Calculated Risks

In polluted St. Bernard Parish, survivors need answers--and they're not getting them

CHALMETTE, LA.--A few slabs of brick wall are all that remains of the De la Ronde mansion. Pieces of rusted-iron fence are broken and lying on the ground. A bent sign along the St. Bernard Highway announces this as a site of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. The major conflict here is nearly two centuries old. Somehow, that fact makes De la Ronde seem like an oasis.

Surrounding the ruins are reminders of the more recent struggle. Across the highway is Lehrmann's bar, which served as an impromptu shelter for residents who didn't get out in time. Down the road is Rocky and Carlo's restaurant, once known for serving the best baked macaroni and cheese in town; inside, the diner is now gutted and empty except for three busted video poker machines.

The towns that dot coastal St. Bernard Parish are most renowned for seafood production. Each one has its own signature fair to celebrate oysters, shrimp and crawfish. Each also is known for its distinct culture. In St. Bernard, the historic mixture of French, Italian, Irish and German ancestries gives natives an accent that is often compared to that of Brooklyn.

But St. Bernard now means something else. When Katrina veered east of New Orleans, it hit this region dead-on. Homes are decimated, and many of the storm's most horrific moments occurred here. At St. Rita's Nursing Home, 34 residents died. Many were bedridden and helpless as the waters rose up around them. At Beauregard Middle School, 14 pet dogs were found slaughtered. And at Murphy Oil, the storm reportedly pushed an oil tank off its base and moved it about 15 feet. According to official estimates, 800,000 gallons of oil poured out. In the days following Katrina, parish president Henry "Junior" Rodriguez compared St. Bernard to Love Canal, referring to the infamous New York State landfill.

Environmental catastrophe is not new to St. Bernard. For years, residents have fought to raise awareness of what they call industry-related health problems. This year, a group called St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality won two court battles against ExxonMobil, which operates the Chalmette Refinery, for violating the Clean Air Act. The residents are assisted by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which teaches people living in the "fenceline" communities that border petrochemical facilities how to monitor their own soil and air quality. The Bucket Brigade helped citizens in the Diamond, La., community of Norco successfully fight Shell Oil. In recent years, the group turned its attention to St. Bernard Parish and the Chalmette Refinery, which occupies the old Kaiser Aluminum plant on St. Bernard Highway, right by the Battle of New Orleans ruins.

Immediately after Katrina hit, I saw a Web site posting from Bucket Brigade founder Anne Rolfes; she was revealing the location of her car, which had the keys locked inside it. She begged anyone who needed it to go break in and drive out of town. Nobody took her up on the offer.

These days, I need a different favor from Anne. In two weeks, we plan to move our kids back into Uptown New Orleans. For us, it's just for a month, before we move on. For our friends returning to New Orleans, it's for the long term. Lately, we've all been talking about the air and the soil. One mother of three calls the environment a "calculated risk." We wonder about the reliability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Does it come down to a matter of trust? In our neighborhood, unlike other sections of New Orleans, you can walk around without getting coated by a fine white ash. Does that mean it's safe?

I call Anne. She invites me to St. Bernard Parish. There, I would find my answer.

In 2002, EPA investigator Hugh Kaufman accused the federal agency of deliberately undertesting in New York City after Sept. 11. "I believe EPA did not do that because they knew it would come up not safe, and so they are involved in providing knowingly false information to the public about safety," Kaufman said in a hearing. "Not just EPA; the state and the city, too. We had testimonies that all the agencies --local, state and federal--have been consorting together every week to discuss these issues."

Anne Rolfes thinks that conditions are right for the EPA to similarly neglect its duties in Chalmette and across New Orleans. Industry wants to protect itself from lawsuits. City governments are eager to bring citizens back into the city to work and pay taxes. People desperately want to rebuild neighborhoods and schools. So what can be done?

One answer looks sort of like a large bazooka that could have been used in the movie Ghostbusters, and it's currently sitting in the backseat of Anne's car. The UV Hound Multi Gas Analyzer costs $16,000, and it's on loan. Anne gives me the simple explanation of how it works: It shoots a beam of ultra-violet light, which is absorbed in different ways by certain chemicals. You can measure the air quality immediately. "It won't get the mold, but it will catch what's coming out of the refineries," she says.

