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Unequal Exposure
Environmental justice advocates mobilize to ensure minority communities are not left out of the Hurricane Katrina cleanup

By Ronald Roach

After losing her New Orleans home to Hurricane Katrina, Dr. Beverly Wright has persevered to keep a vital segment of the environmental justice movement afloat in Louisiana. Not only did Katrina’s flooding displace Wright and her family, it disrupted the relocation of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ) an academic and community institute she founded and has directed since 1992. When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in late August, the center was in the process of moving from one of New Orleans’ historically Black institutions — Xavier University of Louisiana — to another — Dillard University.
“We had been at Xavier for 13 years and we were transferring the center intact from Xavier to Dillard,” says the sociologist. “The bad thing was we were moving as of Sept. 1 and the hurricane came on the 29th [of August].”

The center has operated out of Southern University in Baton Rouge since late September. It stills plans to eventually relocate to Dillard, the hardest hit of all the New Orleans-based college and university campuses. As the city rebuilds, Wright and her colleagues focus on a mission they say cannot wait — the mission of environmental justice.

For nearly three decades, the environmental justice movement has attracted thousands of activists, scholars and ordinary citizens to mobilize on behalf of communities that have been overburdened with hazardous waste sites, petrochemical plants, incinerators, lead contamination, polluted air and contaminated drinking water. In many cases, activists and scholars have produced evidence that minorities have been disproportionately victimized by exposure to toxic wastes by companies that have deliberately built their disposal facilities near minority communities. The practice has been dubbed “environmental racism” by activists.

While Katrina exposed deep-rooted poverty among New Orleans’ Black community, it also illustrated the city’s precarious environmental situation. Sediment from contaminated flood waters has lingered on during the city’s massive cleanup efforts. Federal officials have attributed at least nine major oil spills and numerous smaller oil and hazardous substance spills and leaks to Katrina’s destruction. In addition, an estimated 60 underground storage tanks, hazardous waste storage facilities and industrial facilities, as well as five Superfund sites in New Orleans, were hit by Katrina.

“We’re going to have to clean probably the greatest environmental mess we’ve ever seen in this country,” said Michael Chertoff, the U.S. Secretary for Homeland Security Department in September.

Local officials, such as New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, wasted little time in inviting former residents back with reassurances from state and federal environmental authorities that the city’s environment was safe enough for rebuilding. Yet in late October, with cleanup and rebuilding efforts in progress, news outlets began reporting on outbreaks of “Katrina cough” among residents returning to hurricane-devastated areas. Doctors attributed the upper respiratory irritation to mold and dust circulating in areas that had been hit with flooding. 

“People are going back in and getting sick. They are letting people in without any information or any warning,” said Louisiana environmental activist Wilma Subra in a Los Angeles Times interview.

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, sediment left over from Katrina’s floodwaters contains fuel components, metals, pesticides and other chemicals. Experts believe such contaminants could potentially cause acute and chronic health problems, including nervous system damage and cancer.

“There is a long history of this unequal exposure in Louisiana, and Hurricane Katrina just made it more visible to the rest of us,” says Dr. J. Timmons Roberts, a professor of sociology and director of environmental science and environmental studies at the College of  Williaman Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

Exacerbated Conditions
Wright and other experts recognize similarities between current

conditions and those in the past. They contend that a host of troublesome environmental conditions “have just been exacerbated.” Wright says the compromised levees were only part of the problem, and environmental concerns exist in and around New Orleans and beyond. An estimated $20 billion price tag on a secure levee system, combined with New Orleans’ geographic vulnerability to future disasters, has sparked an intense debate over the city’s future.

Some experts and officials have recommended that the government prohibit residential and commercial redevelopment in the lowest lying areas of New Orleans, including the predominantly Black working-class district known as the lower Ninth Ward. They suggest recycling the land into wetlands to minimize population exposure to future hurricanes. But environmental justice advocates who have worked on behalf of Black communities in New Orleans, as well as some local officials, are urging redevelopment of the entire city. And they are insistent that uniform cleanup standards be applied equally among all affected communities. 

