Sept. 30, 2005 – Beverly Wright just wants to go home. The New Orleans college professor has not been back since Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast last month. Like tens of thousands of others, she is anxious to salvage what is left of her life there â€“ the family pictures, a childâ€™s christening dress.
But as the founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Wright has evacuated to Capitol Hill, to advocate for tighter government oversight as New Orleans barrels down a road to recovery that is still being hastily paved.
"While theyâ€™re talking about rushing to get things rebuilt," she said, "it would all be for naught if in 10 to 20 years people are sick and dying."
Both the White House and the New Orleans mayorâ€™s office have heralded a rebirth of the city. Recovery seems imminent, if for now ill-defined, as Mayor Ray Nagin pushes to repopulate some neighborhoods, and corporations snatch up contracts for rebuilding projects.
But beneath the celebratory tone, potential environmental hazards swell in silence. To activists, evidence of pollution, in a historical context of what they consider institutionalized racism, suggests that even after the city is pumped dry, long-term health risks will dampen visions of renewal.
The Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s limited outdoor sampling throughout the impacted area has uncovered E. coli bacteria and industrial toxins like lead and fuel oil. But according to EPA officials, the contamination is generally below what they consider severely harmful levels, and it is too early to determine exactly what health risks returning residents will face.
No one seems to know, or be willing to say, how careful is careful enough when dealing with the filth that blankets the homes of New Orleanians.
Tom Natan, research director with the advocacy organization National Environmental Trust, said a rigorous, comprehensive environmental health assessment would be "extremely costly and time-consuming." Since authorities are trying to press forward with economic recovery, he said, "there may be a tendency to just say, â€˜Okay, go back, be careful.â€™"
The problem, say environmental groups, is that no one seems to know, or be willing to say, how careful is careful enough when dealing with the filth that now blankets the homes awaiting tens of thousands of New Orleanians.
According to a September 29 situation report, the plan for incremental repopulation first allows business owners and residents to reenter the French Quarter, the Central Business District, Uptown New Orleans, and the minimally damaged Algiers area. By October 5, residents and business owners will be able to enter all parts of the city except the battered Lower Ninth Ward.
But returning residents might find their homes caked in sewage, mold and other toxic substances after weeks of immersion in putrid floodwaters. And they will have to cope with compromised public services and a weakened emergency response system.
While federal agencies pass the buck to local counterparts, environmental groups say all levels of government are united in sloughing the responsibility onto individuals.
According to the Mayorâ€™s office, although the city just revamped its 9-1-1 emergency system, only about 110 inpatient hospital beds are available. Many fire stations are not fully operational, and in the most impacted areas, though one of the only uses of the undrinkable water is fighting fires, problems with low water pressure could make it difficult to actually extinguish a blaze.
Outside of Algiers, returnees are advised to bring enough bottled water for drinking, cooking and washing. Wastewater poses another challenge, since people returning to the Central Business District and French Quarter will be flushing their toilets directly into the Mississippi River, to bypass the areaâ€™s heavily damaged sewage treatment system.
No Sigh of Relief
In Katrinaâ€™s aftermath, the EPA has explained its environmental data with qualified safety assessments tempered by grim health warnings.
The EPAâ€™s analysis of the initial sediment samples lists potential health impacts of exposure to fuel oils, which it found at elevated levels. Harm from short-term inhalation exposure includes nausea, increased blood pressure and poor coordination. Prolonged contact with fuel vapors "may cause kidney damage and lower the bloodâ€™s ability to clot."
But the agency has not provided detailed information on risk levels for returning residents, stating only that it "will perform air sampling to monitor potential inhalation risks and will also assess long-term exposure scenarios."
Environmental groups question the integrity of the data, noting that many of the contaminants sampled for were suspiciously "not found." For instance, one key fuel component, the known carcinogen benzene, did not show up in the latest published data, even though EPA officials have publicly stated that petroleum has constituted a significant portion of some samples.
Among community representatives and small business owners, there is pressure not to lag behind in revitalizing the city, as neighboring white parishes kick off their rebuilding efforts.
"When they say they didnâ€™t find it, does that mean they couldnâ€™t detect it," Natan asked, "or that they know itâ€™s not there?" He explained that such data discrepancies might reflect not the true environmental situation, but rather the limited sensitivity of the equipment used.
As the recovery process lurches forward, the EPA acknowledges that it is still in the first phases of the environmental assessment process, which mainly serve to gauge the nature of the contamination and determine the need for further testing.
But at this rate, said Natan, by the time a comprehensive plan emerges, "a lot of the potential hazard might be gone" â€“ not necessarily because the problem has been eliminated, he stressed, but because it has already done its damage, dissipating into the air and entering peopleâ€™s bodies.
Darryl Malek-Wiley, a New Orleans resident and environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club, said the EPAâ€™s sampling has ignored the most common environment returnees will encounter. "Thereâ€™s not been any systematic testing of inside houses to let people know what risks theyâ€™re going to be facing," he said.