Anne has driven to St. Bernard to take a tour of the fenceline neighborhoods and hand off the UV Hound to locals. She's also planning to attend a parish-wide town hall meeting that has been called for 10 a.m. this morning in Chalmette. No environmentalists have been invited to speak, so Anne wants to pass out a stack of Bucket Brigade flyers.

We start in the neighborhood that runs alongside the Chalmette Refinery. Houses here--like everywhere I visit in St. Bernard--are wrecked. Some bear the phone numbers of their owners, scrawled across the front wall. Vehicles are piled on top of each other, or are resting, extraordinarily, across the tops of chain-link fences.

We pass some of the 14 sites where the Bucket Brigade is taking soil samples, starting at the home of Ken Ford, the president of St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality. We go around the corner, to the Rowley Elementary School. Anne points to a playground slide, another sample site.

The next stop is Jacob Drive, a block from Murphy Oil. It's even worse off than the area around Ken Ford's house. Dried, cracked mud covers the neighborhood. It forms a tile over the ground, the street, everywhere. In the Lower Ninth Ward, the dried mud is sandy-colored, giving that region the appearance of a drought. Here, the dirt is much darker, the color of charcoal.

Instead of the familiar dirty bath ring that you see in other flooded areas, the buildings here seem smeared with ink that has dripped down the walls. "Thanks FEMA Murphy Oil Bush Brown," reads one garage door. "You work fast." An arrow points to the dark ground.

Dotting intersections all over the parish are signs that list phone numbers. Call if you want to sue Murphy. Anne is still checking them out. She wonders aloud if some of these numbers might lead to the oil company itself. The conditions are right for a cheap land grab, she says. She's seen this sort of thing before.

Louisiana Bucket Brigade isn't suggesting that people stay or move, Anne says. As always, the goal is to arm residents with information. So far, she says, the EPA has failed its primary mission: to get the word out about any hazards, she says. "If you ask people in this parish, do you know anything about sampling, they're going to say no."

We pull up along a canal, where we witness the only signs of life in the neighborhood surrounding Jacob Drive. The street is filled with workers in red jumpsuits. Rows of vacuum hoses snake across the waterway. Trucks display the logo of Garner Environmental Services, Inc. Anne speculates on the motive for the cleanup. Are they improving the neighborhood, or are they destroying evidence? She gets out and starts taking pictures. She's shooed back to her car.

We drive on. "Who knows what those guys are doing?" Anne says. "Actually, I'm going to ask them."

She turns around. Back at the canal, she rolls down the window. "Who contracted you?" she asks.

A man in a jumpsuit answers. "Murphy," he says, then turns back to his work. Anne takes another picture.

We meet Ken Ford on the grounds of a multi-building government complex in Chalmette. Some buildings are totally wrecked and surrounded by police tape. Nearby, a Wal-Mart parking lot has been turned into a disaster relief center that provides hot meals and various social services. In the other direction, across a bleached field, a roar of voices suddenly erupts. The St. Bernard meeting is underway.

A crowd of about 1,000 people is pushing into the council chambers, now a dusty, gutted concrete auditorium. The doors and windows are all removed. Some residents stand on the empty window frames, cupping their ears to hear. At these outer edges of the crowd, you can discern only a few random words coming from inside. Then I detect a faint, rhythmic murmur.

"We can't hear!" screams a woman in the back, standing on an ice chest.

"Shut up!" answers a voice from inside. "We're saying the pledge!"

Peering over rows of heads, I can make out a few figures on a stage, mostly men in shirt-sleeves and ties. Sheriff's deputies line the walls. On the floor below is a folding chair and a microphone. It's not a town hall meeting. It's a hearing. The man at the table is state Sen. Walter Boasso, a Republican from the nearby town of Arabi. When the pledge is finished, he begins the work of the day: querying various officials about the emergency response after Katrina and the current state of the parish.

His voice is carried from a microphone through two small speakers that are being held by assistants at the sides of the stage. His words are tinny and garbled. Hundreds of people press forward from the back to hear. More shouts are heard from people who are out of earshot.

The state senator announces that this meeting is scheduled to go on for eight hours. People start to shout louder. "We want answers!" says someone.