“There are many people … in New Orleans, for example, who are very

skeptical and very fearful of how these environmental plans and these green building plans and these new zoning codes and flood plain maps are being devised and developed. They are somewhat fearful, and rightfully so, because there’s a legacy of discrimination against Black communities,” says Dr. Robert D. Bullard, the director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

“They’re fearful that the environmental and land-use decisions may be used against them in a discriminatory way that will kill their communities — instead of addressing the environmental problems in terms of contamination and cleanup standards that are uniform and stringent so that you clean up a neighborhood like the lower Ninth Ward and fix the levees that will protect everybody,” he says.    

Like Wright, Bullard is one of the most prominent environmental justice scholars and advocates in the United States. He and Wright have collaborated over the years and are presently writing articles and reports on Katrina. Immediately after the Katrina flooding, Bullard’s Environmental Justice Resource Center hosted the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in Atlanta for a few weeks as Wright sought to locate her staff and return to Louisiana. 

Bullard is widely considered to be the environmental justice movement’s most prolific writer and editor. His Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality has become a recognized text in the environmental justice field. Other Bullard books include Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots, Residential Apartheid: The American Legacy, Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color and Just Transportation: Removing Race and Class Barriers to Mobility.

HBCU Advocates as Allies
On the front lines of the movement, a number of historically Black universities in addition to Xavier and Clark Atlanta have also established environmental justice centers on their campuses. The centers have largely assisted communities suffering from high exposure to toxic waste from corporate pollution and disposal. They have also helped community residents conduct environmental research projects. Wright’s DSCEJ focused its work on 13 communities based along the geographic corridor known by residents and activists as Cancer Alley.  The 80-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., is home to an assortment of chemical processing plants and oil refineries. Activists blame those facilities for the disproportionate prevalence of serious illnesses in the region. Residents in communities near the plants have complained for years that toxic wastes and emissions from the plants and refineries have contaminated their drinking water, air and soil.

DSCEJ has partnered with several of those communities to help confront corporate pollution and contamination. Among other projects, Wright’s organization has helped community residents evaluate residential buy-out plans presented by corporations, analyze soil and water samples in communities for toxins, train community residents for jobs in the waste cleanup industry and train residents to participate in local governing and community councils to influence environmental policy.

One particular campaign involving DSCEJ unfolded in the late 1990s as residents in a middle-class neighborhood in the lower Ninth Ward sought relocation from their community because it had been atop an old city dump and tested high for toxins. Roberts recalls the fight in his book Chronicles From the Environmental Justice Frontline as a particularly bitter one between community residents and the EPA. According to Roberts, tests conducted by the Louisiana Environmental Action

Network found soil near the dump to contain 13 times the EPA standard for arsenic and high levels of the carcinogens benzopyrene, barium, chromium, lead, benzene and toluene.

Wright says it’s possible that Katrina may revive a new chapter in what is known as the Agriculture Street Landfill struggle. “After [Hurricane] Betsy, the New Orleans city dump was reopened to take all of the debris. Some years later, that landfill was shut down and housing was built. Thirty years later, we find out it’s a Superfund site — that people there have a 35 percent breast cancer rate. Children are sick and many people have died from living on top of a landfill”, Wright says.

What Next? 
Bullard says Katrina’s aftermath has made the past three months among the busiest of his entire career. While the disaster has considerably boosted his public exposure as a scholar, it saddens him that Katrina has brought some of the worst circumstances he’s predicted in his books and articles to fruition.

“I think the most important challenges and opportunities that New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region really face go to the heart of addressing racial and social inequity,” he says. “If those issues are not addressed in terms of legacy issues, then we will be building on a foundation that is very shaky and that has not dealt with issues of racial redlining.”

For her part, Wright’s environmental activism in the case of Katrina is tempered with concerns over the erosion of the African-American political base in her home city. She notes that the lower Ninth Ward housed mostly Black, working-class homeowners and a number of public housing renters. With much of the Ward still closed, Katrina has effectively altered the demographics of the city. Wright repeats estimates that New Orleans, formerly 67 percent Black, is now only 35 percent to 45 percent Black.

 “The storm, in essence, destroyed the political fiber of the city of New Orleans, and it will impact the Black political structure if we are unable to return to vote,” she says. 

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