Environmentalists fear a reprise of past EPA disaster responses that drew criticism for placing political goals of "recovery" above peopleâ€™s health. In a letter to the White House last week, Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) recalled that after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, residents and workers were given premature safety assurances, resulting in widespread health and respiratory problems from toxins at the World Trade Center site.
"Clearly," he wrote, "people should not return to the Gulf Coast until EPA does its job. After 9/11, we let people rush back into contaminated areas. It is imperative that we learn from those mistakes."
A Word of Caution But Not Much Help
Environmentalists say that a lack of coordination and accountability across all agencies involved in the response is impeding public health efforts.
"Nobody is taking responsibility for making a decision about when it is actually clean enough for residents to return," Natan said.
In theory, according to the Department of Homeland Securityâ€™s National Response Plan for catastrophes, that responsibility should be shared by state, local and federal agencies, which should defer to one anotherâ€™s health and safety expertise. Yet, critics see more deflection than deference in the joint response.
Bernadette Burden,a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control, said that health authorities at various levels have collaborated on developing public education materials. She stated that overall, federal agencies are "in full support of the mayor of New Orleansâ€™ plan to repopulate" and are encouraging residents to take the health advice of local authorities.
But according to Wright, who has met with the mayor and community representatives in Baton Rouge, New Orleans leaders are looking to federal authorities for guidance -- and finding little.
"What our mayor needs, and what our city council and state legislature need," she said, "are really good facts about the environmental contaminants and the conditions that exist now, in terms of toxics, and when, and if, we will be able to return."
Entering at Their Own Risk
While federal agencies pass the buck to local counterparts, environmental groups say that all levels of government are united in sloughing the responsibility for cleanup onto individuals.
The mayorâ€™s guidelines for returning home advise people that they are entering at their own risk, and that they "must supply [their] own protective equipment," including filter masks and eye gear to protect against airborne mold.
The EPA advisory on post-hurricane home remediation cautions people not to handle asbestos or lead-containing debris themselves and to "seek the assistance of public health authorities" or "specially trained contractors, if available."
But the agency also provides ample do-it-yourself options: if people must handle the hazardous debris, they should "at a minimum" wear gloves, goggles and face masks. If they cannot remove pregnant women and children from the hazardous environment, they should "at least completely seal off the work area." Aside from listing informational websites and a hotline, the directive contains no advice on applying for relief funds and other direct government assistance.
Marjorie Clarke, an environmental scientist with the City University of New York, predicted that many residents will see no choice but to risk their health to clean their homes. Despite the governmentâ€™s responsibility to protect people during disaster recovery, she said, "telling people to come in and take care of whatever needs to be taken care of themselvesâ€¦ is basically encouraging people to have exposures to toxic materials."
Environmental Concerns Evoke Burdens of History
The environmental politics of the recovery effort are layered with contrasting interests within the community.
Norris McDonald, president of the African American Environmentalist Association, said that right now, local officials fear the dilution of their black constituencies more than they fear environmental threats. For upcoming elections, he said, "theyâ€™d still need those black citizens back. Thatâ€™s a lot of votes."
Beverly Wright noted that among community representatives and small business owners she has met with, there is pressure not to lag behind in revitalizing the city, as neighboring white parishes kick off their rebuilding efforts. "We see all those people going homeâ€¦ who donâ€™t look like us for the most part, who lost less than what we lost," she said. "So, there is that political reality, then thereâ€™s an emotional reality."
At the heart of this tension, environmentalists are trying to link social needs with long-term environmental issues as part of the same struggle. Wright said that while she understands the eagerness to rebuild, "we have to find a way to do it thatâ€™s clean, safe and economically and politically feasible."
Activists hope to prevent the comeback of New Orleans from becoming a relapse into a legacy of inequality. Katrinaâ€™s fatal deluge, they say, was just a drop in the bucket of systematic environmental abuse. According to an analysis of government data by the advocacy organization Environmental Defense, Orleans Parish, which is over 60 percent black, has more than ten times as many federally designated toxic release sites per square mile as Louisiana as a whole.
Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, said that in protecting these already-embattled communities from future harm, "we have to make sure that Katrina does not push them deeper into poverty and deeper into environmental health problems."
Local advocates see their city perched on the cusp of learning historyâ€™s lesson and repeating its mistakes. The Agriculture Street Landfill site in New Orleans, flooded by Katrina and also born of another great hurricane, has come to symbolize the cycle of environmental devastation coloring the cityâ€™s past and future. During the recovery that followed Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the government filled the site with debris and later built housing developments on top of it. In the 1990s, the EPA discovered the area was so polluted that it declared it a federal Superfund site.
Looking back, Wright reflected, "itâ€™s not like we donâ€™t know what can happen if, in fact, places arenâ€™t cleaned up properlyâ€¦ We have that example."