I'm edging to the side, trying to make my way to the floor space in front. Then I hear a series of crashes. A bulky man with thick, white hair is standing up at the front. He's the parish president, Junior Rodriguez. He's been called to testify. But before speaking, he's lifted up a gold-capped cane and slammed it down on the table in front of him. "Goddamn it, shut up!" he bellows at the crowd.

There's a hush, but it doesn't last long. The voices in the back start to rise again. Officials take their turns testifying. Each speaker sits in the folding chair with his back to the thousand residents. Congressional aides sit at the table, typing into laptops. They remind me of the blank-faced government bureaucrats of The X-Files. I can pick out only a few phrases squeaking over the loudspeakers.

The woman next to me says she's lived in St. Bernard all her life. She came in from Dallas for this meeting. Now she's turning around and going back. "I need some information," she says. "I'm not going to get it here."

"I drove from Mississippi for a meeting that doesn't exist," says another.

When Council Chairman Joey DiFatta gives his testimony, he's the first speaker who can be heard over the crowd. Sweat pouring down his face, he demands answers about Murphy, the oil spill, the hot zones and levee repairs. "To rebuild our houses and not protect them is stupid," he says. "And we don't want to be stupid." The crowd roars in agreement.

The councilman goes on. He's heard from the EPA about the short term. He wants to know about the long term. "That's living in the home, that's staying in the community, working in the community, for the next 10 to 20 years. I need to know: What is that going to do to our people? ... I need you guys, and I think you can do it, to get DEQ to shake that tree and get some answers."

When most residents realize they'll have no opportunity to speak or ask questions, they start to trickle out of the chamber. Outside, on a strip of dusty, burnt grass just outside the council chambers, parish officials are holding forth with their constituents. St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stephens is being grilled by two women. A cluster of deputies is positioned behind him.

He says he didn't know he was appearing at this morning's meeting until he heard it on the news. "First I hear, I was supposed to testify before the committee today. And then I come over here, and somebody says it's a town meeting. Well, what the hell is it? A town meeting, or am I supposed to testify?"

Later, he adds: "The press was saying we haven't heard from St. Bernard. Well, four days after having been hit by a Category 5 storm, if you haven't heard from us, you ought to suspect that we're not doing that hot." He is echoing the much-held belief that the hurricane hit St. Bernard Parish as a Category 5.

"Like the president of the United States, or someone like that? I mean, what can we do?"

"See these guys?" The sheriff points to his deputies, who stand silently behind him. "I got a payroll on the 20th, and I don't know how I'm going to pay them. Their families are in school in North Carolina and Georgia and Texas, they're working 14 hours a day, and at the end of the pay period, I don't know if I can pay them."

I see Council Chairman DiFatta, the official who'd been talking about the EPA. I want to find out if he knows about the Bucket Brigade. I ask him about people monitoring the environment themselves. He says it's a good idea. "We learned that early on, if you want to save St. Bernard, St. Bernard had to do it for themselves," he says. But he doesn't seem to know the sampling is already happening.

I ask him about something else I've heard from nearly everyone here--that St. Bernard was ignored following the hurricane and still is being ignored in the rebuilding. The councilman gives me a blast of attitude that I've picked up everywhere I've gone in St. Bernard. It's contagious; I'm feeling it, too.

"If you say Chalmette's in peril, or you say Toca or Shell Beach is in peril, nobody knows where the hell that's at. But you say New Orleans is in peril, everybody around the world knows where New Orleans is. So that's what happened; we fell in the shadow of New Orleans, but let me tell these people, we're more important, because we produce the seafood, and we produce the oil, and we produce the natural gas. Let them get that from the city that care forgot.

"The federal government, the EPA, the state government, nobody's answering questions," he continues. "If they want us to die on the vine, tell us; we'll go away. But if they don't, give us the answers so we can rebuild this damn community."

On Sept. 17, the EPA and DEQ put out a news release titled "Air Sampling Data Collected by EPA Mobile Labs Released." A line in the release states, "Monitoring data directly around the Murphy Oil Spill revealed some slightly elevated levels of benzene ... ."

Anne Rolfes hands me another sheet of paper. This one lists the raw data on a chart. The benzene level is 170 parts per billion. That's more than 40 times the state limits. Studies have shown that long-term effects of exposure to benzene include leukemia and anemia.

