

After Hurricane Alicia struck Houston in 1983, people returned to strip out their homes and businesses. In the Black neighborhoods, where flooding had been severe, the trash piles sat moldering on the streets for weeks before local outrage brought trash collection services in.

Houston’s rubble was carted off down back roads to a Black sawmill town so rural and so poor as to lack pavement and electricity. There, it was dumped and burned, sickening the mill-town dwellers, for whom the hurricane’s short-term disaster was followed by the permanent and unlivable one of toxic incineration.

In the Press Park area of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the Agriculture Street Landfill—a city dump closed in 1961 after decades of neighborhood pressure—was recommissioned after Hurricane Betsy to receive 1965’s version of the urban toxic encyclopedia. Forty percent of the landfill was never capped. Warning signs hang on the chain-link gate to a weedy expanse that shares a fence with Moton Elementary School’s grass playgrounds on one side and houses on another. All sit atop the huge dumping ground declared a Superfund site in 1990 because of high lead levels in the blood of neighborhood children.

The landfill flooded seven feet deep after Katrina. Any houses reclaimed in the area will have to be gutted up to the waterline. The sheetrock, carpet, furniture and clothing are saturated with the Industrial Canal’s oil slick and the resurrected poisons first loosed 40 years ago, and they will sit on the street until somebody figures out a place to haul them off to and bury them.

One chosen site is the Old Gentilly Road landfill, not far from Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. It’s unlined, previously decommissioned, and, in the words of local organizer Darryl Malek-Wiley, “a Superfund site waiting to happen.” On October 31, the Sierra Club and LEAN filed a lawsuit to prevent the dumping of Katrina’s toxic debris in this methane-filled former marsh. Four days later, the new trash heaps caught fire and burned for several hours. Smoke plumes, undoubtedly toxic, drifted for miles.