The St. Bernard meeting has recessed for lunch. I meet up with Ken Ford, who's talking with a group that includes Kim Manning, a St. Bernard native who's on Sen. Walter Boasso's staff. She describes a map on the wall of the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness. The map stopped at Chalmette, she says. "No, people; there's homes; there's families down below," she told them in the days following the storm. "There's Violet; there's Meraux; it keeps going on. They're like, 'What do you mean; that's just the Gulf.' I said, 'You better get a bigger map because there's lot of people under that.'"

The St. Bernard environmentalists join the line at a Red Cross trailer to receive a plate of barbecued beef, green beans and canned peaches. In addition to Ken and Genevieve, there's Joy Lewis. They're all in their mid-60s, and they're all old friends. Most members of his group are retirees who have time to mess with this sort of thing, Ken says.

They admit that their children are mad at all of them. Mad that they're coming in, mad that they're going into their property. The kids call them several times a day to check up on them. "My daughter tells me all the time, 'Mama, I don't want you and my daddy to die with some kind of infection or something,'" Joy says. "She calls me three or four times a day when I'm over here. She's concerned."

But Joy's husband, Johnny Lewis, is back at their house now, trying to salvage anything he can find from their 50 years of marriage. Their anniversary was Sept. 2, and their daughter was planning a party for them in her two-month-old, three-story St. Bernard house.

Instead, that Friday, like every day since, Joy Lewis has been trying to find the body of her mother, a resident at St. Rita. She says she had left her mother behind, because she knew the nursing home had an evacuation plan. Her mom had a blood clot; she didn't want to jeopardize her health by taking her out of the home.

"When I found out Category 5 hit us, I got really upset. My mother was 92, and she had all her faculties, and I can just imagine her being so afraid, hearing the wind and feeling the water. It upsets me. So I gave them all the information they needed, and I'm still looking for her. For almost seven weeks."

Joy is taking it one day at a time. She's not ready to talk about lawsuits. "I want to find my mother," she says. "I'm not interested in anything else right now."

There's also not much talk yet of their flooded homes, of selling, of bulldozing. First, they need information. The kind of information they've ended up having to provide for themselves.

The three friends admit that many people in the parish won't talk to them because of their environmental work. ExxonMobil and Murphy are major employers of St. Bernard residents. Before Katrina, St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality might have gotten a handful of people to show up at their meetings. They say that business owners wouldn't let them use their property, for fear of losing revenue. They didn't give up then, and they say they're not giving up now.

But it gets to you, Joy says. "I was in Betsy and had 5 feet of water in my house. After Betsy, we swept it out; we hosed it out; we rebuilt, and we came back. But this time, it's over my ceiling, and my ceiling fell, and all the goop. My husband's 69 years old, and I'm 65. It's not easy. And I have an immune problem. It's a big mess.

"You can't stop," she says. "You got to do it or die."

I notice that Ken hasn't touched his lunch. I ask him if he's going to take the UV Hound out into the parish this afternoon. "I'm going to do what I can do," he says. "I got health problems; I got one lung. I can't do too much."

"How did you lose that lung?" I ask.

"Cancer. Took my left lung out."

"Do you wonder if it's related to living in this area?"

"I hate to say that."

"But you wonder about it?"

"I wonder because there are 17 people on my street either died from cancer, died with cancer or have cancer right now."

On Murphy Oil's Web site, company president W. Michael Hulse has posted an open letter to St. Bernard Parish residents. It states that all its employees are safe. "On a less positive note, as many of you know, the storm damaged one of our storage tanks which leaked oil into some of the areas surrounding the refinery," the letter says. "At the moment it is our understanding that all final determinations about the safety and habitability and future of property in St. Bernard Parish have to be made by local, state and federal governmental agencies." Hulse also announces a $5 million gift to the parish.

Outside Wal-Mart, the three friends discuss their plans for the afternoon--whether to go back to the meeting, take the UV Hound out for sampling, or salvage their homes. They'll leave the parish tonight and go to Mississippi, where they're staying. Then they'll come back soon to do it all over again.

When Joy goes to salvage items from her house, she sees the oil embedded in the cracks in her china. She bleaches it, but it's not the same. Now, if Murphy was to offer market value on her house, she's not sure what she'd do.

But that's not today's conversation. They still don't have the information they need. None of us do. In St. Bernard, they learned that by living on the fenceline. They learned how to take their own measurements. In the rest of New Orleans, we're still learning.

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